Leather 101: A Beginners Guide to Leather

Some of the most common questions we get from our customers are often related to the type of leather we use. Our existing collection features Italian Full Grain Aniline Leather with a wax pull up, which admittedly, sounds confusing and cumbersome. Here's how it breaks down:

With so many terms floating around in the marketplace, it can be challenging to determine what it all means. Full-Grain vs. Genuine? Chrome tanned vs. Vegetable tanned? Suede? Bridal? The list goes on! That's why we thought we would help explain it all with our Leather 101 for beginners!

The Leather Production Process 

The leather production process can be categorized into three broad categories: Preparatory Stage, Tanning Stage, and Post-Tanning Stage.

Preparatory Stages

In this initial stage, there are ample pre-treatment components with the most common including preservation, de-hairing, de-fleshing, and splitting.

Splitting is when leather is cut into two or more horizontal layers. Each of these layers represents a different grade or quality of leather.

Photo via @bestleather

Generally speaking, the closer the leather is to the epidermis or the hair, the higher the quality. This is because collagen bundles in the hide are much tighter near the top, which gives full-grain leather that firm texture which is perfect for luggage and accessories. Full grain leather is typically recognized as the highest quality of leather in the worldwide market.

Nubuck leather is a Top Grain Leather that has been buffed to have short and soft protein fibres that give it a velvety feel.

Genuine leather and Suede are the contents of a hide that are split from the grain leather and lay closer to the flesh. Intuitively this makes sense since suede is most commonly referred to as the back side of the leather. Less dense collagen bundles are what give suede its soft texture.

Suede is often referred to as Nappa leather, which is a distinction made due to the nappy texture of suede itself.

Tanning Stage

Then the tanning process is much like the process of taking raw grapes and fermenting them to become wine. The process is designed to change the molecular compound of collagen, the protein found in the skin. Without tanning, a skin would putrefy and degrade due to the exposure to liquid in the hide itself. Essentially, tanning is designed to draw this liquid out of the skin.

Leather Tannery in Morroco

Outdoor Leather Tannery in Morroco via Google

There are various tanning methods that can be used, however, the most common are Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Tanned.

Engineered 19th century, chrome tanning is the modern method of tanning using a heavy metal chromium sulfate. These treatments are typically completed by placing the hides in large spinning drums where a tanning liquid is absorbed by the hide. Using this method, the tanning process normally takes only one day, however, the trade-off is the negative impact this method has on the environment due to the metallic nature of the chromium chemical and acids used in the liquid.

Vegetable Tanning is an ancient, more eco-friendly process that uses oils from vegetation, like bark, to treat the leather hides. This method is far more labour-intensive taking up to three months to complete, hence the higher price tag on any goods made using Vegetable Tanned Leather.

Post-Tanning Stage: Dyeing, Drying & Finishing

Once the tanning process is complete, leather hides are ready to be colored and finished. Tanned hides are tumbled in large drums to ensure dyes are evenly distributed. The two types of dyes most commonly used are Aniline and Semi-Aniline.

Red Wing Heritage Leather Tanning Drums

via @redwingheritage

Aniline dye is a water-based solution with no added pigments or oils. This method is friendlier to the environment and offers a true reveal of the hides natural characteristics and markings. Leather colored with Aniline dye offers a softer finish with a more natural leather feel and smell. You will notice if you run your fingernail over this leather that a mark will instantly appear, which can be buffed out just as easily with your finger or a damp cloth.

Semi-Aniline dyes include oils and pigments which results in a more firm dense finish to the hide.

Once the leather hides are dyed, they can be conditioned with fats and oils to stuff and fill the gaps the hides may still have. Certain leathers like English Bridle are stuffed with hot waxes and oils on both sides of the hide to yield its durability and stiffness.

Leather Finishing Portuguese Tannery Honor Kennedy

Photo via @honorkennedy

The leathers are then hang dried and finished with a protective coating to give it a smooth texture. Some leathers, like the one we use in our current collection, feature a wax pull up, which means it has a waxy finish to give it more durability, a rugged looking finish, and lower maintenance.

Leather Hides

Photo via @honorkennedy

The combination of the Full Grain Leather, water-based Aniline dye, and the wax pull-up finish give each and every product in the monte & coe collection the chance to patina with your lifestyle, exposing the natural characteristics of each hide in lockstep with how you use each product. Enjoy the journey of each product when you #carryuswithyou.

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