My favorite of all the San Francisco street festivals is Folsom Street Fair – coming up this Sunday – and in the spirit of its celebration of BDSM / kink / leather lifestyle, this post is dedicated to leather knowledge!
Leather is one of my favorite materials, but with the huge range in price points, many animal hide types, and nonintuitive terminology for quality levels (and frankly, the definitions online are rather confusing), it can be pretty daunting to shop for it. And if you’re thinking of making a pricy furniture purchase, it’s super important to have as much knowledge about what you’re buying as possible.
Special thanks to Joel at HD Buttercup in San Francisco for letting me snap some photos of the fabulous leather hide samples they have on display!
FIRST: WHAT IS LEATHER GRAIN?
Think of a leather hide as being composed of layers – 1) the hair/fur; 2) the “skin” surface layer, which like human skin has grooves, wrinkles, maybe a couple scars from healed wounds, and a lot of character; 3) the layer underneath called the “split”, which is still leather but without the 2) layer’s “skin” texture.
The grain also refers to the surface of 2) the “skin” – each leather hide has its own unique grain pattern, kind of like human fingerprints.
FULL GRAIN LEATHER:
Full Grain is the highest-quality leather you can get. It’s basically the full hide, with the hair/fur removed. Its quality comes from 2 main reasons: because it’s both the 2) and 3) layers, and more importantly, the better, less-flawed hides are reserved for Full Grain – because the hide’s natural grain surface is preserved as much as possible, producers will select those pieces with fewer blemishes and irregularities to make into Full Grain leather.
You can see the leather layers in this photo: the upper leather sample is Full Grain, and the bottom is Top Grain – it’s thinner, and missing the lower split layer.
TOP GRAIN LEATHER:
Whereas Full Grain leather is made of layers 2) and 3), Top Grain leather is the upper 2) skin” layer, with the lower 3) “split” removed. It’s thinner without the split and also more pliable, but still 100% high quality leather. Top Grain leather is very commonly used in higher-end furniture production, because it’s still durable like Full Grain leather, but more affordable because less-perfect hides are used, so Top Grain leather is produced at a higher volume.
Since hides used for Top Grain leather have more blemishes and irregularities than Full Grain, part of the production process includes sanding the surface of those flaws away, and then stamping a faux grain back onto the leather, so that the final piece appears flawless.
As you might have suspected, the lower split layer of leather is effectively suede and can be used as such. Thickness of the split depends on the hide and the production process, so it can be thin for suede clothing, or much thicker and tougher for work applications. Lesser-quality splits are also used in Bycast Leather production (see below).
MORE AFFORDABLE LEATHERS / “LEATHERS”:
If you’ve shopped for leather furniture before, you’ve definitely seen that there are sometimes VERY affordable options out there, especially compared to higher-end retailers. The nice thing about leather is you pretty much get what you pay for. Full and Top Grain leathers last longer and wear better with a lot of use. They also let your skin breathe, unlike the below leather types which will give you that sweaty “sticking to my couch” feeling. So, if you’re planning to purchase a leather couch or chair that you intend to sit in often and keep for a long time, make the investment.
But regardless of your budget or whether you just want a leather piece for its good looks, it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying when reading product descriptions.
CORRECTED GRAIN LEATHER:
Some leather hides are just so flawed or unattractive that they won’t qualify for Full or Top Grain production. What happens here is the ENTIRE SURFACE of the leather gets sanded away (just like the blemishes in Top Grain hides), and then the entire thing gets stamped with a faux-grain. Then the surface is sealed with polyurethane. You’re still getting a 100% intact leather piece, but it’s underneath the sealant and stamped grain.
Some splits are too flawed or too thin for normal use. So, producers take these splits and give them the Corrected Grain treatment: a faux-grain stamping, and a polyurethane sealant. Again, it still is leather technically (moreso a byproduct of regular leather production), but if you sit in a chair made of Corrected Grain or Bycast Leather, your skin isn’t actually in contact with leather.
BONDED LEATHER (WHICH SHOULD BE “LEATHER”):
Bonded leather is the Chicken McNugget of leather (sorry McD’s fans – I love fast food, but that sh-t ain’t chicken). You know how all the unusable, inedible parts of a chicken’s body are pulverized, and then reconstituted with fillers and synthetic preservatives / pink sludge to make a food-like McNugget? That’s basically how you make bonded leather.
In making true leather furniture, patterns for the chair backs, sofa arms, etc. are cut out of a hide. After the patterns are cut out, there are a bunch of leather scraps. Bonded leather producers take leather scraps and shred them; then that substance is mixed with chemical binders and plastics to make the upholstery material. Technically, bonded leather only has to be 17% actual leather to qualify. It’s really more of a “leather product” than true leather, the way Kraft Singles now have to be classified as “cheese product” (WOW, a lot of food analogies here).
AND THERE YOU HAVE IT. Now you have all the basic quality and grain vocab to be an informed leather shopper!
Happy Folsom Week!!