Leather : The Various “Grades” and What You NEED to Know!

Make no mistake (and it’s an eye-opening fact for many to sometimes hear) if you are walking in a pair of genuine leather shoes… those leather uppers once walked around themselves. Leather is an animal skin (or hide), predominantly bovine – from a cow or buffalo in the sense of safety footwear. It is a NATURAL material. The largest suppliers globally of safety footwear leathers are India and China. But they are also available from Brazil. The greatest “Leather City” is found in India (known as the leather capital), which has been producing since the early 19th century where British forces made their base. With the cow being a sacred animal in India, buffalo hides make up the majority of the skins available for purchase and converting. Cow is however available in certain states.

Leather is used because it can be cut and shaped with ease. It is strong, light, very supple but most importantly – it breathes! Despite massive leaps and developments is synthetic materials – predominantly for sports shoes, leather remains very popular due to durability and comfort when wearing for long hours.

An animal hide is very thick, and can be broken down into layers (often colloquially called; grades). A cross section of an animal hide will show you the outer layer which was covered by hair – all the way to the inner flesh layer closest to the inside organs. Between that lies the full grain / top grain and split. All are classified as genuine leather.

But what part of the genuine leather are you getting? And that’s what you need to know. After the split, you end up with bonded leather. Bonded leather is comprised of very little genuine leather; more flakes of leather held together with a form of polyurethane of latex for bond (and can comprise of as little as 10% leather flakes).

Now obviously the part that held the skin and hair is exceptionally strong – the epidermis layer. This would comprise of the full grain / top grain. This layer has been exposed to everything from the elements (wind, hail and rain) to fly bites, bee stings and barbed wire fencing cuts. It’s the animals protective layer looking after the insides.

In order to have leathers one can work with – cut and shape – you need to reduce the thickness of the leather once it’s off the animal. Once removed it will swell to around 4mm/6mm in substance. And this is why it needs to be split into the various layers (grades). When one splits the leather – try picture peeling bark off a tree. The splitting process then feeds the thick leather between two heavy and giant metal rollers which are turning and pulling the skin inwards – which have settings to move the rollers closer together or further apart (depending on thickness required). On entering the rollers at rapid speed, the leather skin is met on the other side by a super sharp blade running the length of the rollers – which divides (or splits) the leather skin into separate layers. Ah! The puzzle pieces are falling into place now. The picture is becoming clearer. The top layer is the full grain. What’s left underneath forms the start of the split. Some skins can be split again. This is often where the split is thinned and the fibres and flakes are removed. Those final pieces are compacted and joined with latex to create bonded leather. This is really the closest one gets to a synthetic material whilst still using the word “leather”.

Splits are still incredibly useful and valuable – and are often corrected, to create a finished surface which still looks similar to a top grain quality leather. These are used predominantly on Econo type styles. Others used in areas on the shoe and boot which will be under less strain or impact, as a more natural suede (tongue, trim or panel).

Leathers can range anywhere from 0.8mm upwards. But for safety footwear uppers we need something more robust and hard wearing. Leathers need to range from entry level 1.6mm/1.8mm up to 2.0/2.2mm for the very top end footwear. Thinner leathers can be used for the comfort collar lining and tongue.

And this is where the price variations come into play between econo styles and heavy duty styles. The best hides are reserved for the best styles. As you create a boot with features to withstand harsher work environments, you use stronger (more resistant) leathers. And the Full Grain / Top Grain is the highest quality leather available.

Through the tanning and finishing process, which takes the actual skin on a journey of treatment and colouring we end up with the workable product which is then cut into panels and stitched together to create the wonderful uppers you see on your shoes and boots. The less panels, the more expensive the boots. The more natural looking and feeling of the upper – the higher the grade of the leather. The softer and more flexible, the better the quality. And watch out for those “plumping up” their thin 1.2/1.4mm leather uppers with synthetic EVA type materials. Often easily seen if you look at the raw edges of the stitched panels. Make sure you are getting what you paid for! Breathability is the most important for comfort!

AND… Always look for the LEATHER LOGO, which is an image of an animal skin laying flat on the ground depicting the full hide spread out. No head, no legs, belly and no tail.