Understanding Leather Grades for the Leather Enthusiast

Understanding Leather Grades for the Leather Enthusiast

The most pivotal decision made at the conception of any great leather creation is, which carefully selected grade of leather will the artisan use to make it. As you are the one investing in the piece it becomes important to understand your artisans choices.

Mastery of the intricate details of leather is not just knowledge; it's the key to discerning the sublime nuances of quality. In this exclusive guide, we break down the most basic level of leather grades so that you may feel empowered to make your next luxury leather purchase with confidence.

Leather Grades

Full-grain leather: Highest Quality

The best quality leather grade available. This comes from the top layer of the hide and often is complemented by natural marks and imperfections acquired through the lifetime of the hide's benefactor. By divine design the outermost layer of any hide is the strongest and most durable, coupled with natural tanning processes it allows the leather to be soft and supple to the touch. The lifetime of full-grain leather is the longest lasting of any grade and also continues to age well by developing a beautiful patina. This protects the top layer of leather and adds a sun and wear-colored layer unique to each piece.


Top-grain leather: High Quality

Taking second place, top-grain leather is thinner and more flexible as the hide has had blemishes from the visible surface removed or “cleaned”. This is done by buffing, sanding, and pigmenting to give a uniform and smooth look to the final product. While it does give a more cohesive look it does leave the leather feeling more plasticky and less breathable. As the top layer, where the pores are, is sanded off it leaves an outer layer that is more resistant to water and oils. Top-grain leathers are sturdy and durable but since the outermost layer was sanded away it does weaken the fibers which will result in the piece becoming stretchy over time.


Corrected-grain leather: Mid-Level Quality

Easily accessible worldwide due to its affordability and availability for mass manufacturing, this grade of leather is made from the bottom-cut part of the rawhide. As this leather has been sanded like top-grain leather, it is taken a step further and often imprinted with a false grain not natural to the original hide. This grade of leather allows for a wide range of inconsistent or damaged hides to be used but does result in a weaker, unnatural feeling leather that will not patina and is prone to cracking over time. You will find this leather used in many mass-produced affordable leather products that mimic true luxury brands.


Genuine leather* : Low-Level Quality

In short, a stamp of “Genuine Leather” only means that something is made of leather, not that it is high quality. This term can be misguiding as some brands and manufacturers will use cheaper leather, labeled as “Genuine Leather” and profit exponentially because of it. The clientele trusting in the brand's reputation assumes it is high quality and in actuality ends up with a subpar product. Genuine leather is considered by artisans to be a very low-quality leather as it is made of the leftovers of the hide and has been heavily processed. Expert leather purchase practice is to verify the leather grade prior to purchase or inquire of the artisan or sales representative directly.


Bonded leather*: Lowest Level Quality

As the name insinuates, bonded leather is the scraps of leather ground and blended with adhesives, resins, and fillers. This new material is then embossed to give it a leather-like appearance. Visually it may appear as leather but rarely does it feel like leather and is the least durable and the lowest grade leather available. It is also important to note that this type of leather can still be labeled as “Genuine Leather” because technically it is still made with leather. 

*These are not technically leather grades. Instead, they’re terms in the leather industry that have come to be widely used among today’s consumers. You may also run into a material called “corrected grain leather,” which is leather that has had the grain smoothed with abrasives. “Split-leather” and “Suede” are other terms you may see, these are part of the lowest grade of leather as they are made from the lowest layer of the hide. As such they often don’t look, feel, or smell like leather at all.

Navigating the world of leather can be complex with its diverse types. Being knowledgeable about leather helps to distinguish between the levels of quality. This guide is designed to provide helpful information for making informed leather choices, so you can better avoid those trying to sell genuine leather as a luxury. You can explore additional reference points for a deeper understanding below.


 Imagery: Skyler Hugh Photography