How to avoid overpaying for leather products

If you are like me, you enjoy high quality leather products.  As a manufacturer and retailer of leather products, I seek out high quality leather.  Unfortunately, I often see people buying goods made of low quality leather at very high prices.  Following is a brief description of different types of leather and a short consumer’s guide to help you distinguish good leather from bad.

Types of leather

Tanned hides are the full thickness of the animal’s skin.  The hair side is referred to as the “grain”; this was the epidermis of the cow.  The other side is the flesh side.  The grain side is the strongest part of the leather.  The highest quality leathers are full grain, featuring the entire thickness of epidermis and any resulting scars or stretch marks that were on the cow.  COYOTL uses this high quality, full grain leather.  When some of the grain is sanded away, the result is top grain.  Both of these leathers are good quality.  They feel like leather, and they look like leather.

The cow’s skin can be very thick—far too thick to be comfortably worn or turned into products.  So, the hide is passed through a splitter which separates the grain from the other layers.  Layers not containing the grain are called splits.  These are near the lowest quality of leather because they do not have the pleasant feel and appearance of the grain, and they are not as strong because the fibers have been disturbed.  An even lower quality leather, called bonded leather, is the result of reconstituting shredded leather with binders.  It will not be addressed in this blog post.

Because splits do not have a grain, a sufficiently attractive surface must be added.  Splits are often coated with plastic to give them the appearance of leather.  These are sometimes referred to as “genuine leather.”  The coatings have become better and better, and it is often hard to tell full and top grain from splits.  The splits can have a texture that is similar to the grain of natural leather.  They can be outrageous colors, or they can be very natural.  Because splits can be coated over their entire surface with blemish free plastic, they are cheaper.  As a result, splits are used in the vast majority of leather products.

Leather purchasing guide

Look for these features to make sure you are buying a quality leather item (or at least paying a reasonable price for what you are getting):

  1. If it looks and feels like plastic, it probably is plastic.
    1. Leather has a nice soft feel. Trust your experience.
  2. If it is stamped with “genuine leather” it is probably plastic.
    1. If it were “top grain” or “full grain”, the manufacturer will generally let you know that its products are of a higher quality by including these words in its marketing copy and on its products.
  3. If it says things like “never needs to be polished,” it’s probably plastic.
    1. Leather benefits from polishing because it adds fats and preservatives into the pores that are in quality leather. Plastic fills those pores, and therefore it does not benefit from or require polishing.
  4. If it has an extremely uniform “grain” with no variation, it is probably plastic.
    1. Cows are living creatures. They get scars, stretch marks, bug bites, and injuries. Their skin is not uniform. If your product has total uniformity, it is either a very high quality product or it is plastic.
  5. If it is an outrageous color, like hot pink, it is probably plastic.
    1. Achieving very high gloss and outrageous colors on leather is possible, but difficult. If a product has these qualities, it is either of extremely high quality or it is plastic.
  6. If the edges of the straps are sewn together flesh side to flesh side, it is probably plastic.
    1. You now know that the grain is the most valued and expensive part. Sewing something flesh side to flesh side with two pieces of full grain leather is expensive and not necessary. Horse tack, for example, is often made of full grain straps with no sewing. It is very strong. Why are the straps of your purse sewn together? Because they are weak, plastic coated splits that need the strength.
  7. If the edges are a different color than the leather, it may be plastic.
    1. Good leather can be edged without adding color because good leather is tanned and dyed all the way through. Poorly tanned pieces or coated splits are frequently not dyed all the way through. These are white inside. Therefore, they need to be painted in order to conceal this problem. However, high quality leather edges can also be painted for aesthetic purposes. So, the presence of edge painting is not itself a problem, but it may indicated a lower quality of leather.

Finally, the last thing I look for is price.  I am putting this last because some products are extremely expensive even though they are made of low quality materials.  Women’s products seem to lose the relationship between quality and price more frequently than men’s products.  Purses are a good example of this.  Men’s shoes, on the other hand, maintain a reasonable proportionality between quality and price.

In order to establish a baseline of reasonable leather prices, I will start with men’s shoes.  A high quality pair of men’s boots can be had for around $300.  I have a pair of pull-on boots that I purchased for approximately this price.  The outside of the boot is the grain side, and the inside of the boot is the flesh side of a quality piece of leather.  Very good shoes are also lined with leather so that the grain is against the foot.  A pair of dress shoes featuring full grain leather inside and out sells for about $400.  I have other shoes for which I paid only $80.  They are plastic-coated splits on the outside, and fabric on the inside.  They work fine, but are not high quality.  My opinion is that these products are priced correctly based on their relative quality.

Now, let’s look at the price of purses.  If you are buying a purse from a brand with the top of the line reaching into the $6000 range, what do you think your $1000 bag is made of?  It is probably not the same thing as the $6000 bag.  Look at the $1000 bag carefully!  Does it say “full grain,” “top grain,” or anything like that?  If it were full grain, the manufacturer would probably tell you that.  If you research the $6000 bag, it will probably say “full grain”, and the $1000 bag will not.  If the purse is hot pink with shiny black edges, those colors were probably achieved with plastic coating or surface painting rather than tanning the full grain.  You might be getting charged $1000 for a bag that is made of a similar quantity and quality of leather that would command a price of $180 if it were sewn into a men’s boot rather than a purse.  In many instances, these $1000 bags aren’t even made of leather.  They are fabric inside and out, like plastic coated canvas.  Because of fabric’s uniformity, the percentage of surface area that can be turned into product is much higher.  The price should be even lower, but it isn’t.  The one thing that can be said of these expensive purses is that even though the materials are not very high quality, they are sewn together well.  To my mind, however, that definitely does not justify the ridiculous price.  It might be worth it to you to have the brand name, but just realize that you are not paying for top quality materials.

To summarize, full grain leather is the highest quality leather.  You can find products made of this quality leather for good prices.  Top grain is also good, but it isn’t as natural.  If the product doesn’t require tensile strength, top grain is fine.  Genuine leather and splits should be cheaper.  That isn’t always the case, so the information above should help you distinguish good leather from bad so you don’t over pay.20150309_165241_resized