Is It Leather

Everything You Need to Know About Leather

Leather is part of our everyday lives.

That’s why leather manufacturing is such a huge industry: approximately 1.4 billion animal hides were used in global leather production in 2020. That’s equivalent to one animal for every 5 humans on the planet! The result is the production of over 20 billion square feet of leather annually.

Leather comes from any country in the world that raises animals for meat and/or dairy. China is the world’s largest producer of finished leather, followed by Brazil, Italy, Russia, and then India, Argentina, South Korea and the U.S.

Leather comes from any country in the world that raises animals for meat and/or dairy. China is the world’s largest producer of finished leather, followed by Brazil, Italy, Russia, and then India, Argentina, South Korea and the U.S.

It is wrong to think that cows are killed just for their hides to make leather, or that buying leather or wearing leather is cruel. Unlike fur, which comes from animals that are bred and killed so their fur can be worn, leather is a by-product of the beef and dairy industries. Every country in the world produces cattle as a source of meat and dairy for domestic use and export cattle hides, known as the “raw material” from which leather is made.

The best raw material in the world is produced in northern Europe. Most of the leather used in the U.S. originates from the U.S. or South America.

Leathermaking is one of the oldest industries in the world, dating back to 1300 BC.

Leather hides are a natural material that will decompose in their natural state. They are preserved by the tanning process, during which animal hides are transformed into soft, pliable leather through a series of chemical treatments.
Many of the steps in tanning and finishing the hides are accomplished by immersing them in a liquid chemical bath that is contained within a rotating drum. In the first of these processes, the hides are washed and soaked to remove excess salt and foreign substances and to restore the fibers to their natural condition so that they will readily absorb tanning agents.

Tanning is achieved by saturating the hides with tannins, molecules that bond with proteins and draw out liquid. The two most commonly used tanning solutions are vegetable tannins and mineral tannins. Chromium sulphate solution (“chrome”) is the most popular mineral tannin – it is typically used for upholstery and garment leather.

Vegetable tannin is extracted from the leaves, bark and wood of local trees. The hides are suspended in vats containing the tanning solutions, where they are left to soak. The resulting leather is firm and thick. Most shoe soles, luggage, handbags and belts are made from vegetable tanned leather.

a man dyeing leather red
Chromium tanning was developed in the 19th century to speed up the tanning process, make the hides more flexible and supple, and prepare them for being dyed. This type of tannage is carried out by using chromium sulphate, a mineral salt which penetrates the hides rapidly. The hides are tumbled in huge rotating drums partly filled with a chrome salt solution for up to 24 hours.
Chromium tanned leather is resistant to the effects of harmful air pollutants. In addition to being efficient and cost-effective, chromium tanning results in a thinner leather that has high stability, strength, softness, and flexibility, as well as excellent dyeability and color fastness. It can be dyed into an unlimited array of colors, which makes it particularly desirable for upholstery and fashion.

Finishing determines the final look and feel the leather, and protects and enhances the surface appeal of the leather. It also minimizes the appearance of blemishes, without sacrificing the leather’s hand.  The way in which the leather is finished depends on its intended use.
Dyeing involves applying the desired color to tanned leather by adding coloring agents. During the first phase of the finishing process, the hides are placed in rotating drums, into which dyes are added through central tubes. Aniline dye has the ability to enter the leather and bond with its fiber structure. It can take up to 24 hours for the hides to completely absorb the aniline dye.
After being removed from the drum and dried, any hides with surface defects, such as healed scars, are mechanically buffed with abrasive paper to “correct” the grain. Full-grain leather, or leather that does not require cosmetic buffing, is polished with a velvet wheel. Finally, the hides are passed on a conveyor belt through a spray line where they receive a topcoat spray with a different degree of coating, which perfects the color and adds topical protections.

The final processing step involves plating the hides under high heat and pressure to smooth the surface of the coating materials that have just been applied. Usually, the surface of the plate is mirror-smooth, but sometimes an engraved plate is used to produce a particular embossment, or a pattern designed to mimic the natural grain of leather that replaces the natural texture which has been removed during the buffing process.

There are different types of dyes used to color leather, both during the drum process and as a superficial topcoat.

Most leather is dyed both all the way through and superficially. The problem with coloring leather hides superficially is that the color can crack or peel, or, if scratched, will reveal a different color underneath. When tanning was first discovered, there was no known technique to get the dye to permeate the entire hide. But in the 1850s, aniline dye was invented.

Aniline dyes, which are water based, have the ability to enter into, and bond with, the fiber structure of the leather, allowing it to be dyed all the way through.

The aniline dyeing process is accomplished in rotating drums (a process called “drum dyeing”), into which aniline is added. The hides are tumbled for up to 24 hours as they absorb the dyes. When they are removed from the drum, they are 100% dyed through, and as close as possible to the final color. In modern tanning, virtually all leather, regardless of its quality or its use, is aniline dyed in the drum as a means of dyeing the leather entirely.
During the finishing process, which starts after the hides are aniline-dyed, the hides receive their final characteristics, including color, texture, sheen, and amount of protection, which are determined by both the state of the hide itself and the ultimate use of the leather. The process consists of operations performed on the surface of the leather to confer the desired appearance and characteristics, and to prepare the leather to be made into the final production.
When the hides are removed from the dyeing drum, they are not yet “finished.” Some types of leather do not receive a topcoat. These are referred to as “unfinished,” “naked” or “pure aniline” leathers. Examples are suede and nubuck, which have a nappy texture.

Most leather needs to be “finished.” First, the hides receive a topcoat to perfect the color and receive protective agents by being sprayed in a mechanical spray line.

The topcoat consists of either pure aniline dye, which will give the hides a transparent coloration, pigment (oil-based dye), or a combination of the two, which is known as “semi-aniline.”

Aniline: The hides are sprayed with aniline dyes which are absorbed into the skin, resulting in a natural look and elegant hand. Only the best quality hides can be topcoated with aniline.

Semi-Aniline: The majority of the hides on the market today (up to 90%) have visible defects and blemishes on the surface of the skin. In that case, pigment, an opaque, oil-based dye, is mixed with aniline to disguise the visible defects. The combination of some pigment is the best of all worlds: it helps the leather retain much of its natural beauty while protecting it for daily use.

Pigment: Pigmented leather is leather whose surface has a finish containing pigment particles that render the finish completely opaque. Pigment actually coats the leather, rather than enters into it, creating a uniform coloration. The primary reason for its use is that is covers, or disguises, defects. But it also offers excellent protection.

Real leather, also known as 100% leather and genuine leather, is made from animal hides or skins. Fake leather, also known as PU leather, vegan leather, and artificial leather, is made from synthetics and do not contain any animal parts.

Real leather, also known as 100% leather and genuine leather, is made from animal hides or skins. Fake leather, also known as PU leather, vegan leather, and artificial leather, is made from synthetics and do not contain any animal parts.

Real leather has many advantages. Every hide is unique and created by nature; no man-made material even comes close. Some of the advantages of real leather include being durably, long-lasting, appealing to the senses, easy to maintain, and is breatheable. It also becomes more valuable over time and is a renewable resource.   

There is a common belief that man-made leather has advantages over real leather because it is more eco-friendly. In fact, synthetic leather can be quite harmful, because it is petroleum based, made with polyurethane and does not decompose in a landfill. Here are some of the ways in which real leather is a superior product:

·   Lasts longer

·   Looks more natural and beautiful

·   Smells and feels nicer

·   Decomposes in a landfill

·   Does not peel or crack

·   Isn’t toxic when burned

vintage leather driving gloves

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between real leather and fake leather. Here are a few tests you can do yourself to determine whether your leather is authentic or man-made.

Inspect the Tag

Check the tag/product information. It may say “genuine” or “real” leather. Keep an eye out for fake leather names such as faux leather, vegan leather, PU leather, pleather, an “man-made.”

Inspect the Pattern

Because real leather is a natural material, each hide is unique, with a texture that varies throughout the hide. Its surface has an irregular pattern with a lot of variation. Fake leather is stamped to give it the appearance and texture of real leather. As a result, it has an artificial-looking repeat pattern.

Touch the Leather’s Surface

Real leather feels a little bumpy and uneven, and is warm to the touch, while fake leather feels cold. When you apply pressure with your finger, real leather will stretch and wrinkle, whereas fake leather will retain its rigidity and shape.

Pinch the Leather

Real leather is thicker than its fake counterpart. It should not crease when you pinch it. But when you fold or pinch synthetic leather, a visible fold line will appear.

Inspect the Backside

The backside of real leather is rough and feels like suede. Synthetic leather is backed with a synthetic smooth material that may be shiny and is a different color than the surface color.

Inspect the Cross Section

The edges of real leather are rough and uneven, whereas the edges of man-made leather have no visible strands or fibers, appearing clean-cut. Real leather should be dyed all the way through, so you should see a lighter version of the topcoat’s color throughout the cross section. On the other hand, fake leather’s interior will appear layered, with a different color in the middle and on the bottom.

Lighter Test

Real leather will not burn when it’s held to a flame for 5 to 10 seconds, although it may darken or char slightly. Artificial leather will quickly catch fire and smell like burning plastic. Make sure you take all necessary precautions if you decide to perform this test!

Smell Test

Real leather has a pleasing, earthy odor, while fake leather often smells like plastic and chemicals because it is made from PVC.

Loupe Test

Use a magnifying glass to inspect the surface of the leather. Full grain leather has peaks and valleys as well as hair follicles. Fake leather appears flat and uniform.

There are many types and grades of leather. Some leathers perform differently than others. Read on to find out more about the leather you purchased, whether it’s a jacket, handbag, pair of shoes, sofa or a seat in your car.

There is a reason why some leathers are more expensive than others. Leather is at its most valuable when it is as close as possible to its natural state. Leather which has undergone many processes such as buffing and embossing is usually worth less. Here’s a quick run-down of the different grades of leather.

Full Grain Leather

Full grain leather is the outer cut taken from the hair side of the hide from which nothing except the hair has been removed.” If you look at full grain leather with a magnifying glass, you will see a three-dimensional landscape with peaks and valley, and little pinholes which are the follicles from which the hair has been removed.

Full grain leather, which is leather in its untouched, natural condition is the most valuable, and the best quality, of all leather. Only 10 – 15% of leather on the market is full grain.

Corrected Leather

The more that is done to leather, the less it is worth, because each process the leather undergoes takes it one more step away from its natural beauty.

Up to 85% or more of the hides available on the world market have unsightly defects and blemishes and need to be “corrected.” Also called “buffed” leather, corrected leather has had its top surface removed by an abrasion process. The result is a clean, smooth grain surface. This process also removes the visible hair follicles.

The hide is then embossed with an artificial “leather” pattern to replace the natural texture that has been removed. This process stiffens the hide.

Top Grain

Sometimes leather manufacturers don’t use the term “corrected” to refer to leather that is buffed, or not full grain. They might instead use the term “top grain.” This term can be misleading, because “top grain” doesn’t indicate whether the leather is full grain or not; sometimes it’s a euphemism that really means “not full grain.” It’s confusing because the grain itself is the “top” of the leather, so using the term “top grain” is at best redundant.

The average thickness of a cow’s hide is approximately ¼” (4 mm). It’s too thick to upholster furniture or make a jacket with. In order to make the hide thinner, the hides are split via a mechanical procedure into 2 or 3 layers: the top layer, or grain split, and the bottom layer, or flesh split, which is often split again into two layers, yielding a total of 3 layers.  
The average thickness of a cow’s hide is approximately ¼” (4 mm). It’s too thick to upholster furniture or make a jacket with. In order to make the hide thinner, the hides are split via a mechanical procedure into 2 or 3 layers: the top layer, or grain split, and the bottom layer, or flesh split, which is often split again into two layers, yielding a total of 3 layers.  

The grain split, the most valuable part of the hide, is cut to a pre-determined thickness based on the ultimate use and aesthetic of the leather. For upholstery, it must be between 1.00 mm and 1.4 mm; for clothing, between .5 mm and .6 mm and for leather belts and shoe soles, over 2 mm.

Grain Split or “Top Grain” Leather

A leather’s grain is the surface, or visible outermost layer of the hide, which is the most valuable part of the hide. Its fibers are dense and tightly woven. The side of the skin facing the meat of the animal is called the flesh side. Suede is the center split of a bovine hide, showing fibers on both sides. One of the two surfaces is buffed to produce a suede-like effect. Cowsuede hides average 15 – 18 sq. ft.
genuine leather shoes
a pair of mens suede chelsea boots


Sometimes called “sueded” or “brushed” leather, nubuck is the full-grain, aniline dyed surface of the cowhide. Like suede, it is aniline dyed in the drum, but does not receive a topcoat, therefore putting it in the family of naked leathers. After being dyed, it is buffed (or brushed) with fine sandpaper to produce an elegant nap. It is more expensive than suede because it is a grain leather.

Bicast or Split Leather

The term “split leather” is used to describe the second and third cuts of a hide. Unfortunately, split leather is sometimes called “genuine leather,” a term used to describe lower-quality split leather.

Another term for split leather is bi-cast leather. It’s made by applying a layer of polyurethane to the horizontal middle split of the hide, and then embossing it to make it look like “real” leather or an exotic skin such as alligator, ostrich or snake.

orange faux leather sofa
Image of different leather material

Bonded Leather

Also called reconstituted leather, bonded leather is made from a layer of shredded leather fibers combined with a rubber or polyurethane binder and glued to a paper or cloth backing. It is then embossed with a leather-like texture. It generally consists of 10 – 25% leather.

There’s a lot to know about leather. Even some knowledge, will give you an advantage when the times come to invest in leather for your personal use.


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