Leather is a versatile piece of material that has tons of applications but is mostly used in fashion, accessories, home furniture, and decor. It’s a material made from the skin of animals after it is treated to many processes that refine and beautify it. The elegance of leather products is unparalleled, and this material of choice has lots of benefits, too.
When shopping for leather, you have probably seen lots of leather-related terms that you may not understand. There are so many types of leather available, and it is classified and labeled in different categories. Each type of leather has its own unique qualities to benefit different project types.
If you need a greater understanding of the types of leather so you can make better choices when shopping, here’s a guide to help you.
Types of Leather by Quality
By quality is the most common way leather is graded. In reality, the names refer more to the way the leather has been split and the surface treated rather than actual grades. These variations affect the durability, performance, and overall quality of a leather piece.
1. Full grain leather
Full-grain leather is the best quality leather. This type of leather contains the outer layout of the hide of the animal it was taken from. It is formed by removing the hair present on the skin and hide, and then it is left unpolished and unfinished. Natural imperfections and hide marks are left as they are and become a part of the leather, making every cut unique.
The grain has densely-packed fibers that are finer, resulting in a surface that is durable, strong, resistant to moisture, and can withstand tough use. Because of this characteristic, this leather is not used for upholstery purposes.
Due to its high quality and rarity, full-grain leather is one of the most expensive forms of leather in the market. Since the outer layer isn’t removed, it develops a beautiful patina as the years go by. It’s the only type of leather that ages this way.
2. Top grain leather
The second-highest grade of leather available, top grain leather, is a bit similar to full-grain. Its only difference is it’s split from the top layer of the blemished hide, then sanded and refinished to remove imperfections in the finish. So, this means that it’s not made of the top layer of the hide but the second layer. This makes the leather softer and more pliable.
While the sanding process makes it smoother, softer, and more visually appealing – it also removes a lot of the strength and natural water-repellent qualities of full-grain leather. Sometimes, dyeing and stamping are also done to achieve a uniform appearance in which all-natural markings have been removed. It might be a little bit inferior to the full-grain leather, but it’s good enough for a lot of uses.
Given its flexibility and softness, top grain leather is often used in high-end leather goods, including wallets, handbags, and shoes.
3. Genuine leather
Genuine leather is the third-grade leather produced from the layers that remain after the top is split off for the full grain and top grain leathers. Its surface is usually refinished to resemble a higher grade and a more uniform, corrected appearance. It can be buffed or sanded to remove surface imperfections, then dyed, spray-painted, stamped or embossed to give its final surface appearance. To the untrained eye, genuine leather looks quite like high-grade leather, but it doesn’t age quite well like full-grain leather.
This type of leather is easy to maintain and can last up to several years if properly cared for.
4. Split grain leather
The leather part that is split from the skin of the hide makes split leather. This is a layered cut of leather from within the lower levels of the top grain area above the animal’s flesh or below the full-grain or the top grain cuts. It’s naturally fragile and has many cracks, so it undergoes many leather treatments to make it durable, usable, and attractive.
The advantage of this type of leather is it’s cheaper than full-grain leather. It’s often used for furniture and upholstery making.
5. Bonded leather
Also known as reconstituted or regenerated leather, bonded leather is commonly used in the furniture segment. Bonded leather is like the hot dogs of leather, as it is made up of leather scraps that are finely shredded and bonded together using latex or polyurethane onto a fiber sheet or mesh. It undergoes drying to reduce moisture content. The amount of natural leather in the actual mix may be around 10-90%, thus affecting the functional and aesthetic properties of the finished product.
Because of these properties, some industry experts do not consider bonded leather as real leather, but it’s good because of its comparatively low cost. It is often painted to give it the color, and some are pressed or embossed to create the appearance of a particular grain or leather style.
6. Faux or synthetic leather
Faux leather is not real leather at all. It’s man-made leather made up of synthetic materials, and it usually falls into two main groups: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl).
PVC has become a popular cheap option for car interiors and utility furniture. It’s durable and easy to maintain but not as breathable as polyurethane fabric. PU is softer, more flexible, and can be printed to create the look of leather, but it’s entirely different to the touch. PU is more expensive than PVC but is still considerably cheaper than leather.
Newer synthetic leathers have been created to mimic the chemical structure of real leather. These are produced using petrochemicals that are both non-biodegradable and non-renewable.
Types of Leather by Finishes
When leathers are created, they can be finished in different ways. Here are some of the major types of finished leather:
1. Aniline leather
Aniline leather is a type of leather that is dyed only with soluble dyes that are clear and transparent so that you can see leather in its natural state. Generally, only higher quality leathers are used for this type of finish because they have nice and even surfaces. Then, the leather is finished with a thin protective coating to prevent fast wearing or discoloration of the leather.
2. Semi-aniline leather
Semi-aniline leather is similar to aniline leather as it is also dyed with soluble dyes, but it’s only slightly pigmented. Semi-aniline leathers allow the leather’s natural surface to show through, and it has a light surface protective coating. The added pigment uniforms the coloring but takes away some of the natural elements of the leather.
3. Nubuck leather
Nubuck leather is made of top-grain leather that has the surface brushed and polished so that the short protein fibers produce a velvet surface that is pleasing to touch. Originally made from the hide of elk or deer, nubuck is similar to suede but more expensive. It’s often used in jackets, gloves, accessories, and shoes.
4. Bicast leather
Bicast leather is made from using the split of the hide and is laminated with polyurethane or vinyl on top to make it more durable and hard-wearing. It gives the appearance of shiny leather without the cost of a true full-grain leather piece. This type of leather is good for heavy and constant use because of its protective surface. Bicast leather is commonly used for home decoration and upholstery, but it’s not that suitable when it comes to jackets or even bags.
5. Nappa leather
Nappa is a type of leather made from the unsplit skin of sheep, lamb, or goat. “Nappa” is more of a general marketing term used to refer to soft and smooth full-grain leather. Some Nappa comes from genuine leather, and it isn’t the highest of quality, so the term doesn’t clearly identify the quality of the material. This type of leather is much in demand for making gloves and clothes.
6. Pigmented leather
Pigmented leather is finished with a top coat of pigment or paints to provide an even surface on the leather and act as a protective coating. The topmost surface is sanded to remove any imperfection, and artificial grain marks are added, then it is painted. It is also usually coated with a clear protective sealer on top to protect the pigmented layer. It’s not a soft material because of the heavy layer of paint, but it’s durable. This means it doesn’t absorb water or stain, and it doesn’t fade or have scratch marks. This type of leather is commonly used to make leather shoes. If you’re curious about the other types of leather used for making shoes, read here.
Made using a similar approach to nubuck, suede is created from the inner surface of animal hides – most commonly lamb, deer, goat, pig, and calf. The split hide material is thoroughly sanded to create a soft velvety texture. Suede is rather durable and is cheaper than Nappa or nubuck, but it gets dirty easily and is difficult to clean. If you want to know more about suede, check out its interesting history.
Types of Leather-based on Surface Look
The surface of the leather is treated to create different looks and appearances for aesthetic purposes. Here are some types of leather based on the look on its surface:
1. Antiqued leather
Antique grain is a type of leather treated to give off an aged or worn appearance. Hand-rubbed antiqued leather comes with a mellowed look that involves lots of crushing and shrinking to develop that “fake” patina that you usually get with old full-grain leather.
2. Pearlized leather
Pearlized leather is a type of leather with a liquid layer of color added to the surface during finishing, providing a soft and subtle shine. It has a pearl-like luster that looks great when used on clothing, handbags, and accessories.
3. Patent leather
Patent leather has a high-gloss finish applied through a coating – generally, by using linseed oil. It was developed in 1818 by Seth Boyden in New Jersey. Patent leather finishing is often very noticeable because of its highly reflective finish. Modern patent leather finishes replace linseed oil with a plastic-type enamel.
4. Embossed leather
Embossed leather has raised patterns on its finished hide. Embossing is done by pressing, stamping, rolling, molding, or forming the leather. The embossed elements can be in the form of any designs, patterns, or lettering as a visual enhancement to the leather’s surface.
5. Degrained leather
A smooth type of leather, degrained leather, has the grain layer removed. It has a consistent surface that feels smooth to the touch. Though removing the grain weakens the outer surface of the layer, it is often finished with a protective coating to prevent wear and moisture penetration.
6. Oil leather
Oil leather – also called waxy leather, pull-up leather, or waxed leather – is a type of leather with a more-than-typical amount of oils and waxes in its surface finish. When the leather pieces are flexed and moved, the surface catches the light in various ways due to the reflections on the oils and waxes. This makes any product visually appealing.
7. Brush-colored leather
A brush-colored leather has pigment applied through brushing. The brush creates a unique pattern of color on each piece of leather. It varies in blending, gradient, or overall tone. Brush-colored leather is great for finished pieces that need a distinct and creative effect.
8. Interwoven leather
Interwoven leather is leather that has been braided together. Often applied in belts, the weave of the leather strips or laces creates a unique-looking, textured leather piece. Interwoven leather is also used for making small bags and pouches, or at least, the handles for an aesthetic effect.
9. Double face leather
Also known as double-sided leather, double-face leather has two uniquely finished sides. Some examples include sheepskin leather, where one side is finished leather, and the other side is wool. This label can also be applied to the leather with different embossed surfaces, one on each side. This can also relate to color, with each side being different or unique from the other.
10. Embroidered leather
Embroidered leather is a type of leather that has embroidery applied to it. A pattern or motif is usually embroidered for decoration purposes only.
11. Printed leather
Printed leather has a surface texture printer stamped into it. This is done to create a surface for functional or aesthetic surfaces. For function, printing is done to leather to make it more abrasion or scratch-resistant. On the other hand, printing is done aesthetically to make the leather surface look uniformly pebbled or nubbed. Saffiano leather is an example of printed leather. This type is often used in making handbags, wallets, purses, and the like.
12. Quilon leather
Produced by the Doc Martens footwear company, Quilon leather is a smooth leather finished with a “hair cell,” fine, textured print that gives the surface a unique and stylish look. It was developed in 2007 based on the original Doc Marten leather from the 1970s. It is currently used for making a vintage-style, made-in-England line of footwear.
13. Stretched leather
Stretch leather is usually a composite leather that can stretch when used. It can use a processed leather surface mixed with a synthetic layer underneath to allow the material to stretch while retaining a uniform look. It’s usually applied for clothing or other leather goods that will be worn and flex with movement.
Types of Leather-based on Source
There are times when leather products are labeled as cowhide leather, snake leather, deerskin leather – and any other animals where it was taken from. Generally, when speaking about animal leathers, those from larger animals like cattle are referred to as “hides,” while those from smaller animals like pigs and sheep are referred to as “skins.” In terms of volume, leather from cattle makes up about 67% of the total annual leather production in the world.
Here are some of the most common types of leather based on animal sources:
1. Cowhide leather
This is the most popularly used leather, and usually, leather made from an adult cow is most used. Cowhide leather is quite thick, but at the same time, it’s soft and abrasion-resistant, which works well for most common leather needs. Because this leather is
Other sources of cowhide leather include:
- Bulls – uncastrated male cattle that generally have thick and heavy hides. It’s useful for boot soles and heavy belts. Bulls are low in population, so bull leather is less available than other types.
- Steers – castrated male cattle. These are the most popular type of animal leather sought. There are many other steers kept than bulls, making it more widely available. Leather from steers is used for making saddlery, belts, shoes, and other strap items.
- Heifers – female cows with no calf yet. Leather from heifers is generally soft and pliable, which makes it usable for shoes, boots, and similar leather applications.
- Dairy cows – female cattle bred primarily for producing milk. The hides of dairy cows are usually thin and soft, making them a suitable material for lighter belts, wallets, upholstery, clothing, and straps.
- Calves – young male or female cattle. Their hides are usually very soft, supple, and thin. It’s excellent for finer leather applications such as wallets, watch bands, and small leather accessories like handbags.
2. Deerskin leather
Deerskin is the toughest leather among leather taken from mammals. The physical structure of deerskin is different, as its elongated interwoven fibers give it high strength and abrasion resistance. But despite its strength and durability, it’s soft, supple, and comfortable, with a spongy feel. It’s also very light and stretchy.
3. Lambskin or sheepskin leather
Lambskin and sheepskin leather are hides of sheep and lambs. It’s a popular material because it often has one side as leather and the other covered in wool or fur. Without the fur, they are called lamb leather or sheep leather. Lambskin is often used for clothing. Its softness and warmth make it ideal for winter jackets, gloves, caps, shoes, upholstery, throws, moccasins, and boots.
4. Pigskin leather
Pigskin is very similar to cowhide – dense, with a moderately supple feel, good durability, and breathability. It’s known for its resilience and ability to hold up well against abrasion. It’s slightly thinner than cowhide, so it stays pliable with wear and doesn’t stiffen after getting wet.
5. Goatskin leather and kidskin leather
Goatskin is another popular leather skin because it’s pretty inexpensive, strong, soft, and durable. It has a smooth, fine grain, and its high lanolin content makes it a supple type of leather. Goatskin is a little bit softer than cow leather and is lightweight, flexible, comfortable, and water-resistant. It’s often used in the production of rugs, bags, shoes, boots, and gloves. Meanwhile, kidskin – a soft type of leather made from a young goat – is one of the thinnest leathers. It’s traditionally used for gloves and other fashion such as clothing and footwear.
6. Elkskin leather
Elkskin resembles deerskin leather but is more durable and thicker. It’s soft, comfortable, and supple, even when hot and wet. Typically, it is used for chamois leather for jackets, trousers, gloves, and costumes. It’s also used as a shoe upper for bags. Damage caused by thorns and warble flies is typical for the skins of these animals, regarding them as authenticity features.
7. Horse leather
Horse leather is rare today, but it is traditionally a smooth type of leather used for shoes and clothing. Horse leather is most commonly associated with premium cordovan leather, which is used primarily for high-end shoes. Cordovan leather is made from horses’ buttocks, and it’s very thick, smooth, and dense. Horse butts cover a smaller surface area compared to other hides, which is why cordovan leather products are usually found in small items like gloves, shoes, and small accessories. It’s one of the most expensive leathers because the demand clearly exceeds the supply.
8. Reptile leather
Reptile leather comes from snakes, crocodiles, alligators, and lizards. It’s often used to make expensive shoes and handbags. The difficulty of producing leather from reptiles (due to less stretchy skin and lesser usable surface) plus their exclusivity makes the price higher than cowhide leather. In contrast to cattle, the rest of the animal parts cannot be used for other purposes like food production. And for crocodiles, only the belly and skins of younger animals are processed as leather. This makes reptile leather significantly more expensive.
Since 1976, the threat of extinction prevented the sale of many reptile leathers, and they can only be produced and sold under strict rules. Legitimately sold reptile leather has a seal from the International Reptile Federation. This means most reptile-skinned handbags you would see in the market today are made of faux leather, or some kind of coloring and texture has been added to achieve the look of reptile skin.
9. Exotic animal leathers
Since leather can be made from any kind of animal, there are often various leather types available. They are often considered “exotic leathers” since they are less common and hard to make, obtain, or find. Here are some examples of exotic leather that are not mentioned above: