Since the dawn of human history, leather has remained the oldest and most rugged material used to make clothing and footwear. From the primitive moccasins worn by ancient civilizations to modern leather jackets worn by motorcyclists, leather has a great many uses. Leather is a hard-working, versatile material that’s available in many variations, from soft suede to full-grain leather.
In the following guide, we’ve put together detailed information explaining the different types of leather, including the characteristics and benefits of each. We’ve also included some helpful tips on how to care for your leather goods so they will look better and last longer.
Leather is created by tanning animal hide. There are several different tanning processes, each using different methods and materials. Many types of animal hides can be tanned, from buffalo to ostrich to alligator, and all produce a slightly different texture and appearance. About 65% of leather products on the market today are made from cowhide, which is the most economical, due to both the availability of cattle and the size of the hides.
The tanning process converts animal hides and skins into leather by curing, softening and breaking in the raw leather. Two of the most common methods used to mass-produce leather are vegetable tanning and chrome tanning. Depending on the desired finish, a hide may also be waxed, rolled, lubricated, injected with oil, split, shaved or dyed.
Unlike fabric clothing and knitwear, which can stretch out and lose shape over time, leather often molds to an individual’s body over time, providing a more customized fit. Leather does not wrinkle or crease easily and is significantly more durable than most fabrics. Many leathers are breathable and wind-resistant. Leather outerwear and footwear can also be treated to repel water, making them comfortable to wear year round.
When buying leather items, remember that leather is a natural material and nature's signatures will be thoroughly imbedded within it. Healed scars, blemishes and other markings should be considered natural beauty marks that make each item unique. Color variations will also occur. During the tanning process, each hide absorbs the curing liquid in varying amounts, similar to stained wood. Don't think of these variations as defects – they’re what makes each piece distinctive.
This type of leather is made from the finest raw material and has not been sanded to remove imperfections. Full-grain leather leaves the natural grain completely intact, providing the greatest fiber strength and durability. This material is very durable and ages well, gaining a weathered appearance over time.
This variety is made from slightly lower quality raw materials compared to full grain leather, but is still considered a good-quality product. Top grain leather typically has all the natural grain removed and an artificial grain applied. Although it is less durable, top grain leather is more supple and softer than full-grain leather. One side will be smooth and the other side will be textured. Top-grain leather can also be embossed to give it the appearance of a more exotic material, such as ostrich.
Unlike top-grain leather, suede is made from the lower layer of a hide, which is then sanded or brushed to add additional texture. Most suede is made from cowhide, although doe suede, goat suede and pig suede are also available. Suede is less durable than full-grain and top-grain leathers, but much softer and more pliable. Because of its softness, suede is a great choice for lightweight footwear, jackets and other garments. However, suede should be treated with a DWR finish to minimize stains and damage from dirt and moisture.
Although it has an appearance and texture very similar to suede, nubuck is actually top-grain leather that has been sanded or buffed to produce a velvet-like outer surface. Nubuck is more durable than suede and is often colored or dyed to cover up the sanding process. Like suede, it’s a good idea to treat nubuck with a DWR finish to provide added resistance to dirt and moisture.
Shearling is created from sheepskin or lambskin that has been tanned with the wool still attached to the exterior surface of the hide. Once tanned, most commercially produced shearling goes through a special trimming process that creates a consistent length of the wool for a uniform look and feel. Shoes, boots and slippers made from shearling usually feature the wool on the inside and the tanned hide on the outside, which makes shearling footwear, mittens, hats and outerwear very warm. Sheep shearling also contains lanolin, a natural substance that is good for the skin.
Traditional buckskin leather is made from deer or elk hide that is carefully scraped, dressed with a fatty solution, stretched and smoked. This process creates an extremely soft and supple finished product that is ideal for making apparel and footwear like shirts and moccasins.
Patent leather is a type of natural or synthetic leather that has been varnished or coated to create an extremely smooth, glossy and almost glasslike exterior surface.
When a product is labeled "Genuine Leather", it’s usually made from one of the following types of leathers. Products made from these types of leathers do not hold up as well to the strains of frequent use and should be purchased only if you plan to use the item occasionally.
Disclaimer: All cleaning methods discussed in this guide should be tested on an inconspicuous part of the garment before application.