You’ve probably seen them around, articles that talk about the 4 grades or tiers of leather; from best to worst: Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine and Bonded. You’ll find them on fashion major blogs, in one of the most repeated Reddit TIL posts of all time, and in general comments whenever someone asks a question about a product that uses one of these words in the description. You can check my previous posts on the actual definition and some examples of each time, but I’m dedicating this post to completely debunking the myth that this is a real grading system used by any “authority” (government, trade group, or even an individual tannery) and that these terms to refer to levels of quality types of leather.
My specific posts dive deep into each of the “grades”: Full Grain, Top Grain Leather, and Genuine Leather. These are great further reading if you’d like to know about each of those types of leather and examples of variations. A quick review of the basic definitions:
- Full Grain: Just means nothing has been done to alter the outer most layer of the leather. This method preserves more of the “natural character” of the leather.
- Top Grain: Technically speaking (from a tannery perspective), full grain leather is top grain leather, because at it most basic, top grain refers to the top layer that’s been split from a hide (everything that’s not suede). When you get in finished products, generally, when you see “top grain” in a description, the leather has been sanded/corrected (like nubuck) or embossed.
- Genuine Leather: Genuine means real, that’s it. It’s very similar to using the word “wood” when talking about furniture: the vast majority of “wood furniture” you can buy today is particle board, but that doesn’t mean all “wood” furniture is particle board or low quality. It can be applied to everything from cheap particle board, to ply-wood, to high-end exotics. Within the “grades of leather articles” the leather they describe as “genuine leather” is actually a specific type of split leather called a “finished split”.
Not a “real” grading system:
First of all lets get this out of the way, although you might see this system compared to the way the USDA Grades beef (prime, choice, select) or some other official tiered system, this is not true.
You will not find this list of “grades” in use by any major tannery, leather trade organization or government entity.
Go ahead, search…the only place you’ll find these “grades” are in these “grades of leather articles.”
Why it’s not a quality based system:
“Full Grain is always the absolute best leather” is an extreme exaggeration; the quality of full grain leather can vary greatly.
As I mentioned in the definition above for full grain leather, what makes a leather full grain is the fact that’s nothing has been done to “correct” or change the outer grain. This is only one very small part of the tanning and finishing process, so the quality of the final leather will have to do with everything involved in the tanning/finishing process, much more than just if the leather is corrected or not. You can look at the way a leather is finished, the amount of defects, the conditioning it receives, the color-fastness, the evenness of the color and dozens of other factors.
Think about this: Since all leather starts as “full grain,” and full grain is supposedly better, why not just leave all leather as full grain?
The reason why full-grain is traditionally been “the best” is because historically the best tanneries will cull hides that have lots of range marks and defects (scars, mosquito bites, holes, etc) and not use them to make their full grain leathers. Today, the big name, top-tier tanneries still do this to assure that their full grain offerings are made from the “cleanest” hides (free of these scars and defects). This is not the case with all tanneries; lately I’ve seen cheaper full grain on the market with more defects and, many times, a heavier finish to hide those defects. Just as unethical companies took the term “genuine leather” and started making low quality products that were “technically” genuine leather, the same is happening today with full grain. They know people will buy something just because of that term. In fact if a tannery wanted to make the “cheapest leather” possible, full grain would be the way to go, as it requires both less machinery and less labor.
This is one of the reasons you see more and more companies making excuses for range-marks and scars in their “full grain” products.
Corrected grain isn’t necessarily bad: Red Wing, a shoe company with a pretty solid rep, says this of their roughout and nubuck (sanded top grain leather):
Nubuck leather is a full grain leather with a buffed top surface that creates a fine, velvety nap. Both of these leathers are as strong and durable as our other leathers.
Embossed leathers add character and texture and are not any less durable than smooth full grain leathers.
The choice, as long as you’re dealing with a reputable tannery, of full grain or top grain is a matter of taste, not durability.
This is a big exaggeration you see in these articles: “Full Grain is the most expensive leather you can buy.” In fact, one of the videos that repeats these grades, makes a point of saying how much cheaper one kind of leather is from another. This claim only has one very small grain of truth: If you compare the cost of full grain and a corrected leather from the same tannery, then the full grain might be slightly more expensive (we’re talking less that $1 per foot difference). But this is not always the case, in fact, when I buy leather from several tanneries, there is no cost difference.
Leather cost (as well as quality) will vary much more based on the tannery that makes the leather than on these supposed grades. A top grain leather from a top tier-tannery will cost much more than a full grain leather from “less prestigious” or lower quality tannery. For example, a corrected-grain tannage like Cavalier from Horween will run you at $7-$8 per foot (even in quantities over 1000 square feet) whereas I’ve been offered full grain leather from Leader Tannery in Pakistan for under $1.25 per foot. An embossed leather (not considered full grain) from Tanneries H.A.A.S in France can cost more than 10 times as much!
A better way to think about leather quality:
Think about leather from different tanneries like you’d think about cars: You could go into an “economy brand” dealership (Kia, Hyundai, etc) and the sales person could show you the most expensive, “fancy” car they offer and explain why it’s “the best” but only in comparison to the other models they sell, but you could then visit a “luxury brand” (BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, etc) and their low-to-mid-range cars would be equal to or better than the “best” at that economy dealership. In the same way, if you go to a tannery in India, China or Pakistan, their “best” probably won’t be as nice as the middle-of-the-road leather from a “premium tannery”, like HAAS, D’Annonay, Horween, Sedgwick, CF Stead, W & C, Herman Oak, etc. Also, in the same way that the luxury brands probably don’t have anything similar to the “economy models” you’d see at other dealerships, these higher-end tanneries don’t deal in leathers that are always low quality like finished splits and bonded leather.
Real Leather Grades:
It’s not acctuate to say there “there’s no such thing as leather grades.” Leather grading and grades do exist, but they’re not the ones we’ve talked about above. “Grades” of leather, as actually used by leather workers and tanneries have to do with the amount of visible blemishes (scars, bug bites, brands, etc) on an individual hide. Here’s a pretty dense document about grading of actual hides in their raw state. These grades are most important to belt makers and other craftsmen who will be cutting pieces that will cover a larger area of a hide. This is why you’ll see them listed more when you’re looking at tanneries that specialize in belt leather.
Even then, these grades vary by the tannery here are a few examples:
Just from those two examples you can see that the grading systems are completely different. The only consistent reference I’ve seen that applies across all tanneries when buying leather is TR, which stands for “Tannery Run” which is basically a all grades together in a batch of a given leather.
Is there any value in this hierarchy of leather grades?
When I’ve explained the facts about these supposed grades to people, I’ve had several tell me that following this break down has “worked for them” and that’s it’s a good guide for the layman who doesn’t know about leather. The problems is, that if followed strictly, you’ll miss out on some great products stamped “genuine leather” (Red Wing Heritage is one great example) and you’ll eventually end up be disappointed by someday by a low quality “full grain” product that you bought just because it said full grain.
This breakdown only works when comparing leathers/products from the same company/tannery (and then, only with stuff that’s medium to low quality). For instance if you’re looking at sub-$100 bags, then, yes, chances are that “full grain” would be better than other options, but if you’re buying $300+ Red Wings or Aldens, then picking nubuck, embossed pebble grain or full grain won’t make much difference. Or if you’re looking at a wallet or bag in a top grain leather from Horween versus a “technically full grain leather” from a tannery in Asia or “south of the border”, then, chances are, the Horween is a much better leather.
So, sure, use the breakdown if you’re not spending a lot of money or you’re in a hurry, or if you’re at a store and don’t have anything more to go on when it comes to determining quality. But…if you’re going to be spending some serious money on a “Buy it for Life” leather product, then take the time to look a little deeper at the brand/manufacturer and the materials they’re using.
The Origin of the “myth of leather grades”:
These “grades of leather” especially calling genuine leather a grade of leather is undoubtedly one of the worst misconceptions to plague my industry. It’s forced my Dad, a 70-year-old leatherworker who’s worked with leather most of his life, to have to take it out of his vocabulary when he talks to uninformed customers; I’m constantly telling him “Say ‘Real’, Dad! Not genuine!” Many smaller leather companies, my own included, have had to remove the word from our websites and product descriptions for fear of people getting confused.
This all started with a video and related article where a big leather goods manufacture broke down some “grades of leather” in a very slanted and misleading way. This leather 101 video went viral. These “facts” got repeated everywhere and now several times a week I see someone on Reddit say “genuine is the second worst grade of leather.” Some newer companies have even repeated this nonsense breakdown in their product descriptions; if you see these grades repeated, it’s a good bet the company isn’t doing any of their own manufacturing. Genuine has never been a grade, you can’t call up a butcher and ask for just real beef. You can’t call up a tannery and ask for “genuine leather” the term is just too broad, there are so many other words used in our industry to describe leather.
So was this misrepresentation of facts on purpose?
You bet ya. If these folks had simply said “genuine sometimes means” or even “most of the time”, I’d have no problem, but they go so far as to claim it’s some sort of secret “industry term” which is wrong. Industry terms are specific; sometimes so specific that they aren’t well understood by those outside the industry. Genuine leather is such a broad term and that it’s useless as a specific descriptor. So it’s hard to see those statements as anything but a malicious misrepresentation of facts to pump up the product. It caught on because it’s got this compelling “click-baity”, “you think this means ‘x‘ but it really means this“ ring to it. Kind of like the “USA is a city in Japan” urban legend.”
What’s the lesson for us with what’s happened with these leather grades?
One take home we can get from what happened with genuine leather, is that unethical manufactures/tanneries will eventually take whatever buzzword is taken by people as the shortcut for quality and capitalize on it. As I said before: full grain just means “nothing has been done to alter the outer grain” that means a tannery can actually do less to a leather and it’s still “technically full grain.” This is why you can’t count on “full grain” alone to be a sign of quality. The same goes for vegetable-tanned or whatever the next “shortcut-for-quality” buzzword surfaces.
Do your research: How is the item made? What is the maker saying about the material they’re using? Does the site like a craftsperson made it or a slick company who outsourced a “cool idea for a product”? It pays to be willing to look a little deeper.
A small “Call to Action”
I’m looking for allies in debunking and killing this widespread “leather myth.” So if you feel up to it, the next time someone talks about these grades online or in person, set them straight. Email your favorite blog if they’ve repeated these myths. Comment on Youtube videos that spread them. Feel free to copy and repeat anything and everything I’ve said here. Re-post this, make a video, link to it in a YSK or TIL. If you want some help or have questions, I’m happy to provide examples, answer questions and send pictures.