Recognizing Quality Construction in Leather Goods

I must confess that every time I go into a department store or discount store like Ross or TJ Maxx, I take a look at the wallets, just to see what else is out there.   Since I was born into this business, I’ve never carried a wallet that my dad or I didn’t make personally.  It’s interesting to see what’s out there and how they’re made.   All of those box-store wallets seem to be about the same, no matter the brand that’s stamped on the outside (Tommy, Kenneth Cole, Calvin Klein, etc).  I’d guess they’re all probably from the same few of leather factories pumping out the leather equivalent of  fast fashion in some developing country.    The prices are hard to beat.  Are they any good?  Will they last?

One of the questions I get asked most often is “How can I recognize a good leather product?”  I actually got a few complaints that my previous posts didn’t do much to tell you how to recognize “quality leather.”  While the leather that’s used is super-important, the leather aspect of quality is much harder to detect on something that’s brand new.  Usually “bad” leather is something that becomes much more apparent with time and use.

The fact is: I don’t use what I know about different kinds of leather to judge if a product is quality or not.

So what’s a person to do?  Look for quality construction and techniques.  There are “tells” that can be seen right away that let me know if a wallet or ID case (or any other leather product) will last.  I’m going to break down a more or less “standard” 8-pocket bifold from a big box store vs one that I made using better techniques.  Full disclosure: for the most of the comparison shots, I’m using a bifold I made, not trying to self-promote here, but what else am I gonna use?  I’m most familiar with the designs I’ve made myself.  That being said, lots of other quality makers use pretty much the same design to make their wallets: It’s 10 pieces of leather: Front, inside panel, 2 hidden pocket panels, 4 tab pockets, and 2 full pockets:

bifold wallet parts
10 pieces in a 8-pocket bifold.

Look at the edges:

 

“Turned edges” or edges that have been folded over, look great and give a product a finished look, however most quality makers don’t make their wallets with this method for a few reasons:

  • First of all, to do this process correctly, it takes time and skill, lots of it.  Every edge has to be neatly folded inwards and precisely creased.  This investment in labor is much more practical in countries where labor costs are minimal, but where cutting corners in other aspects of quality are common.    I have seen this method used in very few quality wallets but the price tag is considerably higher than the wallets you’re finding at your local big box store: Quality Turned Edge Wallet
  • The second reason you don’t see many makers using this technique is that it requires ultra-thin leather.  If you look at the above pictures you’ll see that the not only are the outside edges folded over but even the top of each pocket is folded over.  On a “quality” product could skive down (thin) the edges to make them less thick when folded and reduce bulk, but on these imported wallets they just use a leather that’s thinner all around.  Thin leather means less durability, I’ll hit this point again further down.

Edges that aren’t turned:

 

On a quality wallet you’ll usually see the edges done in just a few ways and all are a variation of stacking the pieces together.

  1. Stacked edges (raw or dyed): In the picture above all the pieces are dyed and stacked together, glued and sewn (in few separate sewing steps), it’s pretty simple and how I make most of my wallets.  It allows for the much thicker leather and a more durable product.  You’ll sometimes also see the edges left their natural color depending on the type of leather and the company making it.
  2. Burnished edges: You can find the same technique used on other high-end leather goods but the edges are sometimes sanded and the burnished, this gives a much cleaner look (almost as if it was one piece) than just a painted/dyed edge.  Quality burnishing takes lots of time, so you won’t find many wallets with nicely burnished edges at a low price point.
    burnished edge
    Burnished edge Filson Wallet

    3. Completely coated edges:  This is when you see that the edges have a rubbery looking coating around the entire edge that makes doesn’t let you see the individual layers of leather.   This technique is used by both high-end manufacturers and cheaper imports, so it can’t be used to judge quality one way or the other.

Crazy-thin materials:

Most leather workers like the outside/front of the wallet to be between 4oz-5oz (1.6mm-2mm) leather (and some even thicker).  For insides (the card section), even when split down, you’re usually talking 2.5oz-3oz (1mm-1.2mm) leather.  The leather used in both the front and insides of the wallet I’m using in this post is less than 2oz.  While leather is a tough material, when you start getting really thin, you start losing durability.   Add to that, the fact that this type of wallet is usually made with “lower than average” quality leather.

The worst problem with mass produced imported wallets: lots and lots of non-leather materials

The reason that cheap wallets are able to stay super-thin and still have folded edges has to do with the fact that everything except the front panel of the wallet is essentially not leather.  Sure, you look inside the wallet and all you see is leather, but if you look more closely, the parts that actually hold you stuff are all nylon.  This my #1 way to know if a product is going to last or not. be it a bag wallet or anything else.  Any component that’s not leather is going to limit the life of a product, nylon just won’t hold up over time; the edges ravel and/or it will rip after just a few years.

First, let’s take one of the card pockets and open it and look inside.   You’re going to see a thin strip of leather that is overlapped a little by the pocket below it, but nylon for the pocket itself.

import pocket indide
Imported wallet pocket

With better quality wallets you’ll see all leather pockets, usually t-slots (see my Primer on Pockets to understand the different types of pockets found in leather goods.)

quality pocket inside
All Leather Pocket

Along the same lines, the center section of the cheap wallet is also just for show; if you look deeper, you’ll see it’s only in the center and nylon is actually used as the inside of the “hidden” pockets and the interior section of the bill compartment.

import center panel
Center section Imported wallet

With a quality wallet you can look and see that the entire center panel, which serves as the inside of the bill compartment goes all the way across under the pocket sections and is all leather.

quality center panel
All leather center section

Using methods that use less leather, the low quality makers save money and keep their wallets very thin as it’s essentially only 2 layers (4 when folded) of thin leather at the most, and several layers of nylon.

Look for suede:

Inside Suede
Bill Section of quality wallet, the colors are different because one side has been split down more than the other to reduce bulk

The back of leather is suede, when you find it, you’ll know you’re dealing with real leather and not a synthetic.  Also, if you see suede you’ll know that they used leather that was thick enough to give the wallet some body and they didn’t have to use cardboard or foam stiffeners (yes they use paper in cheap leather wallets!).    Lastly, and once again, anything that’s not leather, will wear out way before the leather.  I’ve seen lined purses that look great on the outside but have a liner that’s turned into a raveled mess with just a few years of use.   This is why I, generally, don’t line my products (only special requests and then I try to discourage it).   If you want a lining in a leather product, look for a leather lining; though, word of warning, this will add significant weight and bulk.

Behind the liner paper
Paper Stiffeners in a cheap imported wallet!

Thickness and size:

Nobody likes a really thick wallet, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a long-lasting wallet without some “body” to it.  Most quality wallets tend to be a little thicker than their throw-away counterparts (one of the biggest complaints we occasionally get).  Another thing you’ll notice is that quality wallets tend to have a little more space between the seam and the edge of the wallet and therefore they tend to have a bigger foot-print.  The reason for the wider seams has to do with the size of needle needed to penetrate thicker leather and the thicker thread that’s used in more durable products.  You can see in my pictures below that the thinner thread has broken in the cheap import.

thickness comparison
Thickness Comparison
size comparison
Size comparison
thread comparison
Thread size and seam width comparison

Too many bells and whistles:

Another thing to watch out for are lots of features.  Because cheap wallets use thin leather and lots of nylon on the inside, they can add features that would make an all leather wallet much too thick.  You may have noticed that the wallet I’ve been using has 2 hidden pockets under the card banks (compared to only on in the wallet I made) and it also has a divider in the cash section.  While we all love features, many features add more thicknesses of leather: a divider adds 2 thicknesses when folded, the double hidden pockets another 2.  I’ve seen wallets with even more than that:  zippers, pull-out ID cases, coin pockets, etc…The more things like this you see, the more likely it is that you’re looking at a wallet that has less leather and more nylon.  Obviously the bigger the wallet, the more you can have; nothing wrong with a brass zipper and even space for a checkbook on a long trucker wallet, but it has no place in trifold or bifold.

Look for simplicity, there’s less to go wrong.  I say my favorite recipe for leather goods is only 2 ingredients: Leather and thread.  My trifold wallet is 5 pieces of leather stitched with bonded nylon thread.  My bifolds have 10 pieces also stitched with bonded nylon.  They are tough, very rarely do I ever get a wallet back that needs to be restitched.

trifold-parts.jpg
Embossed Trifold wallet: 5 pieces  of hand-dyed Veg-tan:    Front, inside, 3 pockets. Simple=Durable

Country of Origin:

I don’t want to come across as saying that “Made in USA” is always the best and we must buy American (though I personally like to when I can), but the country that a product is manufactured in does in many cases say something about quality.  Leather goods from the USA, Japan, Italy, France and other developed countries are more likely to be made using quality methods than products made in the developed world.  That being said, I’ve traveled to other countries in less developed areas of the world and seen goods produced using quality techniques and material by artisans who took great pride in the work they were doing.  I’ve also seen products sold by people in this country who absolutely didn’t know or care about making a quality product (though it’s not common).   Some brands care a lot about the quality of the goods that carry their name and make sure that their manufacturing partners (in whatever country), use quality techniques and materials (think about Apple and the iPhone made in China).   So, the bottom line is that you’ll have a higher hit/miss ratio buying from countries with a reputation for quality and craftsmanship.

Price:

Price doesn’t mean a ton, some brands of leather goods are way overpriced and some folks sell their products quite reasonably,  but price can tell you a little.  My cheapest wallets are around $25 and I’m lower than most other companies making leather products here in the USA using quality techniques (maybe one day I’ll do a post on how I keep costs down by getting deals on leather and a few production techniques if anyone is interested).  If you’re looking at something more artisanal: hand-stitched and fully burnished edges, you’re looking at at least $50 and probably closer to $100.  You’ll never find a quality wallet for $10.

The Company:

Lastly, and this isn’t about the product itself: look at the brand or the company.  See if they have a Facebook page, Instagram account, or blog that shows some of their setup.  How are they making their product?   Do they post about new ideas or designs their working on?  Maybe a custom job they’ve done or a show they’ve just went to.  You should see at least a little bit of the process, not just finished goods.  It should also read like a real person wrote it, not just “marketing speak.”    This lets you know that the people running the business are making the goods.  Yes, I answer emails, take pictures, manage our website, write this blog, do taxes and payroll;  I spend a part of my day in front of a computer, but I’ve got dried leather dye on my hands right now…there isn’t one person who works at our company that doesn’t do some part of the actual “making” of the products.

This post is, by far, incomplete as there are tons of other wallets and designs of both high and low quality.  There are tons of other things that can help determine quality or the lack there of, but I hope I’ve given you a place to start.

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