Leather is the material created by the tanning of the hide of an animal, usually cowhide. After a hide has been tanned or converted into leather, there are a several processes used to make the leather into products we use including shoes, handbags, clothing and furniture.
Each hide is judged on its quality after it has been turned into leather. The highest quality leather is called full grain leather. This leather has not had the top layer or grain separated from the rest of the hide. Full grain leather retains all the grain and attributes of the hide including its strength and durability. It is more ‘breathable’, meaning it does not retain as much moisture after extended contact. Full grain leather tends not wear out but instead, develops a beautiful natural patina which may also include cracking or spliting. Since full grain leather is used for the finest furniture and footwear, only the best hides are used that do not have imperfections. An easy test to determine if an object is made with full grain leather is to lightly scratch the surface. If a light mark or streak is left behind, chances are excellent the item is full grain leather.
Top grain leather is leather that is a grade below full grain leather in quality. Top grain leather is produced by separating the top layer of the hide from the “split”. The top grain is not as thick as full grain leather and thus more pliable. It has also had its surface worked by sanding and a finish applied. Top grain leather has a different feel from and lacks the “breathability” of full grain leather. On the plus side, top grain leather is typically less expensive than full grain leather and is more resistant to staining.
The “split” leather is that part of the hide that has been separated from the top grain. Depending upon the thickness of the “split”, this part of the hide can be split or separated further into thinner layers. Several products are produced from the “split”. Suede is often manufactured from split leather and is notable for the fuzzy surface on both sides. The split is also used to make bicast leather, which is also known as bycast leather or PU leather. Bicast leather is produced by applying a layer of polyurethane to the surface of the “split” leather. The polyurethane layer is embossed so it resembles full grain leather. Bicast leather is used to make shoes and footwear and has gained popularity as a material for use on furniture. Its main advantages are the affordable cost, consistent texture and ease of cleaning.
Another leather product is manufactured from leather fibers and scraps. This product is called bonded leather. The scraps from a tannery or a shop using leather are combined with binders to create a leather material. The binders can be latex or in the case of bonded leather upholstery, vinyl is the binder. The leather fibers make up the backing of the upholstery and the vinyl is embossed to give the appearance of top or full grain leather. Bonded leather is inexpensive to make and is quite durable as an upholstery material thanks to the vinyl binder.