Leather Quality - A Buyer's Guide
Here at LVX we take a lot of pride in our ability to craft and offer high end, custom options for a variety of impact, bondage, and fetish fantasies. This includes our exquisitely handcrafted full grain, veg tan leather products. But what does "full grain veg tan" mean? How does that compare to other leathers, such as top grain, or genuine leather? And how do you tell the difference when you're holding a piece in your hand?
While the thought of leather immediately conjures up feelings of elegance, and adds a high-end, sensual vibe to the excitement of your bondage scene, it’s unfortunately easy to find yourself with a poor quality leather product that ends up killing the mood instead of enhancing it. We're here to help you to sift through and demystify leather terminology so you never find yourself in that position again! We want you to feel more confident that your purchases are both worth the money, and will last through years of your enjoyment.
The Myth of "Genuine" Leather
To start, it is important to address the most common misunderstanding surrounding leather quality and terminology: 'genuine leather.' The term ‘genuine leather’ is a very vague blanket description of a highly-processed material that is technically leather, but it does not actually indicate a quality level. Aside from being cheap and easily accessible, there are no particularly positive aspects of genuine leather to note; it deteriorates, tears, frays, and wears remarkably quickly. You could go one step lower with bonded leather (the particle board of leather), but genuine leather is the lowest quality possible that can still legally be marketed as leather.
Genuine leather is a bottom cut leather, meaning it is taken from the layer of the hide furthest inside the animal, as opposed to the outer layer of the skin where the hair grows. Whole, intact cowhides are much thicker than can be useful for most applications, so during processing it is split into layers, which are then sold separately and used for different purposes.
A cross-section of a cowhide reveals woven bundles of collagen fibers, which are very tight and dense at the top, and loosen in structure the further down they get into the animal. During processing the whole hide is split into two sections: the corium, with the loose collagen at the bottom innermost layer, and the grain, with the tight collagen fibers at the top outermost layer. Genuine leather comes from the corium. If you've owned any genuine leather, you will notice that it seems to fray around the edges, and can have a spongy texture when pressed or manipulated. This is due to the collagen fibers that make up the leather being very loose and therefore weakened, which causes genuine leather to fall apart, separate, and deteriorate quite easily and rapidly.
When we look at the grain section of the hide, we get to the good stuff: top grain, and full grain leather. Top grain leather is the second highest quality option, and refers to leather that has had the grain smoothed or finished in some way, often sanded and buffed, in order to even out the texture. It removes naturally occurring marks like scars and bug bites, and makes the surface look more uniform. Top grain is generally more readily available than full grain, and is the common choice among higher quality leather products.
Full grain leather leaves the entire grain intact, and is the most desirable option because of its beauty and lasting durability. It has a truly natural aesthetic, and makes for luxurious, unique pieces.
At LVX Supply we exclusively use full grain veg tan leather as the corner stone of our leather goods. Since the hides have not been altered, we celebrate and respect the natural strength or textures created by its organic nature. Any such marks are not considered imperfections in the leather industry, those unique traits are what give full grain leather its much sought-after character and originality. So long as the functionality is not compromised, your new leather pieces will have various (subtle) textures throughout.
As it ages it will also patina, which is a soft shine or sometimes a subtle deepening of color, that develops due to use and over time. Leather being a porous, organic material, will absorb oxygen, oils in our hands, light, and other factors from our environments. The patina--or leather’s ability to patina--is considered a hallmark of highest quality leather, because the more the leather is processed, the less likely for the patina to develop.
These highly individualized factors of use and environment will cause your full grain leather to patina differently than someone else’s, even if they’ve originated from the same hide. This leaves you with a piece that reflects your personal experiences and stories as it ages.
Veg Tan vs. Chrome Tan
The cut of the hide isn’t the only thing that affects leather’s ability to patina, but how it’s tanned as well. There are two primary tanning processes: chrome tanning, and vegetable tanning, often abbreviated to 'veg tanning.'
The most common tanning process used in the leather industry is chrome tanning. This is because it is much faster and cheaper than vegetable tanning. It uses a cocktail of various chemicals, acids and salts to tan the leather, resulting in a very different end product than veg tan. The harsh chemicals make for a softer texture, which can be useful in products like purses or fashion items, but they also cause the leather to deteriorate over time. Chrome tanned leather won’t have that distinct leather smell, and even though chrome tanned leather is not necessarily inherently cheap or poor quality, manufacturers that opt for this process often also cut costs by starting with lower quality hides to begin with.
Chrome tanned leather is more water and heat resistant than veg tan, but also is less likely to develop that cherished patina. So with chrome tanned leather, what you save in money, you end up losing in the character that really makes the leather special.
For those reasons we choose to use veg tanned leather, which is processed using organic materials and natural extracts from tree barks, leaves, and branches. This specific tanning process is what gives leather that rich, earthy, almost smoky scent you think of and associated with leather. It will result in some natural color variation from hide to hide, which is not considered a flaw, but a reflection of the artisan process. It has the greatest longevity, and while you’ll notice it starts off more firm in texture, over time it will soften and mold to your shape with use.
Veg tanning is considered an old world craft, and veg tanneries are unfortunately becoming fewer and further between. It’s a longer process than chrome tanning, taking close to two months to complete, but the resulting material is of unsurpassed quality that actually improves with age.
Care is pretty simple: you’ll want to avoid getting it wet, and keep it away from heat. To keep it soft it’s also recommended to condition it once a month with a leather conditioner, which we have available in our shop as well.
Our decision to use the highest quality, naturally processed leather leaves us with a stunningly beautiful and durable, organic material. Due to the nature of organic materials, there is always the potential for slight variations between dye coloring, or markings on the leather surface from hide to hide, and piece to piece.
While we don’t use portions of the hide that have major defects, we also don’t discard portions with minor nicks or scars. Both because we believe those things add to the beauty, charm, and character of the leather, and also because we also do our best to be conscious about minimizing waste; we genuinely value every hide we work with, given our respect for and understanding of where it comes from. What that ultimately means for you is a truly one-of-a-kind item with a depth of value that extends well beyond the price tag.
If you have any questions about our leather or any of our pieces, please don't hesitate to contact us!