Leather functionalities & characteristics
Know how to make the right choice when buying leather
Making use of animal hides and leathers is intertwined with the history of humankind and probably as old as it too.
Through the ages, working with leather has evolved and become a strong industry sector. Now, the global leather goods sector is valued at US $250B as of 2019*.
Leather processing itself has also evolved and now able to convert into desirable and useful leather products. This covers goods such as leather footwear, leather bags and small accessories including jewellery, garments, industrial fittings and so on.
Mammals are the main source of supply (almost all if not a very large percentage of which is a by-product of the meat and food industries); the hides and skins of oxen, cows, bulls, calves, lambs, sheep, goats as well as pigs, horses, reindeer and kangaroos can be transformed into the leather.
Add to this other animals, whose skin is used in the fashion and creative industries, such as ostrich, crocodile, snake, lizard, stingray, eel and others.
Each species of animal has its own properties, which the tanner will seek to use to its best advantage.
In order to be able to offer a great variety of use for the leather, the raw material is processed in multiple ways and ultimately finished to different qualities that offer multiple functionalities and characteristics.
These, in turn, allow the final leather material to become suitable for different product uses and purposes.
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The below guide outlines the main articles and finishes most commonly found and used in the leather goods fashion and creative industry. There are two main categories of finished leather that is of use and interest to the fashion and creative industry:
Smooth appearance – divided in turn into “box” (firmer bovine leathers) and “nappa” (supple and soft finish leathers).
Velvety appearance – buffed leathers, whereby depending on the material used and leather side buffed, results in many different variety of finished leather articles.
This guide outlines the main leather finishes used in the industry...
This type of finish creates the most natural-looking leather type. This is because a thin transparent finish is applied to flawless (or with very few blemishes) leather hides that have retained their full-grain. The applied solution is coloured with soluble aniline dyes. The transparent solution application allows for the natural grain to remain apparent and the natural texture of the skin is preserved and clearly visible.
Because it doesn't have any pigment-based surface finish, aniline leather is a porous smooth leather and therefore such leathers are more sensitive to light, friction and stains.
Aniline finish leathers are beautiful, unique in appearance and greatly appreciated by leather connoisseurs, but it must be noted that due to their natural finishing, they are more delicate to use and care for.
This type of leather is usually classed as high-grade and with a price to match its status.
Finally, it is also possible to find semi-aniline finished leathers. This type of finish sits somewhere in the middle between aniline and pigmented finish. The skins are more coated than aniline, as the dye used contains small amounts of pigmented dye. Though higher micron count of paint coverage is applied, the skin still has a light surface coating.
This type of finish is the most durable but is less natural in appearance, having a polymer coating. The thickness of the coating can be varied, depending on the raw material quality and the desired end properties of the leather.
Hides of lower quality due to insect bites, scratches and blemishes that do not make the first selection grade, usually are the ones that end up being processed as pigmented. This allows for diverse appearance in terms of colours and easy care, but the downside is that the leather appears less natural.
Because the surface coating allows for more control over the properties of the leather, especially when it comes to resistance to scuffing or fading, this kind of leathers offer an excellent compromise between appearance and aptness for use.
Most skin types, particularly the bovine variety are suitable for this finish and once treated with pigmented dyes, the leather becomes suitable for most practical uses and applications in footwear, leather goods, furniture, clothing, automobile, saddlery, book-binding and others.
Pigmented finish refers to the actual topcoat finish of the leather. But the base raw material can be of various qualities – all important when it comes to price and desired end-use and look of the leather.
These can be as listed below:
FULL GRAIN PIGMENTED LEATHER
Unlike the aniline finished full grain hides, the leather here has entirely retained its full grain and has been then treated with an opaque finish of variable thickness.
This type of finish provides good protection when used and against hazards commonly a result of wear and tear.
Another advantage is that the choice of surface treatments that can be applied to this leather is endless - in terms of prints and colourways.
A downside, however, is that though the base material is real leather, the actual end product looks less real and natural.
Corrected grain pigmented leather
The natural grain surface is buffed to remove imperfections before the surface coating is applied. A decorative grain pattern is then embossed into the surface. This results in a variety of popular printed leathers available on the market.
This type of processing limits the availability of colours – usually, there is less choice and the colours tend to be natural and not as vibrant. One of the best features of vegetable-tanned leather is that it develops a patina over time with prolonged use and exposure to the environment.
Usually, this choice of leather is associated with traditional products like shoes, briefcases, wallets and belts.
Corrected grain leathers are ideal for intensive use end products such as shoes, leather goods, furniture, clothing, automobile and saddlery.
Finished split leather
This type of leather is derived from splitting the middle or lower section of a mainly bovine, buffalo or pig hides. The surface of the split leather receives an opaque, thick finish with a polymer coating and can be further embossed to mimic a natural grain of the leather.
Though the finished look has a similar appearance to those of corrected grain leather, in reality, these types of leather have lower structural properties, due to the lack of grain.
Therefore, finished splits should only be used in low-stress applications. As such, this quality leather is often used for entry-level products, mainly in footwear, leather goods, furniture and some clothing.
Pigmented two-tone finish
All pigmented leathers can have this finish which is achieved by the application of two distinct colours during the finishing process.
The first colour is the main colour and the second is usually of a darker tone and thus creating the desired contrast.
This usually works well with printed leathers where the presence of grooves helps create the colour contrast.
Glazed finish leather
This type of finish uses non-thermoplastic binding agents, that do not soften in the heat, and which give a glazed end finish to the leather.
It is usually used on firm and dense leather, mostly full grain calf, goat and, on occasion, reptile leathers that are chrome tanned.
TRANSFER finish leather
This is a decorative technique that is achieved by transferring coloured patterns onto a pigmented finish grain or split leather.
Patent finish leather
This leather finish is achieved by applying a thin layer of varnish in order to obtain a very smooth, glossy surface.
This finish is a rather delicate and skilful process and not every tannery can do. It requires a dust-free working environment as any accidental micro-dirt is easily attracted to the varnish and affects the final look of the leather.
This leather finish is often applied to calf, goat and cow hides (both to full-grain, corrected grain and split leathers) and the finish can be transparent or pigmented.
This is a variation of pigmented leather finish. It is achieved by adding aluminium powder to the finish, in order to obtain the metallic reflection.
Oiled & Waxed finish
Mostly applied to cow and calf skins, the film-forming finish is replaced by either the addition of large amounts of grease or a wax layer to the surface.
The grease finish is achieved by adding a large quantity of grease to the hot air-drumming process, thus ensuring waterproofness, oily feel and distinctive final appearance.
The wax finish, on the other hand, is achieved by adding colourless wax to the surface, giving it oily feel and an appearance sometimes referred to as pull up leather.
As the colour appearance of the leather lightens when stretched during wear to produce a unique worn-in effect with time.
One downside, however, is that this kind of finished leather is prone to scratching, which affects the overall look of the material.
Many finishing processes that fall outside the above mentioned – such a perforation, laser-cut, embroidery… and many more, are the processes that create decorative finishing. These are often grouped under the term “fancy” and often trend-led finishes.
Antique grain (two-tone or rub-off) is achieved by a contrasting top-coat, which is applied unevenly or partially rubbed off to reveal a paler underlying colour. This special surface effect has been created to mimic the unique 'worn' appearance of traditional leathers.
Aniline dyed leather which has been lightly abraded/buffed on the grain surface to create a velvety finish or nap. In some cases, the grain pattern is still visible. The nap is very fine because of the tight fibre structure in the grain layer.
A split which has been buffed to create a distinctive nap. The nap can vary in appearance, but generally speaking, because of the looser fibre structure, the suede nap is not as fine as the nap on nubuck.
VEGETABLE TANNED finish
This is one of the oldest ways of tanning and processing leather. This is due to the fact that vegetable tanning largely depends on harnessing the power of natural tannins found easily in the plant kingdom.
The vegetable tanning process is a long and artisanal one, taking longer to complete, which is why this kind of leather is more commonly tanned with minerals like chromium.
What makes vegetable tanning so unique is that it allows us to use thicker leather and results in more body and character.
Thicker leathers are usually used for the making soles of shoes, while thinner and softer finished leathers are suitable for upper shoe wear and leather goods.
Vegetable-tanned leather has a characteristic brown colour and due to the tanning process, it is impossible to obtain vibrant, bright colours. It also tends to age better and develops a rich patina over time, not to mention that it also has that classic woody, leather smell.