As a leatherworker, many of my friends and family members send me product pages to help them determine if an item is worth it. Too often, I see lower-cost leather goods using the term “genuine leather,” confusing those unfamiliar with the industry. I have been looking at how the term has taken over to better understand genuine leather.
Genuine leather is a catch-all term for any item that uses animal hide. It is nondescript and can be used for low and high-quality leather. The term is popular when marketing items, as those unfamiliar with the industry see it as a sign of quality despite a lower price tag.
With genuine leather being a common term used for commercial items, let’s look at what it actually means and what to look out for.
What Is Genuine Leather?
Genuine leather is a catch-all term for any and all leather made from animal hides. The term does not refer to the quality of leather nor the amount used but rather is a mark of authenticity. “Genuine leather” is often seen on lower-cost leather goods as it helps customers choose between real or artificial leather.
However, this may cause confusion as one may think it is a mark of quality when more information is needed. Currently, “genuine leather” is seen as a mark against a product, as those using quality leather will often proudly display it. Despite this, the term is nondescript, being used for high and low-quality leather items.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Genuine Leather
- Genuine Leather Overview Table
- Understanding Types of Leather
- Full Grain vs. Genuine Leather
- Top Grain vs. Genuine Leather
- How Genuine Leather Is Made
- How To Identify Genuine Leather
- Pros of Genuine Leather
- Cons of Genuine Leather
- Examples of Items Made With Genuine Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft With Genuine Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Genuine Leather
- Genuine Leather Care and Maintenance
- My Personal Research Into Genuine Leather
- Helpful Genuine Leather Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
The term “genuine leather” is often mistaken for a mark of poor quality. Since stores often do not disclose what type of leather they use, genuine leather is seen as a way to trick consumers. While this practice does happen, it is the least effective when determining leather quality.
Any and all leather can be called “genuine leather”; therefore, some products will use high-quality material and fall under this category. To better understand what is being sold, it is best to feel the material and, if possible, research the manufacturers. Only then will you know what exact leather is used for an item.
By relying solely on industry terms, there is potential for quality products to be passed on due to a misunderstanding of what was being sold. In addition, since top grain and full grain leather can be low quality, it is possible to purchase products labeled as such that will perform worse than “genuine leather.”
History of Genuine Leather
Genuine leather has been used as garments and other rough items since the Stone Age. As technology developed, so did the way leather was made, finding new ways to tan leather and split a hide into multiple parts. This change opened the industry up for more variance in quality, but the leather remained real animal.
Although there is no way to tell when the term “genuine leather” was invented, it is said to have been used during the creation of PU leather in the 1950s. At the time, receiving goods had to be properly labeled, which was a way to distinguish fake leather from genuine leather. The term “genuine leather” remains today and is often seen in more budget-friendly leather products.
This is a way marketing may try to obscure the materials used in the product. While many suggest this is for nefarious reasons, there are plenty of items labeled as “genuine” using hide-quality leather. The term is a catch-all for all animal hide products but carries negative connotations regarding leather quality.
Genuine Leather Overview Table
|Full grain||Any leather hide that has not had its surface removed. Showcasing the natural markings of an animal.|
|Top grain||Any hide that has been altered by removing the surface layer of the leather. Removing the natural markings to create a more uniform surface.|
|Split grain||The underside of a hide is often considered the leftovers from the leather-splitting process; has an artificial coating added to it to bond the fibers together.|
|Bonded leather||Leather created by mixing leather shaving with an artificial material to create a hide.|
|Genuine leather||A catch-all term for any leather made from animal skin|
Understanding Types of Leather
From the supple luxury of full-grain leather to the budget-friendly appeal of bonded leather and the weather-resistant toughness of top-grain leather, each variant has something unique to offer. Here are the most common types of leather:
- Full grain – Complete animal hide with no alterations to the surface. Often containing blemishes, but is most durable.
- Top grain – Animal hides with a small part of the surface removed to create a uniform look and are blemish-free but not quite as durable.
- Split grain – This is the flesh side of an animal created when removing the surface. It has an artificial coating added to preserve the structure. Blemish-free but lacks breathability and durability.
- Genuine – A marketing term often used to describe low-quality leathers. Genuine leather can be made of any grain type or bonded leather.
- Bonded – Man-made leather created by mixing a stabilizer with leather shavings. It is blemish-free but is not breathable or durable. Typically, the lowest quality of leather.
In this informative video provided by Tanner Leatherstein, we see a quick look at different leather types, providing examples of each leather to help explain the differences.
Full Grain vs. Genuine Leather
Genuine leather is a general term that encapsulates all leathers. This marketing decision helps companies obscure their materials but does not always mean the leather is bad. On the other hand, full grain leather is a specific leather type that has been left natural.
At the tanneries, the hair of a hide will be removed and nothing else. This will produce leather with many natural markings and dense fibers. Full grain leather is often more durable than others and is a good sign of a quality product, as these hides are often more expensive.
Top Grain vs. Genuine Leather
Like full grain leather, top grain is a specific type of leather. Top grain is any leather with its surface adjusted by removing the hide’s surface. Cutting away the surface removes the blemishes that may have been present. However, the leather loses some durability since the surface is the most dense part of a hide.
Top grain leather creates a uniform leather better suited for light-wear items. Genuine leather can be any hide, including top grain. This means there is no standard for how a leather hide might look and behave. Since genuine leather is highly variable, further quality tests are required before making an informed purchase.
How Genuine Leather Is Made
All genuine leather begins with harvesting the skin from various animals. This may be done as a byproduct of the meat industry or as targeted hunts. As soon as raw animal skins are removed, they are salted for preservation and transported to tanneries worldwide.
At the tannery, the hides must first be washed free of salt, dust, and debris before the hair is scraped off. These newly clean skins will then start the tanning process by being placed into vats, or drums, filled with various tannins. Each tannery will have its proprietary formula for preserving the leather, which will affect the final outcome of the leather.
Once the hides have been preserved, they are dried to be prepared to accept color. The dying process can be done in many ways, but typically, the leather is added to another drum with color to penetrate the hide fully. After a hide has been colored, it may also have a finishing coat added, helping protect it from wear and tear, but this is not necessary. This coat can be made from waxes, oils, or even a polyurethane finish.
How To Identify Genuine Leather
While it is often difficult to identify leather without cutting a product open, there are a few ways to check if it is genuine leather. Trust your sense, as they will tell you a lot about a product very quickly. Real leather feels soft and smooth and may contain wrinkles or other texture changes. If the product feels like plastic, it is a sign the leather may be fake.
Another great test is to smell the leather. Genuine leather will have an earthy, woodsy, and potentially slightly musky smell. Fake leather will smell like plastic or have no smell. Finally, the last way to identify leather is by carefully looking over a piece.
Leather, especially exotic hides, will have natural markings, and pores that can help prove their legitimacy. Much like trying to spot veneer on furniture, look for repeating grain. A too-perfect hide is often fake, especially when dealing with exotic leathers. Inconsistencies, pores, or unique markings are all good signs that the leather is genuine.
Currently, the term “genuine leather” is seen as a mark against a product, as those using quality leather will often proudly display it. Despite this, the term is nondescript, being used for both high and low-quality leather items.
Pros of Genuine Leather
Genuine leather has remained a staple of luxury since its invention, being used in everything from fashion to safety equipment. Although advances in other materials have been made, leather remains a top choice for a wide variety of goods. Pros of genuine leather include:
- Extremely versatile and varied characteristics
- Natural look and feel with one-of-a-kind markings
- Extremely durable and wear-resistant
- Repairable, helping to extend the item’s lifespan
I.Kráľ, F. Schmėl, and J. Buljan, from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations that assists countries in economic and industrial development, headquartered at the UN Office in Vienna, Austria, discussed the potential future for leather as competing alternatives continue to advance.
However, they see leather alternatives competing with other materials, listing leather as a standalone that would most likely remain used for fashion and luxury goods. This shows the value of leather as a material — one that is unique and difficult to replace.
Cons of Genuine Leather
Leather may be a great choice for many products but may not always be the best. Genuine leather requires total care to make the most of it, while the ethical concerns make the material polarizing at times. Cons of genuine leather include:
- More expensive than many other popular materials
- Requires consistent periodical maintenance to upkeep
- Not waterproof and may be easily damaged as a result
- Requires the use of animal hides, both from byproducts and targeted hunting
Examples of Items Made With Genuine Leather
Genuine leather is a versatile and popular material used in producing various items due to its durability, comfort, and timeless appeal. Here are some examples of items commonly made with genuine leather:
When You Might Leathercraft With Genuine Leather
Leathercrafting with genuine leather is a versatile and creative hobby or profession that can be pursued for various purposes. Here are some common reasons why someone might engage in leathercraft using genuine leather:
- When looking to create a highly durable product
- When wanting to use natural materials for a unique look
- When looking for a versatile yet durable material
- When creating a luxury item with a long lifespan
Tips for Leathercrafting With Genuine Leather
Leathercrafting with genuine leather can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby or profession, but it requires attention to detail and skill to produce high-quality items. Here are some tips to help you succeed in leathercrafting:
- Always use sharp tools when crafting to ensure safety and clean work
- Practice various techniques on scrap leather before attempting them on a project
- Treat each step with patience and care to hone various skills
- Choose the right weight for a project, as leather that is too thick or thin may cause unforeseen difficulties
My Personal Research Into Genuine Leather
Since genuine leather is a marketing term that does not properly disclose the quality of the leather, there may be big differences between products. For my research, I decided to see the potential differences between belts marked as genuine, cutting them open to uncover what the grain looks like inside and applying my experience to roughly determine the quality.
Inside the Belts
All the belts I looked at were $30 and under. I tested two dress belts, one padded and a casual belt. The casual belt felt most like genuine leather to me and had some exposed fibers around the sizing holes that led me to believe it was real. After cutting it open, this proved true. This was a single leather piece that had a very small layer of grain but was otherwise real.
Next, I looked at the padded dress belt with a fake suede material in the back. Cutting it open, I found three distinct layers. The first was a very thin layer of genuine leather that would be seen on the front of the belt. The padding seemed to be a recycled paper-like material.
This strip of material not only raised the leather but provided the structure of the belt. The final layer was a fake suede, which made up more than a third of the thickness. This belt seemed to use much less leather than the casual belt.
Finally, I looked at the dress belt with no padding. From the outside, I was unsure about the material. The belt was very stretchy, and the edges felt like plastic. However, when I cut it open, two pieces of leather were being used. The genuine leather made up the front and back of the belt, covering a similar hardened material found in the padded belt. The plastic feeling on the edge of the leather was a mixture of glue, and paint that attempted to simulate patina.
When looking closer at the casual belt, it was clear that it was top grain leather with most of the surface removed. The belt itself was covered in wrinkles due to loose grain, and the color applied was only surface-deep. Scratching away at the leather revealed loose fibers and a slightly blue color, indicating chromium tanned leather. Overall, the leather was on par with what I expected for the price.
While the padded leather belt did not have much leather to examine, as only the surface of the belt was genuine leather, what I did see was decent quality. Most of the leather piece used was from the grain portion of the leather. This meant the material was more dense when compared to the casual belt.
The padded leather belt was also top grain but came from a nicer hide. There were no wrinkles on the belt, and scratching away at the surface revealed color throughout. Though much less real leather was used on this belt, what was used was decent quality.
The final belt, the dress belt that did not have padding, was by far the most disappointing out of all of the leathers. While it was still real leather on the front and back of the belt, it was split grain leather with a coating. While there were no wrinkles, and the dye was consistent, scraping away at the surface would immediately begin to peel up large areas of the belt. This belt was solely made to look nice and would not hold up over time to surface damage like the others.
Looking at various genuine leather products around the same price point showed me a lot about the way a manufacturer may approach the material. They seem to use filler products and lower-quality leather to keep the price point down. More money may need to be spent for those looking for a quality product. However, some companies seem to understand the desire for a nice-looking leather belt without the cost and provide that by using less leather overall.
Genuine Leather Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Genuine Leather
Cleaning genuine leather will often require leather soap. To clean genuine leather, follow these steps:
- Dust leather with a horsehair brush to remove most stuck-on debris.
- Add leather soap to a small bowl with water.
- Test the soap on a small hidden area, which may cause unwanted reactions.
- If no reaction occurs, apply the soapy mixture to the leather using a clean cloth. When building a lather on the leather, it is essential to use small amounts as it may become oversaturated.
- Wipe off any excess.
- Set aside to dry.
How To Condition Genuine Leather
All leathers, including those labeled as genuine, should be conditioned periodically to prevent them from drying out.
- Clean or dust the leather with a horsehair brush.
- Like leather soap, conditioner should be tested before covering the entire hide.
- Apply leather conditioner in small amounts on a clean cloth to then be applied to the surface. Ideally, only a small amount will be needed when using leather conditioner. The goal is not to soak the item but rather rehydrate it.
- If an item is still dry after applying leather conditioner, more products can be added to target those areas.
How To Store Genuine Leather
To ensure a leather item is safe, using a dust bag is a great way to prevent damage from occurring during storage. Any leather that is genuine should be stored in a controlled environment away from heat, sunlight, and moisture.
- Heat – When exposed to heat, leather may begin to dry out, often resulting in cracking if not addressed.
- Sunlight – Exposure to the sun may also cause the leather to crack, but it also has the unwanted effect of darkening the leather color due to the ultraviolet rays.
- Moisture – Moisture can also quickly damage genuine leather, often causing mold to grow in proper conditions. If the moisture is excessive, it may also cause structural damage to leather pieces.
Helpful Insights on Genuine Leather
Is genuine leather real leather?
Yes, genuine leather is real leather, but its quality may vary widely. The term can describe any type of leather, including bonded leather, a manufactured leather that uses shredded scraps to create a hide. The term may also describe items that use some leather but have filler material to make the leather thicker.
Is 100% genuine leather real leather?
Yes, much like the term “genuine leather,” 100% genuine leather refers to real leather. The difference is that 100% genuine leather does not use any filler. This term still can not be used to determine the leather quality and can be used to refer to any leather type.
Is genuine leather any good?
Unfortunately, the term “genuine leather” can not be used to determine the quality of the leather. It is a catch-all term for any leather made from an animal hide. Therefore genuine leather can be poor or high quality leather.
What is called genuine leather?
Any type of leather made from an animal can be called “genuine leather.” The term’s confusion starts due to how some leather items are marketed. Instead of disclosing the type of leather being used, companies will often cover up low-quality leather by calling it “genuine leather.” While this term faces backlash, those unfamiliar will simply read it as “real leather.”
Can genuine leather be cheap?
Yes, in fact, a lot of lower-quality items marketed as genuine leather will use cheap material. This will allow a company to sell a product for much lower while still presenting an item as luxury. However, not all genuine leather is cheap, and the price often reflects the quality of the material used.
- Genuine leather is a marketing term often used to promote lower-quality goods.
- All leather is genuine leather; therefore, quality should be researched before purchasing.
- Genuine leather is still real animal leather; however, the quality will vary between manufacturers.
As crafters, we have a lot more insight when compared to the average consumer and can more easily identify the quality of leather. For those less familiar, marketing terms can quickly mislead them. Genuine leather spans across the entire industry with no real standards. Therefore, other information or tests are required to determine a product’s true quality.
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