The “Grades of Leather” hierarchy you’ve probably read about is a Myth


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 GrainTop 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.

what if I told you

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.

Red Wing’s Roughout and Nubuck Care Guide

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:

Herman Oak Grades

Wickett & Craig’s Price list by Grade

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.



43 thoughts on “The “Grades of Leather” hierarchy you’ve probably read about is a Myth

  1. I’ve found the grading scales within tanneries to be a joke. I bought a mix of grade A and B from Hermann Oak, and some of the Bs were significantly better than the As – and that’s not saying much, they were all pretty bad – marks everywhere and more than 1oz variation in their split! It was pathetic. I was really disappointed and wanted to return them – but I’d have them split down, so I could not – they gave me 10% back *eye roll*. So I STILL have about $1k worth of Hermann Oak leather that I consider unusable. I can’t not recommend them enough. I only buy leather I can see before I buy now. That’s really the only way to go about it, I think. People will take advantage of you however they possibly can.


    1. Isn’t that the truth. I recently discovered that distributors of higher end leathers like Wickett and Craig and Hermann Oak buy mixed grade leather and ‘grade’ it themselves! What a DAMN rip-off.

      Received a few crap hides from 2 seperate distributors that are recomended on W&C’s site, and here I thought I was paying for the highest grade when what i received is the guess work of a distributor, turned out to be awful, cracking, badly split veg tan. And what an awful time trying to return the damn thing.For all the flack Tandy gets, they have great customer service and always replace bad hides without even wanting the other returned. I’ll just hand pick from tandy’s if that’s how one’s treated by distributors. Wish I lived close to one to hand pick, then it would be worth it, but buying leather site unseen is such a gamble.


  2. I have observed that most of All Saints jackets are “Made In India” but those seems to be be pretty good in quality. Should I conclude that their jackets doesn’t have the best quality leather?


    1. You can’t conclude that, though generally “fashion jackets” are made with lamb as opposed to cow. Lamb is “cleaner” when it comes to scars…it’s almost always full grain and it drapes beautifully. However it is not as durable.

      When it comes to where something is made, it’s really a matter of probability as well as reputation: A company can be really on top of QC and have great work done in China or India or Pakistan (think Apple), but it’s also a fact that most disposable “fast fashion” also comes from that area of the world, and as a general rule, QC and working conditions are not as consistent due to less oversight.


    1. No, all leather starts as full grain, and historically, the better tanneries culled the “rougher” hides to get embossed or corrected; this meant only a small percentage of hides were “good enough” to be full grain. This is still true for the quality leathers coming from top tanneries, but you can find cheap leather that’s “technically full grain” pretty easily. In those cases, they either just leave the defects and use “full grain” as an excuse, or they do things that don’t alter the outer grain to mitigate the roughness, like adding a heavy finish coat over the defects.


      1. Thanks for the info. Are leather coming out of Tuscany Italy generally superior quality? There was some gimmicks about vegetable tanned leather in the post but didn’t expand on it, are vegetable leather always better or is there more to that as well?



  3. Europe tends to have higher standards as a general rule. Additionally the lack of barbed wire and better animal welfare laws makes for a better starting material. I have another post that goes deep into veg tan (, but they two different types of tanning that can result in a huge variety of leathers as the final product.

    I read an interview with Nick Horween or Horween tannery (that makes both types) and he said the following:

    “There’s a feeling in the market that vegetable tanned leather is better or more environmentally friendly than chrome tanned leather. They are just different and require different types of management through manufacturing. We do both and they each have their strengths and shortcomings.”


    1. I have a bag that was supposed to be full grain Italian leather and it has shown these light colored cracks on the side. Can full grain crack like that?

      Thanks for all the responses!


    2. Your information about Leather types is really great but when I did some research to get a 100% genuine leather Jacket then I found this website and they claim that their products are made with 100% real leather but their prices seem very high. How I can verify if their jacket is made with real leather?


      1. I’m not familiar but their prices seem in line for what you’d expect to pay for. a cowhide jacket (maybe a little high)…one of the big things that separates “good” jackets with ones that are more just fashion jackets is the actual material: Lamb or goat will look and feel nice but won’t be as durable as cow, horse or bison so you can find lamb or goat for $100-$200 pretty easy, but cow will cost more. I can’t tell much from their website but for me I’d look at Fox Creek Leather, Schott USA or possibly Hillside leather.


  4. I want to buy a certain pair of shoes with leather uppers The company indicated the leather is “full grain” and “the best quality leathers”. Does this mean the shoes are of high quality?


    1. So, yes many good shoes are made with full grain leather, but your mileage may vary: You could find “full grain shoes” sold on Alibaba or AliExpress that would be cheap quality or go for a brand with an awesome reputation like Red Wing or Alden, who’s shoes, full grain or not, are amazing quality.


  5. So when shoe shopping one should shop by brand? What if the brand is new? How do you determine fair quality leather from exceptional?


    1. It’s a little about the price point, a little about the brand but the biggest factor is how a shoe is made. You could use a super expensive material and still make a junk quality shoe.

      You really have to just look deeper. The point of my post is that most of the terms people associate with quality can be misused to give them more importance than they really have by themselves.


      1. Then I believe astute quality manufacturers and/or brand should use the right terminology and descriptions to accurately describe their products. The shoes I want also appear to be “calf leather” (based on what others have indicated) which to me says quality but I could be wrong). I wish they would give a better description of why their leather is quality other than “the best” or “the finest” and why quality leather matters.


  6. While it would be nice if all the shoe manufactures we to give tons of details about the leathers and tanneries they use, but it’s simply not the case. Alden of New England is one of the most prestigious makers of high end shoes but they give limited details as to the tannery: they use Horween a lot but I can’t find where their calf skin comes from. Red Wing has specific names for their leather but they don’t get too terribly specific; my guess for the reason is that people have very distorted views about what terms like full grain mean when it comes to quality: For example Red Wing’s incredibly popular leather Copper Rough and Tough is, in fact, not full grain, it’s an oiled nubuck, but it’s a really great leather and just as durable as any of their full grain offerings.


  7. Thank you for this article.
    I have a one-month-old, top grain, brown leather sectional from Ethan Allen which has sustained a scratch. The scratch reveals WHITE under the very thin layer of brown that has peeled up. Does this sound like a very poor quality leather, or does all top grain leather show white underneath a scratch?


    1. Hi Ginger,
      No, a white interior doesn’t really indicate anything when it comes to quality. Leather that is more or less the same color all the way through is called “struck through”, it’s nice for some applications but not something that , by itself means bad quality. I’ve seen some extremely nice and expensive calf leathers used by the high end shoe company Alden of New England with white interiors. I’ll also mention that English Bridle and Shell Cordovan also have interiors that are a light color. Of course, there are plenty of leathers with light interiors that are bad quality where the finish coating is easily removed or scratched off.

      I also just bought a large quantity of leather that has a white interior on purpose because I have a client that engraves names into bracelets and the contrast is desirable.

      All that being said, I personally prefer struck through leathers because, as you experience shows, if you scratch a leather that’s not struck through it’s hard to fix.


      1. Thank you for the prompt and informative reply. Do you have a suggestion on how to minimize the scratch’s appearance? I read to try brown shoes polish, but I am hesitant for fear of making it worse.


  8. Yeah brown shoe polish would be my easiest suggestion. There are specific products but you can use shoe polish, with one smally warning: make sure you really rub it in and buff it. You don’t want to get stained the next time you sit down.


  9. Thanks for the excellent article. I feel much more informed about leather now. I have a question however about how to apply this to buying leather furniture. Clearly the terminology used at retail is going to be mostly useless to deciding what’s good quality and what isn’t (although at least one can steer clear of bonded leather since that’s not really “leather”). Are there available lists of what leathers are used by various furniture manufacturers? Will they typically provide this information to consumers if asked at retail? Are the high quality leather makers you mention typically in use by furniture manufacturers or are there others sources one should be looking for for that market?


    1. This is actually a pretty hard question as “upholstery leather tanneries” are pretty much unknown and don’t self-promote at all. I only know the names of a handful and really can’t compare quality between them. The best I can do is give you my recent furniture buying experience and let you know how I came to my decision:

      For most of my married life we had a “cheap” set of leather furniture from a place called “Value City Furniture”, but it lasted remarkably well for about 14 years. From what I could see, it was an embossed top grain leather with a pretty heavy finish coat. This meant that it cleaned up pretty well but also that if it got any deep scratches (from our dogs) it didn’t “self-heal” if the scratches broke the finish. About a year or two ago we started shopping for a new set of furniture for our living room and ran into the same problem you did: very little info about the leather used in the furniture we looked at. In the end we got everything from We made the decision based on a few factors:

      1. The somewhat reasonable price.

      2. The description of “Full Grain, Aniline, Italian Leather”…by themselves those terms don’t always say a lot when it comes to quality but: a)Full grain told us that it wasn’t corrected or a finished split. b) Aniline told us that it had a more or less “natural/nude” finish and c) Leather from Italy generally has a reputation for quality. It was still a risk but with furniture, there’s just not a lot of good info out there.
      3. Lastly we looked around for pictures of the furniture after some use as well as reviews. If you can see if you can find any reviews of the brand based on a bit of use (not just an initial impression).

      In the end we’re pretty happy with the furniture. Because the leather is aniline it lightens where it sees wear; so where we normally sit and where the dogs try to dig, it gets light spots. The nice thing is that with a treatment with Lexol (or any other conditioner), the color is restored and they look almost new. The pillows get a little soft since they’re real feathers, so I’ll probably have to add more stuffing eventually.

      I wish I could be of more help but my own experience is the best I could do.


  10. Hii! Great article with lot lf useful info. I started working on leather recently as a hobby and I am from India. I could not find any reliable tannery to source my leather. Could you please let me know the options I have ? Thank you.


    1. Man…because I’m located here in the USA, I’ve got a a few great choices like Horween, Wickett and Craig, and SB Foot. Since I’m doing business here, I’ve never bought leather from India. I really don’t have anyone in India I can recommend. I’m sure that there probably are some good tanneries but I wouldn’t know where to start… I really wish I could be of more help.


  11. Hi there! Considering buying a sheep leather jacket from Mango. Tag says it is genuine leather with the clothing label stating that it is made of 100% sheep leather (lining made of 100% polyester) and made from india. I understand the jacket won’t be made of top grade leather but I wanted to ask if sheep leather such as this would usually be of decent quality? Would the sheep leather for this jacket be likely less to be made of split or inferior leather?


    1. This is actually a funny question because my wife own a sheep or goats king jacket from Mango! I would say that sheep is more of a fashion jacket and a much more delicate material than the cowhide I normally use, but it’s still a million times better than faux or bonded. The main thing to be careful of is the finish, you want a more natural feeling finish vs a slick paint like finish if you want it to look good for longer.


  12. Thanks for replying so quickly! Greatly appreciate it! Hopefully the sheep leather would last just as long as cowhide would with enough care. Thank you so much for your insight and tips! Loved reading your blog 🙂


  13. My girlfriend makes some small leathercraft and always tells me she would only buy cowhide in person – inspect every roll by eye and hand. She buys italian rolls in europe (she is Korean, i am Czech)… Where in the US, namely in Chicago area and LA area, is one able to “walk in” and buy material? Im talking vegetable tanned (full grain natural.. aniline… whatever). Ussualy in chicago the Horween is overhyped but im not even sure if they make natural vegetable tan in desirable thickness (lets say between 1.2 – 2mm). Do the big shops (if there are any) have splitters on site like the italians do? I think i have heard about a veg tannery somewhere in San Francisco but im not sure if they sell rolls or just their inhouse leather products… From what i observe from the italian suppliers, more and more A+ grade italian leather is being sucked by the big players (either straight fashion brand producers or large distributors) and less and less good stuff ends up on the market – leather is more expensive, lower quality and with longer delivery times. Ironically she had better chance to buy two rolls of really nice leather without scars in Seoul than anywhere in central Europe…

    Recently, during a trip to scandinavia, I have also discovered the nordic tanneries are great (and oh pricey!). And talking about jackets – reindeer is the best you can get 😉

    Great articles – i have read all four now! Thanks and cheers to you.


    1. Hi Phil! I’m located in Rural SC so I’m not to much of an expert as to where to buy leather in person in those larger areas. There’s really two big veg-tan tanneries in the USA: Wickett and Craig and Herman Oak…both can produce and split to whatever thickness and offer a variety of leathers.
      I think you can buy smaller quantities directly from W&C but need to go bigger for Herman Oak. Besides that, there are other supply houses around: The one you mentioned near SF is probably Hide House in Nappa. Horween does have a great reputation and does do both chrome and veg tanning but I’ve not gotten any natural veg from them.


  14. So one could say that leather goods sellers will typically use the “best” term they can get away with for their products based on popular perception of the terms more than an actual statement on quality. That shouldn’t surprise anybody, really. If they can get away with calling bicast leather “genuine leather”, it certainly sounds better than stating that it is plastic coated. Or using “full grain” when that doesn’t really state anything about quality. As you note some top grain leathers are superior even if they’ve got “correcting” embossing on them, and full grain leathers can be just as heavily coated as any other top grain leather depending on the finish.


    1. Exactly! You’ve gotten the point…lately I’ve been telling people that good or bad leather is like a good or bad meal at a restaurant: There are dozens of things that you can change that can make or ruin the meal; the ingredients, the cooking method, under/overcooking, too much or too little salt, etc. In the same way, there are hundreds of things that go into leather besides what’s done to that outer layer all of which have to do with “quality”.


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