Types of Leather

Become an expert on all types of leather used in fashion! DIY projects included!

How many types of leather are there?

Leather is a staple material in fashion. It is often a synonym of luxury and exclusivity.

It hasn’t always been like that. It started as a raw material used for the mere protection of the cavemen who were the first to realize its various benefits.

Through time, humankind came up with many ways to treat leather for different effects and functions.

Nowadays, there is a wide range of types of leather which is in constant growth. 

As technology in fashion continues to be employed for sustainability and cruelty-free standards, the types of ‘new’ leather keep being discovered. You begin to see new oxymorons like vegan leather.

Vegan leather materials
Image source: Top Vegan Shoes

The ABC of leather and history pills

Before delving into the types of animal leather and answering the question of what are the different types of leather of synthetic and natural origin, knowing something from the past of this material is a must.

Some terms related to leather are also useful to know first.

Glossary

Tanning = the treatment that transforms the perishable skin of an animal into an ‘immortal’ water-resistant, usable and breathable leather. 

This happens when the animal surface gets in contact with certain substances causing a chemical reaction that will dry out the skin and permanently bond its fibers.

Hides = skin of bigger animals like cows and horses before it has undergone the process of tanning.

Skin = 1. raw state of smaller animal’s epidermis (like sheep, goat, etc.)

           2. external three-layered tissue split during the tanning process. 

The products of this process are the Full Grain layer, the Top Grain layer, and the Split Leather layer (see below).

Grain = the very top layer of the skin. 

Smooth, resistant and dense. It presents scratches, scars, imperfections caused by its exposition to the elements.

Corium = thick inner layer of the skin made of slack collagen fibers. 

Underneath, there is the flesh.

Grain and Corium junction = epidermis’ layer placed in between the grain and the corium where one melts into the other.

Did you know that…

    • the earliest type of tanning from prehistoric times was vegetal? Even wild berries could act as tanning agents! Any vegetable source of astringent tannin can do the trick (barks, plants, roots, fruit skins etc.).
    • another ancient way of tanning was spreading animal oils (fats and even….brains! Eww!) on the skin surface and let it dry? This would make the leather water-resistant and soft.
    • tanning was also done by smoking the skins and hides? The smoke of fresh wood contains aldehydes that prevent putrefaction.
    • even armours could be made with leather? Romans made their amours treating two layers of leather with wax and essences which made them black.
    • the decoration of leather originated in the East? It caught on in Europe towards the end of the Middle Ages.

There are countless techniques to ornate a leather surface: painting, incision, embossing, pyrography, mosaics, chisel work, and many others!

    • the first innovation in the selection of new tanning agents occurred in the 19th century? The new mineral materials that could transform skin and hides into leather were chromium, aluminum, and zirconium salts. 
    • turning hides and skins into leather has always been a practice of recycling? Hunting for food and the modern slaughtering industry produce waste. 

This waste can become a byproduct to be redirected to the making of clothing, accessories, and furniture, instead of increasing the slaughtering exclusively aimed at leather making. 

Types of leather cuts

The quality of leather depends also on the spot of the hides and skins it is cut from.

Types of leather
Image source: World of Leathers

Here are the different types of leather cuts, ordered by the highest quality. These sections can be cut individually or in larger pieces like by sides or even as a whole hide.

Bend/Butt

It is considered the best cut because fibers are dense in this section. This means that the leather taken from the bend will be the strongest and most durable, thick, and with few imperfections too. 

For the same reasons, it is also difficult to give it shape. It is used for accessories and tools that require strength and resistance like belts and saddles.

Shoulder

Leather coming from the shoulder section is high quality.

It is slightly softer and more elastic than the bend cut thus easier to mould too.

It presents more scratches and creases which could need buffing and sanding to make its surface smooth.

Belly/Shanks

Fibers are very stretchy, soft and the skin here is thin to ease movement for the legs and expansion and retraction of the animal’s stomach.

Even though it isn’t a high quality cut, it can still be employed for several uses.

Types of leather grades

Grading leather considers the conditions of hides and skins at their raw state (before the tanning process).

Depending on their conditions or their ‘grade’, they will undergo different treatments (like buffing, sanding, etc., see below). 

What is under focus in the grading system is the amount of imperfections on the skin, produced when the animal was still alive. These can be:

    1. holes (from pitchforks, horns, etc.)
    2. scars (from barbed wires, surgeries, etc.)
    3. neck wrinkles
    4. marks
    5. creases
    6. colour variations
    7. insects bites
    8. fire-brands
    9. dung marks

Leather processing faults
Image source: Eurofins

First grade

It is top-quality leather. It has hardly any important imperfections in visible spots. 

The lightest treatments are used for natural effects (like aniline, see below). 

It is the most used in the leather industry.

Second grade

They have few and small imperfections, placed in spots easy to cut away to have a hide still good for production.

Third grade

The 10 to 20 percent of the hide surface has imperfections. They should be easy to cut away so as to have a still good portion of the hide to work with.

Fourth grade

Hides and skins of fourth grade cannot be used for leather goods. It is considered waste. This might be employed in other ways.

Five types of leather or the different types of leather quality

During tanning, the skins or hides are split. In this list, you will find the different layers produced by this splitting process.

They are listed following a top-down order according to their position on the epidermis and quality because the first influences the second.

What types of leather are there?

Full grain

The most external layer of the skin with its hair removed. It maintains its original grain because its surface hasn’t been modified in any way.

It is the toughest layer and it isn’t homogenous. Any item made with full grain leather will be unique. It’s perfectly imperfect!

Full-grain leather is used for items that need high resistance like furniture, shoes, and luggage.

Full grain leather
Image source: Mahi Leather

Top grain           

The second highest quality layer. It’s almost the same section of the epidermis but the top is polished for a homogeneous effect which prepares the leather for any desired finish. 

It can also present some leftovers of the corium which didn’t come off during the splitting. 

It is less resistant than the full grain but softer, so easier to mould.

Top grain leather is used for luxury handbags, accessories, and shoes.

Natural leather grain
Image source: Leather Dictionary

Genuine

A low-quality leather. It doesn’t indicate any layer in particular but given its low quality, the inner layers from the corium are mainly used. It goes through heavy treatment.

This type of leather isn’t as strong as the top ones so items made of genuine leather are cheaper and will have a shorter lifespan.  

Like the top grain, it can present several finishes (see below). 

Genuine leather is used for leather accessories like belts, shoes, handbags at a low price.

Genuine leather
Image source: 123RF

Split grain/Suede

Suede and its variations are types of soft leather. They’re made only with the internal layer of the hide, the corium.

It’s soft and easy to give shape to. This is why it’s also much less durable than full and top grains.

It isn’t smooth and doesn’t have grain but it does have a characteristic velvet texture obtained by sanding its inner side. 

Suede is used for a wide range of products. Because it’s so soft, you can find suede clothes like jackets and trousers.

Scuba suede habano
Image source: Zittana Textil

Bonded

Made with all the waste leather obtained from the production of the previous ones and mixed with other materials. 

The scraps are glued together with polyurethane or latex and spread on a sheet. The amount of leather can vary. 

You can’t say it’s the best type of leather whatsoever: its look is quite artificial and sometimes it can’t even be considered actual leather.

Bonded leather can be employed for several uses: cheaper accessories, furniture, or as a filler.

Bonded leather fabric
Image source: Fabric Discovery Engine

Different types of leather sources

One can source leather in three ways:

    1. from animals
    2. from plants
    3. from synthetic materials

The first, as we have seen, is the most ancient one and so far it has been the most common for a long time. 

The second has been developed over the 20th century to popularise the use of leather by decreasing its prices. 

The third one is being constantly researched nowadays to face environmental issues. Alternatives are ever-increasing.

These are the ‘ingredients’ leather can be obtained from.

Animals

The most common ones are:

    • Cows and other types of bovine (calf leather is known for its softness)
    • Sheep
    • Goats  
    • Horses
    • Pigs

The most exotic and rare leathers are made from:

    • Crocodiles
    • Snakes
    • Giraffes
    • Zebras
    • Seals 
    • Sharks
    • Kangaroos

Different types of leather
Image source: Hats by the Hundred

Plants

Ground-breaking and sustainable materials to make vegan leather are:

    • Pineapple leaves
    • Apple peels
    • Cork
    • Banana plants
    • Kelp algae seaweed
    • Mangoes
    • Cactuses 

Apart from preventing harm to animals, these options prevent harm to the planet as well!

Apple upper pam leather
Image source: Apple Leather

Synthetic materials

Synthetic materials often used for faux leather are:

    • Polyurethane (PU)
    • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
    • Waste plastic

These aren’t breathable for the skin and their production is harmful to the environment.

Artificial leather
Image source: Fibre2fashion

In addition to these types of leather, there is also the type called eco-leather or bio-leather. It is animal-based (so a ‘classic’ animal leather so to say) but it is produced in environmentally conscious ways. These can be: 

    • a production devoid of the use of toxic chemicals (to tan, to dye, to soften, and to finish the final product) that pollute the planet and make the leather nonbiodegradable, and that uses less water;
    • recycling old leather items from fashion, furniture, cars, etc. to make a new fabric.

8 types of leather finishes

Now that you know what are the types of leather acting as a support for our clothes and accessories, let’s see how they can be decorated!

Their finish is how their surface appears after the tanning process and it depends on whether the leather is painted, coated, woven, embossed, and so on. 

These will give different types of leather textures and different style aesthetics. 

Here, you will find listed the most characteristic and recognizable finishes as many terms you find in the world of leather overlap in meaning or are so general that they do not indicate anything, often misleading the buyer.

Aniline leather

Leather that is dyed with aniline must be full or top grain without important imperfections

This is because this kind of soluble pigment-free dye, which should be non-toxic, showing the natural grain and marks of leather for a natural effect.

Aniline leather fabric
Image source: Chambers Natural Products

It isn’t waterproof or greaseproof, it fades with time, and it scratches easily.

Pigmented leather

This is the opposite type of aniline leather. Here, a heavy coloured topcoat is added to the leather so the original grain and texture aren’t visible. This top layer is embossed with patterns that replicate the skin surface.

Blue leather fabric
Image source: Haute House Fabric

Its homogeneity and vibrancy give a less natural look. It is easier to care for and more durable.

Patent leather

The patent leather has a super glossy finish. 

The first versions of it were devised in England and the USA between the 1790s and early 19th century. The treatment consisted of a mix of several oils and caoutchouc.

With its popularisation around the second half of the 20th century, patent leather shoes became a classic staple in everyone’s wardrobe. 

Its cost decreased thanks to the use of synthetic materials coating the leather and making it glossy and waterproof. 

Types of leather finishes
Image source: BuyLeatherOnline

With the rise of synthetic leather as well, nowadays patent leather most often doesn’t come from an animal hide.

Metallic leather

It is made of top grain or buffed leather because it needs to be smooth. A metallic foil is added to the surface. It can be left as it is or embossed with a pattern.

Metallic foiled leather
Image source: Fabrics & Fabrics

The leather can have a metallic effect also thanks to topcoats with metallic shimmer.

It isn’t waterproof so it needs extra care and the metallic finish could fade and scratch.

Embossed and debossed leather

This type of leather finish presents tridimensional designs or patterns that can be blind (not painted) or painted. 

These are created by compressing the leather piece in stamps which raise or sink the leather sections covered by the motif. 

It can be all over the surface, or just a detail like a logo. 

Top grain and lower qualities are often embossed with patterns replicating animals’ skins, like crocodile, giraffe, and so on.

Embossed leather fabric
Image source: Barbarossa Leather

This kind of leather decoration has a long tradition and can be applied to other materials as well, like paper, wood, and metal.

Engraved leather

Like embossing, engraving is an antique way of ornating surfaces, not only leather. It can be confused with the previous finish, but their difference lies in that when engraving you cut into the surface. 

You carve it and so you remove a bit of leather. 

Types of leather textures
Image source: Pinterest

Waxed leather

Also known as pull-up leather, grease leather, or vintage leather.

It is tanned, buffed, or sanded, and then it receives a top layer of grease of some sort (oil, wax, or fat) which can darken the original colour of the leather. 

These oils can also be pigmented. 

This treatment makes it soft and smooth but also sensitive to scratches, liquids, and stretching.

Ponte wax pumpkin leather
Image source: Tatra Leather

With use, it creates a patina which is the main charm of this type of leather. Where the leather folds and stretches, its grease fades and shows the lighter layer of the original surface.

Most of the time, only good-quality leather can have these types of leather textures.

Printed leather

This type of leather has a design or pattern stamped on its surface. High-quality and low-quality leathers, animal and vegan leathers can be printed.

There are various ways leather can be printed:

    1. Digital printing
    2. Screen printing
    3. Pyrography (burning the graphic onto the leather)

Watercolor herringbone printed leather
Image source: Frog Jelly Leather

DIY projects with leather

OK, now that you are an expert in all things leather, go on and create!

Your local fabric shop should have at least some leather options to purchase or recommend places to go if they don’t have a stash. 

You could start with synthetic leather and then, when feeling more confident, treat yourself with some top grain leather, if not the full grain! 

Online it is also easy to find eco leathers and vegan leathers to be creative in a sustainable way! Plant-based leathers cost more or less like animal leather.

If you want to know more about textiles because you want to mix fabrics in your next project, read our article on sewing fabrics.

Before continuing, make sure you have a look at our guides on how to sew and learn to sew

For all the budding sewists out there, just help yourself to our guides for beginners on the SuperLabelStore blog:

If you already have your share of experience handling thread and needles or your sewing machine, then you may want to get fresh ideas from the articles on advanced sewing techniques and intermediate sewing projects.  

In any case, don’t forget that your creations are an important expression of your creativity and style and so they should shout to the world that their creator…it’s you! Create your custom woven label on SuperLabelStore!

Design your own clothing label group
Image source: SuperLabelStore

If you don’t know where to start and want to know what options you have, check different types of woven labels.

You can customize hang tags and care labels as well! 

Here are some projects you can do with types of leather fabric:

Wallet

The first project is a DIY leather wallet! 

You don’t need expensive professional tools…you can rummage in your house and find simple objects that will help you create a simple and practical wallet! 

Just follow this video tutorial (you can even enjoy its nice ASMR sounds). As you can see, the types of leather stitching aren’t impossible at all!

Leather plant pot

This other project is for your home decor! Your plants too want to be stylish, why shouldn’t they??

Follow the instructions on Home Talk to create this stylish leather jacket for your plants. 

DIY leather plant pot sleeves
Image source: Home Talk

Homemade leather dye

Apart from being a nice rhyme, this project allows you to be independent and in full control of the selection of colours for your leather projects and make the planet rejoice for your environment-friendly choice

You can use your homemade dye for the leather creations you make from scratch or to refresh your older garments.

Again, you can make your dye with random ingredients you have at home, or that you can easily find in your nearest supermarket or DIY shop.

Follow the instructions on eHow!

Homemade leather dye
Image source: Pinterest

Fold-over clutch

A leather clutch is a must! You can play with the colour combination of the leather fabric and the zipper. You can go smart or funny with it, but always unique!

Follow the tutorial on Say Yes!

Leather fold over clutch
Image source: Say Yes

To sew leather with the sewing machine you will need to change the needle! If you need help in choosing the threads for your project, check the article sewing threads types and tips

Leather lunch bag

It is another version of a clutch but inspired by an everyday banal object like the groceries paper bag.

The combination of elegance, given by the leather, and the ordinariness of this recognizable shape from popular culture makes you want to make and possess it right away!

Five types of leather
Image source: Pinterest

You can!

Pick the type of leather you prefer, the colour and finish you like, grab a paper bag for your template (you will certainly have one…who doesn’t??), and follow the instructions on Le Fanciulle

You can leave the edges straight or enhance their likeness to the paper bag by cutting them with pinking shears.

If you aren’t sure about DIY home decor, accessories and fashion yet, read our 10 reasons to start sewing clothes, you will surely find inspiration to sew any kind of object!

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