You just spent a small fortune on some new shoes.
They looked dapper for about five minutes.
Now they're peeling like the cow died of sunburn.
What kind of trash did you waste your money on?
And what can you to make sure it NEVER happens again?
Quality is everything when it comes to leather. It's easy to take a costly misstep in a minefield of unfamiliar terms.
Today I'm going to give you a clear breakdown of exactly what to look for in good leather, and a translation of all the lingo. The focus will be on leather shoes, but you can use this guide when you're buying leather jackets, bags, and belts too.
Leather thickness is measured in ounces. One ounce is 1/64” thick. For comparison, this means that 4oz is as thick as a quarter coin.
Just like your skin, a hide isn’t the same thickness all over, so it’s usually measured in ranges, e.g. 4-5oz. The thicknesses typically used in leather dress shoes are as follows:
Upper – 5oz
Lining – 1oz
Outsole – 12oz
Insole – 14oz
Leather gloves range from 2-3 oz, while work gloves can go up to 6oz.
Leather jackets range from 2.5oz for fashion leather, through 3-4oz for a sturdy motorcycle jacket, to 5oz for a full grain jacket.
Motorcycle vests range from 3-6oz.
The layers of leather correspond to the layers of an animal's skin. Think back to that skin cross-section in your high school biology textbook and you'll know what I'm talking about.
- The grain is the thin surface layer of skin – the epidermis. It's smooth and waterproof, with a recognizable skin texture.
- The junction between the grain and the corium is counted as its own layer.
- The corium is the middle layer of skin – the epidermis. This is the tough, fuzzy part of the leather.
- Underneath that is flesh – you won't be wearing this part.
The quality of a leather garment or shoes is based chiefly on which layers it uses. Only three kinds of leather are generally considered good quality. From the top down (literally and metaphorically):
#1. Full Grain Leather
- Commands the highest price (and the most respect); used in the best quality dress shoes.
- Uses the grain and the junction.
- You can see the pattern of the skin, and sometimes marks and scars from the animal’s life.
- Strong, breathable, and develops a beautiful patina with age.
#2. Top Grain Leather
This one often confuses people, and with good reason.
- It's not top quality.
- It doesn't comprise the top of the grain. In fact…
- The top of the grain is sanded off. This removes imperfections and makes it thinner and more pliable.
- A finish coat is then added. This makes it more stain-resistant but less breathable, and instead of developing a patina, it just gets scuffed.
- Nubuck is a version of top grain leather that's been buffed to a velvety texture.
- Made from ‘split leather’ – the corium and junction left behind after making full-grain leather.
- Has a fuzzy texture, called the ‘nap'.
- Softest and most pliable, but also the least durable and least resistant to water and stains.
Below these three are the leathers I don't recommend buying:
Corrected grain leather is lower quality top-grain leather that's been heavily buffed (so it's lost a lot of its surface) and then embossed with a fake grain.
Genuine leather translates to ‘the poorest quality leather we can get away with.' If something is marked ‘genuine leather', don't buy it. It's usually made of several layers from the very bottom of the corium (left over from making good leather), bonded together with glue. It won't last long, and the layers are likely to come apart.
Below this is reconstituted or bonded leather. This consists of scraps of leather mashed into a pulp and spread over a fabric backing. It gets de-constituted and unbonded really fast. If your leather is flaking and peeling, that's probably what you've got.
Have you ever thought about which parts of the animal go into which parts of your leather goods? Every part of the hide has a different quality and different uses.
– The face, cheek, and shanks (legs) are some of the lowest quality parts of the hide. They're rarely used.
– The shoulder tends to have some wrinkles from the animal's neck folds. It's used for belts, bags, gloves and less visible shoe parts like tongues, insoles, and counters (a piece of leather placed inside the back of the heel to strengthen it).
– The belly (as we all know) is the stretchiest part. This makes it difficult to work with, but it's often used for cheap gloves.
– The rear produces poor quality leather, often used for linings. You'll remember that these are the thinnest parts of a shoe, at about 1oz thick.
– The bend is the central part of the hide. This leather is the best quality and most durable. It's used for jackets, belts, saddles, shoe vamps (the front part of the upper, the most visible part) and outsoles.
If you're an animal-loving guy and you're wishing you HADN'T thought about which parts of the cow go into your leather goods, you'll be happy to know you can get good quality vegan leather shoes these days.
#4. Leather Quality Grades
Leather grade numbers refer to the quality of leather from different layers of the hide and are used to determine pricing. There’s no single industry standard. Different manufacturers use different systems, and some even use letters. Here's an idea of what’s typical:
- 1st Grade – Best value, uses the top 13% of the hide. Close-fibered and water-resistant
- 2nd Grade – Good value, uses the next 30% of the hide.
- 3rd Grade – Doubtful value, 32% of the hide. Absorbs water and swells up.
- 4th Grade – The bottom layer of the hide, only good for a part of the item that is not exposed.
#5. Types Of Leather Finish
There are three types of leather finish. Again, we'll start with the most sought-after first.
Aniline leather is treated only with soluble dyes, so you can still see all the details of the leather. Aniline dyes are only used with full-grain leather.
Semi-aniline leather has a light translucent coating of pigment that makes it more waterproof but still shows detail. This treatment is used with full-grain and top-grain leather.
Finished leather has an additional opaque layer of pigment under this coating. This is used with top-grain and split/corrected grain leather, but not with full-grain because you want to see the natural surface.
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