Leathers can be split into four main 'grades'- Full-grain, Top -grain, Split and Bonded.
Full-grain refers to the full, unadulterated hide in its natural form. Full-grain leather is the only grade that will naturally develop a patina over time and every skin is completely unique in the way that it shows its growth lines, small scars and natural colour variations - all highly desirable characteristics. The outermost layer of the hide isn’t touched at all on full grain leather and as such, with its tightly woven fibres, this leather benefits from a superior strength and durability than the lower grades which is why it is the most valuable leather there is..
Top-grain is still considered to be high quality but where full-grain is left untouched, the very top layer of this grade has been sanded away to conceal "imperfections" (we call them character) in the skin. Sometimes the sanding process will take it all the way to the point of becoming Nubuck - a high quality Suede. If left as a smooth leather it is often given a protective grain effect treatment which will be flawless and uniform across the whole hide.
Split leather is what is left once the above is split off the hide. This is the part of leather that Suede is made from. The fibres at this point are much looser and therefore weaker, which is why this split of the hide is very affordable. Quite often Split leathers can be spray painted and embossed to give a deceivingly natural appearance, and are often stamped "genuine leather" or "100% leather"- which isn’t entirely true!
Bonded leathers are formed from the leftovers after all the parts have been split away. These can even include dust and shavings - which is why they can still technically stamp it as genuine leather, as it genuinely has leather in it, it just so happens that it is in tiny bits all reconstituted and glued together! Bonded using polyurethane and latex on top of a fibre sheet, this leather grade is often referred to as cardboard in the industry.
Again, this will usually be spray painted to give a leather look and you can’t actually ever determine how much real leather is in this particular grade..!
At Mackenzie & George, we work with two family-run, centuries-old tanneries - one in Tuscany, Italy (the home of sustainable vegetable tanned leather) and one in Devon, UK - one of the oldest tanneries in the world. These tanneries use processes that combine ancient recipes with modern technologies and they both embrace the slow passing of time to preserve the natural character of the skin, in an environmentally friendly way. The leather they produce can sometimes be referred to as Eco Leather.
Of course, lesser tanneries can still make full -grain leather, but the hides they start with aren't of the same quality as those used by more highly respected tanneries...
In summary, if someone is proud of where their leather comes from, they will be shouting it loud and clear - the grade, tanning process and region that it is from, all effect the overall quality, appearance and longevity of the leather – make sure you choose wisely if you’d like your leather to last.