Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine Leather

Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine Leather

A few years ago, I went to a local market to buy a gift for my brother on his birthday. Roaming around, I found a gift shop selling leather products. A leather wallet seemed like a great gift. I did not know much about leather quality and was a total layman.

I picked up a nice-looking wallet and asked the shopkeeper if it was good quality material.

“Yeah, It is genuine leather,” He said.

To me, the word “genuine” sounded like “original” or “high-quality“. It was only later that I found out genuine leather is the lowest grade of leather in the market.

Let’s talk about leather types and what makes a good quality leather.

Leather under the microscope – what do we see?

Anatomy of animal skin
Anatomy of animal skin

Above is a cross sectional drawing of an animal hide or skin. It has two sides.

The outer side, the one with hair, has grains. These grains are a very dense arrangement of dead skin cells. They provide the necessary protection against environmental conditions and prevent any harmful agent from reaching the inner layer.

On the flash side comes the Corium, also known as Dermis. If you look closely at the image above, the corium has vertical fibers at the top and horizontal fibers at the base. A robust cross arrangement appears at the top while a relatively loose arrangement appears towards the lower part of the skin. These fibers contain collagens, which offer strength and elastin that delivers elasticity.

What is Leather?

Many people confuse raw animal skin with leather, which is understandable. I did the same thing!

The leather is a processed material, obtained after tanning animal skin in tanneries.

The classification of leather starts with the type of tanning, the source of the raw material, and any finishing processes used. In tanneries, the rawhide is processed and turned, creating finished leather which is then used in the manufacturing of leather products.

The art of tanning is an ancient process and has evolved over the centuries. The process involves chemical cleaning, removal of skin hair, softening, dyeing and finally drying to get the beautiful finish leather.

There are two primary methods of tanning leather; Vegetable tanning and Chrome Tanning.

Vegetable tanning uses natural extracts, while chrome tanning uses chromed-based chemicals. Each process produces high-quality leather, with their pros and cons.

Thick animal hides are split into sections using splitting machines. The leather is classified into three different types based on the part of the hide used to produce the final leather.

Full Grain Leather

Full-grain leather is the outermost layer of the skin. It has excellent strength and quality due to the cross arrangement of fibers. If you look closely using a magnifying glass, you can see the individual grains. Full-grain leather is considered to be the highest quality leather.

Generally, the outer layer of skin is defective due to its direct contact with the environment. Bruises, cuts and insect bites render a significant portion of the skin unusable in product manufacturing.

The low availability combined with the high quality is what makes it the most expensive leather on the market. Full-grain leather develops a beautiful patina over time which gives the material a very vintage look.

Top Grain Leather

The defective section of the full-grain leather is sanded down using various tools and machines to remove a thin layer of the upper grains.

This leather is called corrected or top grain leather. Top grain leather has slightly less strength compared to full-grain leather. It also develops a patina over time. Top grain leather is available in significant quantities, making it less expensive compared to full-grain leather.

Genuine Leather

Genuine leather is prepared from the lowest section of the skin where all fibers are arranged in almost parallel fashion. This parallel arrangement significantly reduce the strength and wear resistance of the finished leather and is therefore considered the lowest quality of leather.

Genuine leather has no grain marks and a very smooth surface. Usually, it is pressed with an artificial texture to give it a grainy look. Genuine leather is used in low-quality products due to its low price and availability.

Identification of Leather

Accurate leather identification requires some level of expertise. Generally, full-grain leather has visible surface grains and a feel of good quality. 

Top grain leather has slightly fewer grains and a smoother surface compared to full-grain. In most cases, however, it appears identical to full-grain. 

Genuine leather is easily identified due to its artificial texture and highly polished surface. It has a feel of low-quality and lacks grain spots, which are the identifying characteristics of full or top grain leather.

Note: All of our products at Aurochs are made from full-grain cow leather. Check out our amazing collection on our Shop page.

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2 replies on “Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine Leather

  • Michael Batson

    This is actually untrue. These aren’t grades used by anyone in the leather industry.

    The story of genuine leather is an interesting one. But it’s a long one with a bunch of different facets…don’t say I didn’t warn you. The idea that “Genuine is a grade of leather (the 2nd worse one)” is the biggest ‘leather myth” on the internet today. Simply put it just means real. A distinguisher from synthetic. It shouldn’t be taken to mean “good” or “bad.”

    Let’s get into how “genuine always=bad” came to be and why it’s still wrong: So back in the day “Genuine Leather” got stamped on all sorts of “good” leather goods. Packaging tags from my company from the 70’s and 80’s say “Genuine leather and suede products” it was a selling point, but as cheap imported goods got more and more common, less than honest companies asked themselves “what’s the cheapest leather that’s still technically ‘genuine’?” Enter: The finished split. A finished split is basically suede that’s covered in either a sheet or PU or a heavy pigment layer. The goal is to make suede look like top/full grain: smooth. The problem with this is that it’s the equivalent of trying to make a smooth dance floor by painting or laying vinyl flooring over shag carpet. With use the outer layer breaks down and you have a mess. Cheap leather goods manufacturers started stamping “Genuine Leather” on things made with finished splits to the extent that much of the leather goods you’d find would be low quality and stamped “genuine leather”…you have to remember this was the 80’s and 90’s people were not as willing back then to drop $50 or $100 on a wallet like today, you just couldn’t find very many quality leather goods outside of smaller makers.

    One take home from what happened with genuine leather is that unethical manufactures/tanneries will take whatever buzzword is taken by people as the shortcut for quality and capitalize on it. For example: full grain just means “nothing has been done to alter the outer grain” that means a tannery can actually do less to a leather and it’s still “technically full grain.” Which is why you can’t count on “full grain” alone to be a sign of quality.

    There are many exceptions to the “Genuine=Bad” rule. The biggest one is Red Wing Heritage. They’re stamping “Genuine Leather” on the veg-tan sole of Beckmans and other shoes. They are using it “Genuinely” just to mean real. I’ve also noticed that many global and European brands also use it: $3000 Dior Homme Leather Jackets, Article Furniture uses genuine in it’s short descriptions for their full grain aniline Italian leather. Apple’s “official” cases are decent leather but are called “Genuine Leather” in the descriptions. Search “Genuine Leather” on Kickstarter and you’ll notice that many projects that are obviously using decent leather from France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe use it to describe what they use (probably just a translation thing.)

    The origin of Genuine (and the rest of these terms) as grades

    Calling genuine leather a grade of leather is probably one of the worst misconceptions to plague my industry. It’s forced my Dad, a 70 leatherworker who’s worked with leather most of his life, to have to take it out of his vocabulary when he talks to uninformed customers. Many smaller leather companies, my own included, have had to remove the word from our websites for fear of people getting confused.

    This all started with a video and related article where a big leather goods manufacture broke down some “grades of leather” in a very slanted and misleading way. This video went viral. These “facts” got repeated everywhere and now several times a week someone here on Reddit says “genuine is the second worst grade of leather.” Some newer companies have even repeated this nonsense breakdown in their product descriptions. Genuine has never been a grade, you can’t call up a butcher and ask for just real beef. You can’t call up a tannery and ask for “genuine leather” the term is just too broad, there are so many other words used in our industry to describe leather.

    This entire “grading system” isn’t used by any government, majory tannery trade group, or regulating authority anywhere: it is completely made up.

    So was this misrepresentation of facts on purpose?

    You bet ya. If they had simply said “genuine sometimes means”, I’d have no problem, but they go so far as to claim it’s some sort if secret “industry term” which is wrong. Industry terms are specific; sometimes so specific that they aren’t understood by those outside the industry. Genuine leather is such a broad term and that it’s useless as a specific descriptor. So it’s hard to see those statements as anything but a malicious misrepresentation of facts to pump up the product. It caught on because it’s got this “click-baity”, you think it means ‘x’ but it really means this ring to it. Kind of like the “USA is a city in Japan” urban legend
    Lastly, I’ll tell you: I get weekly emails from less expensive tanneries all the time and they never use the word genuine. They use real, full grain, veg-tan…plus a whole bunch of real industry terms that I won’t get into here.

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