Ever get confused by stuff called "leather", yet it is much less expensive than other stuff called "leather"?
This little article should help...
First, when you see “Genuine Leather”, it is leather or it is fraudulently labeled. However, the best leathers will probably not use that label, and the “best” may not even be more desirable for the product. But this label is a signal to beware because it may be used to mislead. After reading this article, you will be equipped to make better buying decisions. And ask the sales rep some tough questions! (Note: If they don’t know the answers, that’s another clue…)
Full-Grain and Top-Grain Versus Split Leather
Almost all leather hides are split into two parts. The surface layer, the layer closest to the animal’s hair, is called the top-grain layer. The lower layer is called the split layer.
Full-grain leathers, which include both layers, are the most desirable for many things. This is the skin with the hair removed, tanned, and usually not otherwise altered (except for dying). The natural markings on the hide are attractive, and so it is not necessary to correct the surface appearance of the leather in any artificial manner. Top-grain leather is slightly less desirable. Split leather is another step down (but not bad—read on).
Full-grain and top-grain leather are about equally durable, but full-grain is higher quality. Either of these may also be labeled “fine leather”.
Belting leathers are the premium level of full-grain leathers. They were developed in the industrial age as a source of belts to turn pulleys, which gives you an idea of their impressive durability and performance. Today some of the finest personal leather goods, business cases, and luggage products are offered in belting leather, for the consumer who is looking to enjoy a product for an entire lifetime and then pass it on to their child. Premium grade belting leather takes on a rich glow or “patina” as the leather ages. If properly cared for, belting leather improves with age.
However, this leather may not be the most desirable choice for apparel because of its thickness. Except, of course, BELTS.
Top-Grain or Corrected Leather
When a hide has a lot of scars or insect bites, these undesirable markings may cause it to be classified top-grain instead of full-grain. The surface may be "corrected" to hide these marks and give it more appeal; it may be buffed, sanded, plated, or embossed with an artificial pattern. Some of these patterns are meant to simulate the best full-grain leather markings while other embossed patterns make the hide look like genuine alligator, ostrich, snake, or lizard.
Split leather is more affordable than top-grain or full-grain leather and consequently has many applications. It is the underlying layer that is split off from the surface layer. Because the split layer doesn't have the marks or scars that give the hide the natural look of leather, it can be much more difficult for the consumer to tell whether the product is leather or synthetic. Also, split leather is never as durable as top-grain or full-grain leather, and your split-leather product will not last as long.
Naturally, a split leather product will be far less expensive than one of full-grain or top-grain leather.
There are many ways to give split leather a desirable appearance. The most common is applying a polyurethane coating, along with plating or artificial markings to simulate the better product. Naturally, a split leather product will be far less expensive than one of full-grain or top-grain leather. This is the key to three important ways this product is useful in apparel.
First, because it has a synthetic coating, it can be made weather proof and with much less care than full or top grain leather. Second, it can be made into many “faux” skin patterns, similarly to top grain, such as ostrich or alligator. Third, it is very affordable and therefore practical for normal wear by normal folk.
Leather with a polyurethane coating is called “PU Leather” and…
This is where ambiguous marketing comes in to make “Genuine Leather” misleading. PU Leather is still leather and it is often labeled “Genuine Leather” and may lead the buyer to think it is one of the higher grades of leather.
The next step down in quality is bonded leather. Bonded leather comes from the collected waste products of leather processing, reconstituted to create a less expensive alternative to better leather (think particle board vs wood). Bonded leather is also embossed with natural leather-like texture to give it more appeal. Many affordably priced Bibles, book bindings, diaries, photo albums, and slim pocket agendas are made of bonded leather.
It is not commonly used (if at all) in apparel. I’ve included here because I’m a bit compulsive.
An entirely different product is imitation leather, aka artificial leather, aka vinyl leather, aka PVC leather, aka faux leather, aka man-made leather—you get the picture. Synthetic. (ever notice how synthetic stuff usually gets so many names?)
PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, a polymer resin. PVC resin is used as the raw material to produce PVC artificial leather straight up, and it is usually not appealing for wear. When combined with non-woven fabrics, PU resin is used as the raw material to produce PU leather, also known as the synthetic leather. Polyvinyl chloride was the first type of fake leather to be created in 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that artificial leather was invented that had pores and could breathe. Pretty important in most apparel. Obviously, this is the least expensive, and it is also usually the least durable, though it may be completely washable with normal detergents. You may want to consider your comfort and your health before wearing a PVC leather. I’ll tolerate it in my furniture, but probably not much else.
Imitation leather cannot lawfully be labeled “genuine leather”. So, there’s that at least.
Well, that's it for this little helper. I hope it aids you in sorting through your buying decisions and remember that we will always tell you the straight skinny on our products.
Remember to let your friends know if this was helpful, and have fun in the Needful Things Company store. There is always something there to discover!
www.reference.com is a good place to learn more, from which much of this material was sourced.