Going with the Grain:
No, we’re not talking about wheat. When it comes to leather, grain actually means the quality of the leather and the way the hide has been treated. Being able to distinguish between leather grains can mean the difference between leather goods that will last you a lifetime and ones that will disintegrate in the next rain storm.
Full grain is the highest quality of leather with a price tag to match. You’ll start justifying the price of that new coat, however, once you see and touch this caliber of leather in person. The easiest way to tell a full grain leather is to check the item for small scars or imperfections in the hide. What seems to be little defects are actually the hallmark of untreated leather that hasn’t been sanded or buffed down, so it will remain strong for years to come.
Top grain is leather that has had the “split layer” separated from the “top grain” layer. These hides are sanded lightly to remove imperfections, which gives this leather a slightly plastic appearance. Top grain wears out more quickly and because it’s been sanded, it will not develop a nice patina with age like the full grain does.
Corrected Grain is leather that has been deeply sanded to remove imperfections, but in the process, loses the grain itself resulting in a flat, dull appearance. Corrected grain hides are often stamped or embossed with a fake grain, for example, the leather used in car upholstery. A leather we can all attest doesn’t age with any particular grace.
Bonded leather is the worst you can buy. Like particleboard, bonded leather is made from leather scraps glued together to create the semblance of a singular hide. The leather’s pieced-together quality means it wears out extremely quickly and cannot withstand any sort of damage. Its low price also makes it a popular option for fast fashion looking to make cheap leather goods.
Picking the Right Thickness:
The thickness of the leather on any product is going to be an indication of its durability and how the item will withstand day-to-day wear. Both thin and thick leather have their advantages depending on how you plan to use it. When shopping for a bag, for example, go for thicker leathers, like cowhide, that looks like it could withstand getting tossed around a bit. In fact, scuffs and stains will only add more character to the bag as it ages. Thin leathers, like lambskin, on the other hand, are great when you’re looking for pieces with a more high-end feel, like a motorcycle jacket or a pair of driving gloves. When buying anything leather, it’s helpful to try to imagine the most common activities you’ll be doing in the piece to give yourself a clearer idea of exactly what you need.
Patent vs. Plastic:
Patent leather is that shiny, slick looking leather that’s mostly found on men’s dress shoes and the occasional bag and accessory. When shopping for patent leather, it’s important not to be fooled by similar looking vinyl or PVC. Patent leather, although it has an almost identical appearance to vinyl and PVC, actually comes from leather, so it’s going to be far more durable and retain its shine and luster well after other plastic imitators have cracked and crumbled. Checking to make sure your patent is real is exactly like checking any other leather for authenticity. Still not sure? Check out some of the faux spotting tips below.
Suede is leather with a napped finish made from the underside of the hide. Though it’s generally soft, thin and pliable, suede is also easily becomes dirty and quickly absorbs liquids, which can ruin the material permanently. So beware this finish unless you feel confident in your ability to maintain the upkeep suede requires, or the bank account to support the dry cleaning habit you’re sure to develop. Also, many fabrics are given a brushed finish to resemble suede, so less experienced buyers can often be fooled. Faux suedes, however, can be detected just as easily as fake leathers, you just need to know what you’re looking for.
Real vs. Fake: Vintage Leather 101:
Look for the Stamp:
Some items, especially vintage pieces, will often feature a gold stamp that brands the item as genuine leather, however, this stamp can fade with time. Checking the brand will also be a good indicator of the leather’s quality, especially if it’s from a brand you recognize that has a reputation of using good quality materials.
Look Where It’s Worn:
This is a surefire way to tell real from fake. Real leather that’s damaged will crack, scratch or develop a sueded edge depending on the level of damage. With faux materials, the fabric will crack and begin to peel away, exposing the fabric’s backing and eventually flaking off in chunks.
Check Out the Hardware:
The better the quality of the hardware, the more certain you can be of the material’s integrity. Hardware that’s real metal and stamped, along with nicer linings such as satin and faille silk, or even leather and suede, are usually indicative that you have the genuine article in your clutches.
The older a vintage item, the more likely it is to be real leather. You can be infinitely more confident that something made before the mid-60s is the real deal as opposed to something made in the past few decades.
When all else fails, do the touch test. As you get more attuned to the feel of good, high quality leather as opposed to cheap, plastic-y knockoffs, the quicker you’ll learn what to look for in a product. Pretty soon you’ll be able to spot fake leather a mile away!
Quick Tips to Keeping your Leather Good as New:
-If your leather gets wet, don’t freak out, let it dry slowly. Breaking out your hair dryer will only cause the material to get stiff and crinkle as the hot air actually changes the hide’s chemical structure. Room temperature air will work better and keep the leather supple, just make sure as it dries to keep it in the shape you’d like it to end up in.
-If your leather gets dry, find a leather dressing or cream you can rub into it. Often, the maker of the leather good will be able to tell you which products they prefer and believe to work best on their products. Just keep in mind that some leathers can come with paint, wax, or oil already applied to the surface, so you’ll want to choose a cream that will work with and enhance what has been used on the hide.
-If leather becomes dirty, simply wipe it down with a damp (not wet!) cloth. Don’t use any soaps or cleaners as the substances or chemicals could negatively react with the leather and actually make the stain worse. For cleaning suede, a suede brush will do wonders, and if all else fails you can always make a quick visit to your local dry cleaner.
-It’s easy to stretch leather out, but just about impossible to shrink it back to where it started. Just think of George Costanza's wallet on Seinfeld! This is a tricky one as leather can stretch slowly over time without you even noticing the subtle shift in fit. Just make sure when buying something like a leather jacket that nothing feels tight or pulls, especially across your shoulders as that can result in awkward bagginess later. For bags, just make sure not to overstuff them, especially when wet.
-Let your leather breath! Never wrap your pieces in plastic even when storing them away. Leather actually needs air and ventilation in order to keep mildew from growing. Mold damage is irreversible and will render your leather product unusable.