Photo: Barbarossa Leather

A Buying Guide For High Quality Leather

The first step to knowing what to look for in buying leather skins & hides for handbag design is understanding what sets apart high quality leather from inferior products. Luxury leather is deemed as such due to a combination of three factors: The type of animal it comes from, the way it has been treated, and status of its grain. The most desirable and durable leathers are high grade and full grain, but there is more to it than that….a brief primer on leather terminology will ensure you know what you’re purchasing when looking for new leather sources.

Leather Grain (Grades)

In general, leather is sold in three finished forms:

Full Grain

grade aThe finest of all leathers. Only the hair has been removed from the epidermis. The surface is natural and has not been corrected, split, or buffed to conceal imperfections. The backs of these leather show no colour but left natural. Only the finest quality hides are reserved for this category of leather.

bTop Grain

Leather that has been buffed and is generally treated with full pigment colour. Top grade treatments are applied to leathers that have prevalent scars and other defects related to environmental exposure.

c graddeSplit

Leather that is derived from middle and lower layers of the epidermis. This leather is exclusively used for making suede or corrected-grain leathers, which are covered in a fully pigmented polyurethane coating (commonly called a “PU Split”). This treatment is reserved for the least desirable hides, and is substantially less durable than full grain and top grain leathers. Corrected grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: semi-aniline and pigmented.

Tanning Processes

The three most common tanning processes used in fashion and accessory design are: vegetable tan, chrome tan, and vegetable re-tan (a combination of both processes).

Vegetable Tan—Vegetable tanned leather is produced using ingredients found in nature, most commonly plant and vegetable matter, tree bark, leaves, fruits and similar products. This is the most environmentally responsible process of tanning leather, and is also less harmful to the leather itself, allowing skins to maintain their tight fiber structure, thus resulting in better wear over time. Vegetable tanned leathers will burnish, resulting in a desirable patina appearance that continues to evolve over time.

Chrome Tan—This process uses chromium sulfate and results in soft leather, which will keep its look, unchanged for the lifespan of the product. The chrome tan process allows for more vibrant colors and a soft, supple hand.

Vegetable Re-tan – This process allows leather to maintain its strength durability and some burnishing, while adding a softer, more supple hand.


Which Animal Sources for Leather?

Virtually any animal hide or skin can be processed or tanned to produce leather. The animal source used is often a by-product of the regional food chain and the mechanical and chemical processing of the skin render a variety of characteristics suitable for many different applications. Leather offers a wide selection of textures, grains, durability, comfort, maintenance, cost, water resistance, abrasion resistance, weight, strength, pliability, softness, and appearance.

Leather from small animals are described as skins while those from larger animals are called hides. The terms are often interchangeable.

Bovine or Cowhide leather is the most abundant and common leather source. Cowhide offers maximum value for texture, appearance, durability, and comfort. Cowhide is easy to care for, the least expensive due to its availability and is dirt and water resistant. Cowhide is one of the heaviest leathers making it very tough wearing and durable featuring a pebble grain appearance. Although it can be somewhat stiff, cowhide breaks in easily. Cow leather is used for virtually every leather product including handbags, and can be natural or dyed in an array of fashion colours.

Calfskin is used to produce a high quality, attractive leather with a soft, fine feel. Calfskin has a smooth surface, which is dense, lightweight, and abrasion resistant. Calfskin takes on high luster with use and is used in creating small leather goods.

Pig or hog skin leather is a dense leather similar to cowhide with a soft and supple feel and very good durability. Pigskin is very pliable, comfortable and water resistant. Pigskin is used to manufacture handbags and its texture can be treated in many ways such as stamping, perforating, or embossing.

Goat skin leather is an economical, strong and durable, with a smooth fine grain. Goatskin is slightly softer and tougher than cow leather and is lightweight, comfortable, supple, flexible, and water-resistant. Kidskin is a very soft leather made from the hide of a young goat.

Sheep and lamb skin leathers are extremely soft, comfortable, and pliable. The finely grained leather is thin and supple with a buttery texture. Sheep leather is lightweight, warm and delicate and absorbs water well. Sheep leather’s low tear and tensile strength stretches and well and reshapes after wearing, however it can distort with excessive use. Because sheep skin leather drapes well and flows, it is often used to make high-end leather garments, as well as handbags.

Deerskin is one of the toughest leathers available due to the thorny nature of the animal’s natural habitats. Deerskin leather’s high tensile strength is abrasion resistant and offers high durability. Deerskin is extremely soft and comfortable with a spongy feel. It is lightweight, water-friendly, stretchy and fits well. Deerskin is more expensive and used to manufacture handbags, wallets, and upholstery.

Bison or Buffalo skin is a heavy duty and durable leather and very value priced. This leather is rugged and strong, yet soft and supple with a rubber waxy feel. Buffalo leather features thicker fibers which are more widely spaced and evident hair follicles creating a pebbly appearance. Bison leather is used to make furniture, shoes, belts, bookbinding, rugs, gloves, jackets, and baseball gloves. It may be too thick for conventional sewing machine stitching yet can be easily sewn by hand using saddle-stitching.

Ostrich and emu leathers are much rarer, but are some of the finest and most durable leathers. Ostrich leather is luxurious, soft, supple, and thick featuring an exotic goose bump appearance from the large feather quill follicles. Ostrich leather is popular in luxury fashion and is used to make boots, footwear, upholstery, accessories, clothing, luggage, purses, wallets, and briefcases.

Crocodile and alligator skin (aka cayman) renders a very attractive and fashionable leather. The leather is strong, supple, durable and very expensive. A bony layer within the skin adds a protective shield, while a dimple on each scale makes a very exotic look. Crocodile and alligator leather is used to make luxury goods, handbags, wallets, boots, belts, and briefcases.

Snakeskin is typically produced from venomous sea snakes which are commercially farmed. The leather is delicate, thin, soft and flexible, while the fine small hexagon scales produce exotic detailed grains. Snake skin leather is used to make boots, wallets, and handbags.

Eel skin is a very thin and elegant, which is not very strong. Eel skin leather can be durable but requires maintenance if exposed to elements. Eel skin is soft, shiny, and smooth with horizontal pin-stripe patterns. This leather is actually produced from a slimy eel-like fish called the inshore hagfish, which is caught in the wild. Eel skin becomes softer and suppler with use and is used to make wallets and handbags.

Stingray or shagreen leather is very tough with a siliceous layer on the surface, which makes it as durable as hard plastic. Stingray leather has a beautiful appearance and wonderful feel, which is very strong. Stingray leather scales even protect from fire damage. The leather is usually dyed black and covered with tiny round bumps dyed white to highlight the decoration. Stingray leather is used for clothing, furniture, wallets, belts, purses, and briefcases.



Filed under Bag'n-telle

13 responses to “LEATHER BUYING GUIDE

  1. Joy F

    Thanks for an information packed article.

  2. Don, this is great information! Very thorough. I have been making leather bags for awhile. In fact, it has become a business for me. I have also taken your class, and appreciate so much all of the shared information. I have a question about having images (photographs)digitally printed on leather. I have searched and researched, but have not found a good explanation of the process, or a printing company to do it. It is definitely being done out there somewhere. In reading this today, I thought maybe you would know something about this.

    • Don

      Thank you, Anita. I am unable to help you with the image printing on leather. I do know that some companies that I have worked for, emboss their leathers. It is done like a printing plate and passed through high pressure rollers.

    • Don

      Thank you, Anita. I am unable to help you with the image printing on leather. I do know that some companies that I have worked for, emboss their leathers. It is done like a printing plate and passed through high pressure rollers.

  3. Hello Don, I accidentally discovered you today and I am finding your information intriguing. I have a question for you. Since I am not all that experience in eyeing leather (although after reading this I will be better) I am wondering how to price pieces.

    I was recently downtown L.A. and came across a unusually colored piece (pigmented) and really wanted it but was afraid to purchase it because it was seemed like too much. Due to the size of the piece in question I would guess that it was goat or sheep. Could you possibly point me in the right direction of a buyers guide for the fashion district?

    Thank you in advance & I am actually considering on looking to see if the piece is still there and taking your bag class on Craftsy.

    • Don

      A very good question, Aileen. As with any consumable product, supply and demand determines the price. Leather is not sold by the yard/metre but sold by weight per square foot. It is also produced from the wild and through farming, making it subject to geography, climate, and natural disasters. The skins and hides are graded by usable surface area. Top quality would expect to be 80% usable leather. Each animal skin is unique yet will be “batched” with similar quality skins based on how it is tanned, natural colour or dye, and surface imperfections. Some surface marking are good and others are bad. Imperfections like fatlines will add interest and a “patina” as the leather wears. Imperfections like barbwire scars are those you do not want to use. The larger animal skins are known as hides and may be sold as a full hide, half hide, or leather pieces. The other factor which will affect pricing is type of animal and its origin, and how the leather is processed. Leather is a by-product of the food chain. In North America, we eat beef, pork, lamb, and goat. Therefore, cowhide/calfskin, pigskin, lambskin/sheepskin, and goatskin are very commonplace, making leather affordable. All may be natural in finish or can be treated with dyes, embossed, stamped, foiled, textured, or perforated. Each process will add to the cost of the leather.
      Buy from a reputable leather distributor/supplier to assure you are getting good quality and legally acquired skins. You mentioned goat or sheep. Expect to pay in the range of $4-$5. per square foot for a decent middle-of-the-road piece of leather.

  4. MGray

    Cayman is considered lower quaility and is way cheaper than aligator or crocodile. It’s recognizable at first glance by “pock marks” on scales, and the skin doesn’t feel soft and supple.

    • MGray

      Crocodiles have one sensory pore (“dimple”) on each scale, while alligators do not. It’s a good way of telling the two apart, actually.

  5. Looking for goat leather

  6. Jennifer Hickerson

    I have some vintage “elephant” leather. Is it possible to verify whether or not it is actually elephant?

  7. Pingback: How to Look Out for Pigskin Leather – HalalBuddy

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