Ask a Factory: What Type of Leather Should I Source for My Project?

In our last few articles, we’ve shown you where leather comes from, how it’s made, and the different types possible. And while all of this has built a solid foundation on which to understand and appreciate the material, there is still one last piece of the puzzle to finding what leather best suits you.

What tends to matter most to people when they look at leather can be divided into two broad camps: aesthetics and workability. On one hand, approaching the material from the perspective of the end user brings the visual and tactile aspects of the leather into focus; mainly how it looks, feels, and wears. And on the other hand, considering the physical qualities of the material itself allows one to determine a product’s ease of construction, durability, quality, and maintenance.

As leather became more widely-used, so too did the names for qualities, textures, and finishes that were sought after. Different industries focused on specific characteristics that they found more appropriate, more unique, or more functional, creating many terms for the slight nuances of a particular physical or visual trait. As trends and fashions changed, variations on these finishes and textures arose, fell out of popularity, or even shifted from one application to another.

Though many of these terms are still used in a variety of industries like fashion, upholstery, and interior design, it’s not always clear to an outsider what they mean. So, to complete our educational series, and give everyone a leg up when working on their own projects involving leather, here’s a basic glossary of terms to help you learn what finishes, qualities, and preparations best suit you and your products.

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Leather Qualities to Consider When Sourcing

Body – Body refers to the overall feel of a piece of leather. When you take ahold of a hide, the way it rolls and compresses in your hand, its weight and density, its buttery soft or round quality – all of this is to define the general warmth and softness of a piece of leather, a good quality to consider when using leather in more tactile applications like handbags, clutches, and other small accessories.

Boardy – A description used when leather comes out more stiff and rigid. Useful in some applications when the leather doesn’t have a support structure or material, but undesirable in others when you need something soft or round.

Drape – The quality when leather is soft enough to droop and sag under it’s own weight.  Usually sought after in apparel or accessory applications.

Hand – Hand refers to the physical feel of a leather’s surface; how much drag (friction or resistance) can be felt, how smooth or rough the texture, how coarse or fine the suede.  Usually one of the most tactile and luxurious aspects of leather.

Weight – Despite what it sounds like, weight refers to the thickness of leather, measured either in ounces or in millimeters. Depending on the end use, the weight can affect everything from the physical heft of a product to strength and durability.

Grain – Similar to wood, leather has a natural patterning caused by the particular type, breed, and lifestyle of an animal. Cow, goat, pig, sheep, and every other different animal has a unique and inherent texture. Modern technology now allows manufacturers to produce one type of leather (cow) with numerous grain patterns from other animals. Different grain patterns offer a range of both visual and tactile textures without affecting other qualities of the leather.

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Roundness – A quality of leather that describes how it folds and bends when being handled.  When hides curl or bend with a little resistance, they prevent creases from forming, giving the products they are used in a warmer body and a sturdy character.

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How Leather Finishes & Preparations Affect Your Product

Finish – The process of applying anything to the surface of leather after it has been tanned is called finishing. The majority of leather produced today has been finished to some degree, either with plastics or silicones to give them durable and water-resistant surfaces, or with pigments and dyes to even or change the leather’s color. Obviously an important consideration for both the visual and functional aspects of leather.

Embossed – Leather that has been imprinted with anything other than its natural grain pattern. Anything from geometric or woven designs to other more normal or exotic grain patterns can be embossed onto leather given the right equipment.

Glazed – Leather that has been smoothed and shined up considerably, creating a very flat and durable material with a glossy look. This adds both durability and a highly-polished look to whatever accessories, apparel, or furniture it’s applied to.

Nubuck – A particular type of suede where the grain of the leather is roughed up lightly to create a very fine fuzz/nap. A much finer suede than normal, typically sought after for applications that will be handled frequently.

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Hot-stuffed – The process of impregnating leather with oils, waxes, and/or resins to give it a stiffer, more durable surface with water and scratch-resistant characteristics. Typically used for more functional applications like saddlery or hardware cases, it’s also incorporated into accessories with more utilitarian designs.

Milled – Leather that has been softened mechanically, largely used in apparel, upholstery, and accessories when more pliable, supple material is needed.

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Printed – Compared to embossing, printed leather has a pattern applied only to the surface without altering the physical texture. Printing on leather allows for a wide array of visual patterning without significantly affecting the usability of the skin itself.

Pull-up – A type of leather produced with a lot of oils, allowing for an impressive depth in the color and character of material. As the hide is worked and handled, the oils move around to reveal the natural color of a hide, creating a unique two-tone effect.

Suede – A method of preparing the surface of leather to have a soft, fuzzy quality. With varying degrees of texture from fine to rough, suede can be useful for applications ranging from highly-trafficked seating upholstery to refined handbags or interior installations.

Check Out The Complete “Leather 101” Series: