Genuine Leather vs Full-Grain LeatherWritten by Tigre Haller
There is a lot of misconception about what Genuine Leather is - and isn’t. Controversy was caused when a well-known brand stated Genuine Leather was the lowest grade leather, but technically that's incorrect. Contrary to popular belief, the term has nothing to do with the quality of the leather.
Read on to discover more about this material, and other types of leather.
Is there such a thing as Genuine Leather?
The term Genuine Leather was actually used before there were technical pictograms to signify the leather wasn't synthetic (like leatherette, koskin, pleather, vinyl or other faux leathers).
When the norms change icons were developed to indicate what the upper, lining and soles are made out of. For shoes you will find this information on the inside of the tongue.
You need to understand that any type of leather made from animal hide is Genuine Leather. This can also include materials that contain small percentages of animal leather - which could possibly lead to poor-quality.
The term has also been historically used as a catch-all phrase in countries where English isn't the first language.
Why do some people say Genuine Leather is the poorest quality leather?
Some people, including leather experts, might say that Genuine Leather is the poorest quality of leather due to the misconceptions discussed above. Since any type of leather can be classified as “Genuine,” it can include poor-quality leather, or leathers combined with other materials such as polyurethane or plastic.
The tannery will separate a hide into full-grain, top-grain and splits. When it gets down to the split level, the natural fibers are weakest and the structure of the hide is compromised. Tanneries can cover the split with a thick coating or a sheet of polyurethane (PU) to create the appearance of smooth leather. It can also be embossed to look like full-grain leather.
Splits that have been covered with a coating or PU can be recognized by their completely smooth finish, and the PU might feel a little rubbery. Since the natural, organic material has been covered (or smothered) it won’t absorb leather polishes, conditioners or creams. It also won’t develop a patina. With time, the coating will start to wear thin, revealing the material beneath. PU covered splits will start to dry out and crack.
What are the parts of a hide?
To better understand leather we need to get down to the basics. That means starting with the parts of the animal’s hide - in this case an adult cow - whose hide can measure on average between 40 to 50 square feet.
The entire hide is broken down into the following sections:
Bend: Being the thickest part of the hide, the bend is prized for its firmness and durability. The fibers are tight and the structure is solid. Leather made from this section doesn’t stretch too much. It is also highly water-resistant and long-lasting. Averages 9 to 12 square feet.
Neck: This section is good quality, but since the cow leads with its head and neck, it is more prone to blemishes and scratches than the bend. It can also develop natural wrinkles which some tanners might choose to smooth out. Leather made from the neck area can stretch without breaking or tearing.
Back: This area is closest to the spine and includes areas of the bend and the neck. It runs from the top of the shoulders to the lower butt. It is of very good quality, and is known for its durability and longevity. The fibers are still tight and the structure is intact. Averages 28 to 45 square feet.
Shoulder: Supportive of the head and neck, this section is strong, thick, durable and flexible. Averages 14 to 20 square feet.
Butt: The backside of the cow, it is full of tightly packed fibers and extremely tough and strong. Averages 18 to 25 square feet.
Belly: This section includes the underside and upper legs of the cow. The fibers are loose and the structure is weaker than than the other areas. It is stretchy and can be used as a fortifying piece of leather. Averages 5 to 7 square feet.
How is leather graded?
It seems that everyone has an - oftentimes differing - opinion about the grading of leather.
Depending on the tannery’s size, it can receive thousands of hides at a time. Since there’s really no way to examine every one individually at that point, the hides are tanned in batches. The grading usually happens after the hides are soaked and dried.
Now, this is where some of the controversy comes into play. Certain leather experts say that grading has nothing to do with the quality of the leather since any blemishes, holes or other imperfections can either be cut away or smoothed over.
Others say the exact opposite and stress that grading is actually extremely important when it comes to assessing the leather’s quality. Furthermore, it is integral for the buyers (i.e., a manufacturer) to understand what they are buying.
Typically, leather is graded by the tannery on a scale from A to F (just like your grades in school), with A being the best and F being the worst which is usually rejected.
A: The most highly prized and desirable grade. It is pristine, with no imperfections, scarring or markings.
B: This grade of hide is still in good shape and usable with only 5-10% imperfections.
C: A medium grade but usable with between 10-20% imperfections.
D: Lower in quality and usefulness with 20-40% imperfections.
E: Most of this grade will be deemed unusable and discarded with 30-40% imperfections.
F: Most likely this grade of leather will be rejected.
Keep in mind that this grading system is not something you, as the consumer, are likely to see. It is done mostly for the benefit of the manufacturer who will purchase certain grades of leather depending on what products they are making.
Are there differences between Genuine Leather and Full-Grain leather?
The answer to this question is yes and no. That is to say, all leather derived from an animal hide can be called “Genuine,” but they won’t all be “Full-Grain,” which is considered to be the most superior type of leather available.
As discussed in greater detail in my post “What is Full-Grain Leather?”:
“The original grain of the outermost layer remains intact, and you can see all of the pores, scratches, nicks, marks, bug bites and other so-called blemishes. Being the most natural type of leather, it’s also very breathable, highly durable, sturdy and reliable - which makes it ideal for fashioning high-quality leather goods, such as fine men’s shoes. These factors make full-grain the most prized type of leather. Another attractive quality of full-grain leather is that no two hides are exactly the same. A beautiful patina and burnishing develops over time, making your leather shoes truly unique to you. Most high-quality shoe brands only use full-grain leather.”
Genuine leather can include all types of animal based leather, including those made with only a small percentage of hide. As pointed out above, this includes materials that are created by blending the organic matter with compounds such as rubber or plastic.
The most common type of blended leather is called Bonded Leather. Also known as Reconstituted Leather or Blended Leather, Bonded Leather is created by shredding and blending leather scraps or discarded pieces with too many blemishes, then bonding the mulch together with a polyurethane adhesive. The blend is extruded onto a backing of cloth or paper and left to dry in sheets.
Even though Bonded Leather can look like 100% leather, it isn’t even close. Bonded Leather tends to be much less expensive than 100% leather. Although it can appear to be 100% leather, it will be thinner and might feel synthetic.
You can tell the difference between Bonded Leather and 100% leather when:
- The item is considerably less expensive than 100% leather.
- There are no grains, pores or flaws, or the appearance is completely consistent.
- You can detect an underlying color difference or see the shininess of the synthetic material.
- The material feels synthetic or rubbery.
- The material cracks when you bend it.
So, if you come across an item that is labelled as “Genuine Leather” dig deeper to find out what it is made up of. Ask the salesperson:
- What type of animal hide is it?
- What part of the animal did it come from?
- Is it 100% animal hide?
- If it includes only a percentage of animal hide, what else is it blended with?
- If possible, find out its grade.
These are important questions that will help you to judge the quality of the item, if it could be toxic, and how long it might last. You really don’t want to buy something just because it is cheap or looks amazing, only to have it fall apart after a few uses.
You can be sure that all of Beckett Simonon shoes, boots, sneakers and accessories are handcrafted with 100% Full-Grain leather, the best type of leather for hiqh-quality goods that are built to last a lifetime.
Take a look at our collection to see the variety; you should be able to see the hallmarks of 100% leather right away.
Great article! I always appreciate full grain leather in my shoes.