Hi folks this post is about a personal gripe I have with what it the most often repeated “leather info” on the net. Namely, that leather comes in 3 grades: Full Grain, Top Grain, and Genuine. I’ll get into top grain vs full grain and how it’s also not as important as some people think in another post. Today I’d like to show how “Genuine” has experienced a grammatical shift over the years and why that makes me sad. The truth is that at this point, “Genuine” can pretty much be entirely dismissed as neither good nor bad when talking about leather goods.
Back in the Day:
This is a picture of a left-over product tag from back when we first started packaging our leather goods for retail sale. This tag is probably from the late ’70’s or early ’80’s. Back then, lots of leather workers sold their goods and even stamped them with pride “Genuine Leather”. But now if you Google “Genuine Leather” almost the entire first page repeats the same information that “Genuine Leather” refers to a specific inferior grade of leather. Many of them even say it’s an “industry term.” So what’s the deal? Is “Genuine Leather” to be avoided at all costs?
Why all the hate on “Genuine Leather”?
So where did the idea that all “Genuine Leather” is bad come from? There is a pretty large grain of truth to what the articles in the search results say: many leather goods you find today stamped “Genuine Leather” are made from imported low quality leather. Besides the leather being bad, the overall construction of these goods isn’t very good either. So what’s the reason for the prominent “Genuine Leather” stamp on these items? We can’t be certain but I have two possible answers as to why importers do this:
- The sinister hypothesis: Low-Quality manufacturers realized that many people could be duped into buying junk, thinking a product was “the good” stuff by adding a simple stamp. There are people out there who hear “genuine leather” and think it’s a positive term. Makes sense, but at this point with the entire first page of search results is saying the opposite, why are importers still doing it? That brings me to reason #2
- The legal hypothesis: Just a guess, but most countries have laws on the books about labeling of goods (especially imported goods), so if an item is made of “real leather” or “genuine leather” (as in not synthetic), they have to label it as such. If anybody has more details on the requirements in your country let me know!
So what does it really mean?
Genuine means real, it’s as simple as that. You still see it being used correctly when it comes to “exotic” materials: Genuine Ostrich, Alligator, Snake, Etc. If it was once the skin of an animal, it’s genuine leather. You can think of it the same as the label “real beef”: It just means “meat from a cow” it’s literally the most general way you can refer to it. “Genuine Leather” isn’t an “industry term” to leatherwork (as those search results articles call it) any more than “real beef” is an “industry term” to a chef at a fancy steakhouse. As someone who works in the leather industry, I can say that we have tons of actual “industry terms”: Full Grain, Embossed, Corrected Grain, Hot Stuffed, Buffed, Snuffed, Milled, Tumbled, Split, Suede, Finished Split, waxed, Veg-tan, Chrome Tanned, Combination Tanned, H, HH, HHH, and many many more. These are the terms we use when buying or selling leather. Our company has never been offered by a supplier or tannery anything they call “genuine leather”, because it’s a given. When a chef selects a cut of steak, he doesn’t ask if it’s real beef, that’d be silly.
So what’s the “bad” leather those search results are talking about really called?
As far as I can tell, those articles and a “famous” youtube video about qualities of leather are referring to what we’d call, in the industry, a “Finished Split”. When leather is processed, the top layer (smooth side) is called leather (top or full grain) and the bottom that’s split off is suede. Suede has two “fuzzy sides” and can actually be pretty nice for lots of things, but you get into major longevity issues when you try to make suede look like leather. With a finished split, the tannery covers the suede with a coating of some sort to make it look smooth like top grain leather. I’ve seen 2 general kinds of finished splits:
- A PU split is a suede that’s actually had a sheet of polyurethane glued to the top of it. You can usually recognize this because it will feel rubbery. Also, if you take a match to it, it will melt like plastic. The biggest problem with PU splits is that if you scratch the PU layer, you’ve ripped through the top coat and it won’t “self heal” or polish out like top or full grain leather. Also after a few years, PU splits tend to dry rot and crack.
- I’ll call the other kind of finished splits “Painted.” They simply have a super-thick finish coat of what can we’ll call “paint” applied until you get a smooth surface. A good way to imagine it would be what would happen if you were to cover a a piece of velvet with paint, coat after coat, until it looked smooth. These splits generally have the same problem of not “self healing” like top or full grain. They also tend to wear differently as the finish comes off and reveals the suede underneath. These are splits harder to spot:
- One thing to look out for is when they look “too perfect” though that can be tricky; those of us making items try to hide imperfections and we occasionally make an item or two without easily visible flaws out of top or full grain leather. On some(but not all) painted finished splits you can tell if you bend them sharply. You’ll see that the finish just slightly starts to break.
So, go for it? Buy genuine leather?….not so fast.
So does what I’ve talked about here mean that “genuine leather” is a sign of quality? ….continuing the “real beef” restaurant metaphor: What kind of place/product gets labeled “real beef”? You tend to see that fast food joints feel the need to brag about being “real beef” but you don’t see fancy steakhouses bothering to point it out. At a fancy place, the fact that’s it’s “real beef” is a given, whereas at a fast food place you’re more likely to ask yourself “is this really beef?” In the same way, now days, you won’t see many quality leather manufactures calling their goods “genuine”; they’ll usually have at least a little to say about the kind of leather they’re using, just like at a great restaurant, they tend to go into detail about the cut of meat you’re buying. In this country, most of us leatherworkers have stopped using the term “genuine” because of the “bad press” that’s out there surrounding the term. So, generally, if it’s a)inexpensive and b)says “genuine leather” and c)it’s made in a country known for lower quality goods, you might do better looking elsewhere.
However I have found a few exceptions to the “Genuine is always Bad” rule:
- Vintage Leather Goods: If you find a great looking vintage leather item, chances are it’s made from quality leather. There were a lot less imports back in the day, and even then, the processes used to make the cheap PU Splits and other finished splits are relatively modern, so the chance of getting bad leather is lower. Also PU splits tend to dry out and crack to pieces with time, so you won’t find nice looking vintage items made from them.
- High quality products made in non-English speaking countries: I first noticed this while browsing “leather” projects on Kickstarter. There were lots of products that were obviously made from quality leathers, that used “Genuine Leather” in their descriptions. Some of the goods were obviously natural veg-tan. Another example were some nice calfskin shoes made in Italy that said in the description: “Genuine Leather”. It looks like lots of smaller companies in other countries simply had their term for “real leather” translated as “Genuine Leather.” So if it’s coming from a place where English isn’t the official language, look a little closer to see if you can see what type of material is really being used.
- Old-school leather workers: Chances are, if you talk to a leather worker who’s in his 60’s or older (like my dad), if they aren’t internet savvy (like my dad), they’ll have no idea that “genuine” is considered a bad thing by so many people. I’ve had to warn my dad: “If some one calls and asks if our products are ‘genuine leather’, ask what they mean before you answer.” He’d be likely to say with pride: “Of course, it’s all we work with!” If you find a local old-school leather worker, with decades of experience under his belt, don’t be surprised if he tells you “I only work with Genuine leather”- don’t worry, he’s talking about “the good stuff”.
Why is this important, can’t we just all agree that genuine=bad and move on?
The reason that this often repeated myth bothers me so much, is that it encourages people to take “short-cuts” when it comes to recognizing quality and it lets “marketeers” dictate something they don’t know anything about. False info gets repeated and the public has no idea what they’re really buying. If you’re buying something leather, at least look a little deeper. Don’t buy because you’re looking for or avoiding a specific keyword. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Ask questions, send an email, see if the person writing you back is a “sales guy” or a “craftsman” ( “sales gal” or “craftswoman”).
Lately the go-to for “the best leather” has been “Full Grain”, but sadly I’ve seen a lot of lower quality full grain leather in my life. Just like anything else, full grain leather can run the gamut from beautiful to horrible. Great full grain leather from Horween is $7.50+ per foot in quantity ( 1000+ feet), but just the other day I was offered a deal on full grain from another supplier that “normally sells” for $2.50 per foot. There would be a huge difference between those two leathers, in terms of look and feel.
Just like low cost/quality imports have murdered the term “Genuine Leather”, it’s only a matter of time before full grain gets the same treatment and we see it start showing up in low-cost low quality goods. In my a future post, I’ll talk a little more about the top-grain full-grain terms and why they really don’t mean too much when it comes to durability.