What is Full Grain Leather?
At Alta Andina, we only use full grain leather to make our products. To appreciate what makes full grain leather the highest quality, longest lasting leather available, it’s important to understand the anatomy of a cowhide.
The grain is the outermost layer of the hide, the outside of the animal where the cow’s hair grows. The grain is where the animal’s fibers are tightest, creating a hard-to-penetrate, tough exterior, that is also highly resistant to water. The junction is the middle layer of a cowhide, connecting the grain and the corium. In the junction, the fibers are looser and weaker, as this part of the skin is not exposed to the elements, and doesn’t serve in protecting the animal. The corium is where the fibers loosen even further, as this section connects fat or collagen to the animal’s muscle. The corium is commonly known as suede, as these looser fibers create soft, malleable leather. Think of the three layers like a car; the grain serves as the exterior paneling, providing strength, and protection from the elements. The junction connects the outer paneling to the interior, and the suede is just like a chassis. Would you feel good driving around during the winter on your car’s frame with no protection?
To make full grain leather, the animal’s hair is carefully removed from the hide, but nothing else is altered. Preserving the integrity of the hide is an important distinction of full grain leather, as all the strength and durability of a cowhide comes from the grain. Without the grain, leather is like Robin without Batman, lacking the strength to get the job done. You can recognize full grain leather by the subtle pattern that the natural pores and hair follicles create on the grain’s outer surface. There are other visible characteristics as well. The grain protects animals from little annoyances, like bug bites, and scratches from sharp objects. These marks and scratches can create permanent, visible scars on the grain. Many companies sand down the grain of lesser-quality hides in order to remove these imperfections. Full grain leather, on the other hand, preserves these little marks on the cowhide, leaving the grain completely unaltered, and protecting the natural strength, durability and beauty of the leather.
If altering the grain permanently degrades the quality of the leather, why would anyone mess with it? The most common reason is starting with cheap, low quality cowhides that are full of unsightly flaws. Cowhides are graded by their quality, and as is true with anything in life, you get what you pay for. The most expensive and sought after cowhides have fewer marks to begin with, whereas cheap, inferior cowhides are full of these blemishes. A second rate hide rife with scratches and scars is difficult to work with, as there isn’t enough room between blemishes to cut out a clean piece of leather for a product. At Alta Andina, we start with high quality cowhides, which makes strategically cutting the hide around those blemishes easier. Although our hides still have some small blemishes, we leave them be, as we value the quality, integrity, and longevity of our leather over a blemish free cowhide, with compromised strength & durability. We celebrate the unique beauty of each hide by leaving the grain untouched, so that the leather’s strength remains uncompromised.
Branding marks are visible on full grain leather hides
We know that full grain leather is the strongest, longest lasting, and most water resistant leather available. However, there are aesthetic reasons for choosing full grain leather as well. We mentioned the signature pattern of full grain leather, created by the natural pores and hair follicles on the outer layer of the hide. This pattern has become such a hallmark of leather, and is so sought after, that many companies who don’t use full grain leather actually stamp a fake full grain pattern onto their leather. These companies use cheap hides full of marks and blemishes, then remove the grain by sanding off the outer layer of the hide. After the grain and the blemishes are removed, a textured metal plate mimicking a full grain pattern imprints onto the junction, creating the illusion that the grain remains intact. If companies use these tricks to deceive you about the quality of their leather, what else are they hiding? Transparency is one of Alta Andina’s core values, because we stand behind the quality of our products.
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about full grain leather is the way it ages. Full grain, vegetable tanned leather lasts a lifetime, and looks better and better over time. Our full grain leather develops a patina, meaning it darkens and softens with exposure to sunlight, oxygen, and the natural oils from your hands. This rich patina gives each leather article a unique look and feel, as no two leather pieces will patina in the same way. Each leather product will age differently, depending on how much the product is handled and used. Wallets tend to patina more quickly than other leather products, as we’re using them daily. Our valet trays may patina more slowly, as we’re typically handling the contents of our catchalls (phone, wallet, keys) much more than the actual leather tray itself.
Applying our natural blend of neatsfoot oil & beeswax
Our Miel (honey) leather after finishing
Our Bottom Line
Our approach is pretty simple. At Alta Andina, we start with high quality cowhides and treat them as little as possible, so they will create products that last longer, and age gracefully. We aim to craft the highest quality, longest lasting products we can, while keeping our carbon footprint low. We have a single source for our cowhides, in the same region as our tannery. Our leather, and the other components of our products, are entirely sourced in the Andean region of South America. By eliminating Asia from our supply chain, our products don’t travel between the Eastern and Western hemispheres before arriving at your door. Moreover, by crafting our finished products in the Andes, we add value by supporting skilled labor, safe working conditions, and dignified wages.
Glossary of Terms Associated with Full Grain Leather
What is a Patina?
A patina is the natural darkening and softening of leather over time that occurs as a result of exposure to sunlight, oxygen, and the natural oils in our skin. Think about your old baseball glove, stiff and uncomfortable before you worked it in. Once broken in, that baseball glove is darker, and molded perfectly for your hand – that’s a patina. A good patina is one of the hallmarks of full grain, vegetable tanned leather.
What’s the Difference Between Full Grain Leather, and Top Grain Leather?
Top grain leather is not the same as full grain leather. Top grain leather is commonly used when companies buy cheaper hides to start. Remember that it all starts with the quality of the hide, higher quality hides have fewer marks, and cheaper hides have lots of scratches, branding marks, and blemishes. Top grain leather allows companies to buy cheaper hides, sand down the grain to eliminate those blemishes, and pass it off as higher quality leather.
What is Corrected Grain Leather?
Corrected grain leather and top grain leather are similar. The difference between the two lies in how much is actually done to the leather. We know that top grain leather removes the grain by sanding it down to remove blemishes. Corrected grain leather goes one step further. The grain is first sanded down, leaving the junction as the outer layer of the hide. Next, the junction is stamped with a textured metal plate mimicking a full grain pattern, to create the appearance of a natural looking leather grain.
What is Suede?
Suede is one of the natural layers of leather (the corium) and is defined by its soft, luscious texture. Suede is often split from the rest of the hide to use for apparel and upholstery. Suede is not better or worse than full grain leather, they have completely different applications. However, since the grain and the junction are split from suede, it is weak, flimsy, and easily penetrable. The malleable nature of suede lends itself to work well as a liner for leather products like bags, and is commonly used in the fashion world. The etymology of the term suede is originally derived from its use in women’s gloves, in French gants de Suède, translates to “gloves from Sweden.”
Suede shavings are blended with plastics to create genuine leather
What is Genuine Leather?
Seeing the term “genuine leather” used to describe any leather product is an immediate red flag. Genuine leather is a misleading marketing term used to make bottom of the barrel leather sound high quality. Genuine leather is often used instead of the term bonded leather. Bonded leather is exactly as its name sounds, a mix of leather scraps bonded together. When leather hides are shaved down on the suede side to ensure an even thickness, little scraps of leather fall to the floor. Leather scraps from the floor of the tannery are melted down, mixed with plastic, chemicals, and polymers to hold the scraps together, and voilà – you’ve got yourself some genuine leather. Saying genuine leather is real leather is like claiming fast food burgers are “100% real beef.” Bonded or genuine leather is shiny, and completely uniform, it looks like plastic. The term genuine leather is also used to differentiate bonded leather, from polyurethane leather, as they look almost identical. However, polyurethane leather or “pu leather” contains no actual leather, it’s plastic. You can learn more about polyurethane leather, and other leather alternatives here.