What is Full-Grain Leather?Written by Tigre Haller
When you look at something made from leather, do you really know how to determine its quality? It might look great - on the surface - but understanding the tell-tale signs of different types of leather is key to knowing whether or not that item is going to be comfortable, retain its shape, develop character and stand the test of time.
Even though leather can be made from the hide of different animals, such as cows, pigs, sheep and exotics, for this article we will concentrate on calfskin and cowhide.
You will find several types of leather on the market today, such as:
Full-grain: 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.
Corrected-Grain: Just like the name implies, somewhere along the line the surface or texture of the leather has been altered, or “corrected.” The hallmarks of a pure hide, like scrapes and scars, have been sanded and buffed away. This action also destabilizes the natural fiber and structure of the hide. Corrected-grain leather can be embossed with a pattern to simulate the natural pores.
Top-Grain: The top layer of skin is split, then the natural grain is sanded completely away to remove any blemishes, it also degrades the hide’s structure. An imitation grain is stamped on top of the leather, or it is stained, for a uniform appearance, which sometimes looks plasticky. Even though top-grain will be smooth and flexible, since the natural pores have been essentially sealed off, it won’t be breathable, and a patina won’t ever develop. Top-grain can also sometimes look plasticky.
Nubuck: Is a type of top-grain cowhide or calfskin leather where the grain side has been sanded or buffed, resulting in a slight nap of the short protein fibers, and a velvety surface.
Suede: Perhaps best known for its soft and somewhat “fuzzy” appearance, suede is taken from the underside of the hide. Prized for its nappy appearance, suede is thinner and more pliable than other types of leather.
Bonded: This is actually a mashup of what’s leftover from the hide. Shavings, scraps and leather fiber are blended together with a bonding element like polyurethane or latex, then extruded on top of some type of fiber backing. Bonded leather is considerably less flexible or durable as full-grain leather, and is generally not used to make shoes.
Genuine Leather: This is a topic unto itself which I will talk about in detail in a later blog post.
How To Identify Full-grain Leather
Identifying full-grain leather can be a little complicated, but you can do it with a keen eye, patience, and knowing what clues to look for.
Manufacturers who use full-grain leather usually promote the fact with a tag or other indication on the product itself.
Look closely for the natural pores and grooves of the skin (as can be seen in the image above). There should be a variation in color when the leather is bent or folded, and a patina will develop over time. It should also be porous and absorb nourishing agents, such as creams.
Since full-grain leather uses the entire grain and the corium junction (the transition zone between the very fine fibers of the grain and the larger fibers of the middle layer of the hide), the inherent toughness of the hide remains intact. It should be smooth, well-structured yet flexible. This natural material will bend and crease, which is actually a good thing.
Your feet shouldn’t sweat or feel smothered in a pair of full-grain leather shoes. Surfaces that have been painted or sealed with polyurethane will actually seal the pores. They will have a uniform appearance, and won’t absorb leather creams or conditioners.
How Full-Grain Leather is Made
Tanning transforms the thick, rigid cowhide into flexible, durable and pliable leather. Many factors contribute to the quality of the hide including:
- The type, genetics, age and breed of the animal
- The conditions, environment and climate it lived in
- What it ate and how much
- The layer of the hide used
- The part of the body the hide was sourced from
- The tannery it was treated in
The art of tanning has been practiced for centuries, and can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. Of course the process has changed and has been refined since then, but the basics remain the same.
- Generally, before the actual tanning process can begin, the hide is cured with salt to extract moisture to prevent decaying and bacterial growth.
- It is then treated with a solution of lime (from limestone) and other agents to remove hair, proteins, some grease and natural fats.
- The hide is split lengthwise into two sides. With top-grain, it can be split again for “splits” (nubuck and suede as discussed above).
- The hides then soak in large vats or drums filled with tannins for anywhere between several hours to several weeks.
- The next step in the tanning process is to remove excess water in a large vacuum. After which the hides are either stretched to dry on racks or large frames and passed through a special oven.
- After drying, any rough edges are trimmed away.
- Followed by the application of color and a highly refined wax.
- Finally, all of the elements are bonded together under high heat and pressure.
The most common tanning methods are:
Vegetable tanning, the oldest method of tanning and generally involves infusing the hide with a “liquor” made from the tannins of a variety of tree bark including oak, chestnut, mimosa and quebracho. This results in a natural, earthy scent and an excellent quality leather which is also biodegradable. It can be a costly and long process, but well-worth it.
Chrome tanning was developed at the end of the 19th century and is relatively inexpensive, fast and efficient, but requires the use of harmful chemicals, like chromium. The result is a non-biodegradable leather with a somewhat artificial feeling.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Full-grain Leather
As with many things, full-grain leather comes with advantages and disadvantages.
Full-grain leather is considered to be the best quality leather for shoes, sneakers, boots and accessories. Not only is this luxurious material strong, durable and long-lasting, it will become more flexible and develop a personal patina the more you wear it. In the case of footwear, it will also conform to the shape of your foot.
Every piece of full-grain leather is unique. Being a natural material, it’s also highly breathable and biodegradable. Also, it is water-resistant (to a point), won’t crack, tear or peel. It is also easy to care for and maintain (see below for care tips).
Due to its sturdiness, full-grain leather can be subjected to different treatments during the tanning and post-tanning processes to create varieties of leather, such as tumbled, pull-up and pebbled.
Full-grain leather is versatile and is used to make many beautiful objects. It can also be used for virtually every part of the shoe, from the upper to the lining (like the silky smooth Vachetta leather we use), the welts, the heels and the soles.
Since it’s the highest quality leather, full-grain leather can be costly. Sometimes the sturdiness and rigidness can make it difficult to work with. What makes it unique can also be a disadvantage. For example, finding a flawless piece of full-grain leather for wholecut Oxfords, can be difficult and time-consuming.
Full-grain leather can stain easily, and get ruined if exposed to extreme temperatures or weather conditions.
How Long Does Full-grain Leather Last?
Full-grain leather is one of the most durable and long-lasting materials you can find. It can take a beating, get scratched and be thrown around and still hold up. With proper care, conditioning and storage, your full-grain leather garments can actually last for centuries. Seriously. And, they will look even better than the day you got them.
Imagine that… your fine full-grain leather items can actually become family heirlooms.
Taking Care of Full-Grain Leather Goods
Caring for full-grain leather is relatively straightforward and uncomplicated. However, regular cleaning and maintenance is necessary to keep the pores clear and unclogged.
At the most basic level, you can clean off surface dirt with a soft brush or a rag. You can remove light scuff marks and some stains with a solution of diluted soapy water and a clean cloth, then blot it dry with a separate cloth. Then, let the leather air dry.
Never dry your leather goods with a blowdryer, a heater, in the microwave or a conventional oven. Not only is it dangerous, it can cause permanent damage to the leather. Natural sunlight can also damage the leather.
Always make sure your full-grain garments are completely dry before storing them in an area free of humidity and mold.
Stay away from harsh cleaners and saddle soap. Instead you’ll want to use a high-end leather cream and conditioners to maintain the integrity of your items, and extend the longevity. Then use a cloth and / or soft-bristle brush to buff the leather up to the desired shine.
For shoes, you should always use cedar shoe trees after every use. They help to maintain the shape of your shoes, absorb moisture and impart a pleasant scent.
You can read more about caring for your full-grain leather items here.
Calfskin VS Cowhide
Calfskin is light and the grain tends to be finer than cowhide. It also doesn’t have as many marks, scrapes or bites, since it’s a younger animal. However, the mass of skin is less, making it even more prized and expensive. The lightweight, suppleness, durability and flexibility of calfskin makes it ideal for high-quality shoes and accessories.
Cowhide is somewhat thicker, heavier and rougher than calfskin with strong fibers. And, it will have more blemishes. Since it comes from a fully grown animal, the hide will be larger than calfskin. After tanning, a cowhide is durable and flexible. It can be used to make a wide-range of products such as upholstery, clothing, shoes, bags and accessories.
Now you have a good understanding of what full-grain leather is, its benefits, how to identify and care for it. Overall, full-grain leather is the best leather you can buy, and it’s the best material for making high-quality garments.
Click here to see beautiful examples of full-grain leather items