Most of us would define quality similarly to the Webster Dictionary: “How good or bad something is”. At BestLeather.org, we define quality as how well crafted a leather product is.
One way of looking at quality is as a means of comparison from one thing to another. You may look at a product and think that it is a quality product, because it is better than another product you’re aware of. Most would agree that a Subway or Blimpie’s sandwich is better quality than your homemade PB & J. Does that mean that the Subway sandwich is the highest quality sandwich, or just better quality than. If you compared a Croque Monsieur sandwich at Les Deux Magots in France to your local Subway Meatball Marinara, you could then possibly argue that the Subway sandwich is not really a quality sandwich at all, at least compared to the French sarnie.
Considering that we care about leather here at BestLeather.org, lets look at a leather example. Would you consider a leather wallet made by Louis Vuitton in Italy better quality than one made by Tommy Hilfiger in India. The Vuitton costs over $600 and the Hilfiger under $30. Is a wallet by Saddleback Leather, which costs $59 of a higher quality than the Vuitton wallet? How would one determine which is the better quality and which is worth the money? What are the criteria, tangible and intangible, that determines whether something is high quality or not? Is there a price point, at which higher quality produces diminishing returns?
These questions can best be answered in looking at five hallmarks of quality. It is important to first note that quality can be applied to just about every facet of our lives: relationships, food, writing, time, professions, goods, etc. For the purposes of this article, let’s stick to quality as it relates to goods, and more particularly, leather. This list is not exhaustive, but encompasses a broad spectrum of quality.
The hallmark most of us would initially consider in relation to quality goods would be durability – how well a product wears over time. This is the case for good reason; most of us accept that when a product lasts a long time it is of good quality. In most cases, durability is a great indicator of a quality product.
For a good to last a long time, there are certain processes and materials used, to ensure that the product endures over time. A backpack that is made from full grain leather, that has been expertly tanned, dyed all of the way through the grain, is doubtless going to last longer than one that has been stripped down to the weaker leather fibers, tanned in an expedient fashion, and simply painted. The fact that a backpack can last you many years, even many decades, illustrates the pinnacle of the definition of construction quality. One that falls apart after a year or two of periodic, or even heavy use, illustrates a product that was not quality made. When it comes to leather goods, you have to look at three key factors that determine durability.
1. Type of leather used.
Full grain leather is simply the best leather that can be used in the making of most leather goods. Top grain leather, genuine leather, or bonded leather, are all lesser versions of their stronger brother. They lack the grain strength that comes from using the more densely packed fibers of the outer layer of the animal skin, and therefore lose some of the durability. Top grain leather can be an exception in some cases, because it is also the outer layer of the animal skin, but is still shaved down to meet certain applications. When looking for a high quality leather product, look for full grain to ensure you are getting the most durable good possible.
2. Tanning process.
How a hide is tanned, makes all of the difference in the end quality and durability of the leather. You can start with a quality, full grain hide, and if poorly tanned, that leather might as well be vinyl.
There are two major methods of tanning: chrome based tanning and vegetable tanning. There are many other, less common methods of tanning (i.e. brain tanned, alum tanned, aldehyde tanned, etc.), but considering that veg and chrome tanning are the most common, let us focus on those.
Vegetable tanning uses naturally occurring extracts, such as tree bark, to slowly tan a hide. The process takes weeks, and when done properly results in an extremely durable hide used in a variety of leather goods.
Chrome based tanning occurs by tumbling hides with metal chromium. This method was developed in the mid 19th century and resulted in a much quicker process of tanning a hide.
Vegetable tanned leathers are considered by some to be more durable than chrome tanned leathers. The majority of junk leather is chrome tanned, which perhaps explains the negative association, but not all chrome tanning is produces less durable leather. The Horween Company in Chicago produces a fine chrome tanned leather that is used in quality leather goods. These leathers can last as long as vegetable tanned leathers, because of the strict adherence to a quality process.
The important aspect in deciding which tanning process is most appropriate will depend on the end use of the leather, and the quality of the process itself.
Without proper construction, the best leather, tanned with the best process, will eventually break or fall apart. Outside of proper design, the most crucial aspect of construction is the choice of thread used. There are a few varieties of thread used in quality leather goods. Polyester, nylon, and linen are the most common (artificial sinew, dacron, leather cord are other, less common choices) . With these, there are an abundance of options as well – waxed, unwaxed, bonded, unbonded, you get the point. The importance is to choose the thread that is most appropriate for the leather, the product, and the stitching method.
Another component in high quality leather bags is the use of rivets. The use of rivets is a classic example of over engineering. Rivets strengthen a bag beyond what only stitching can do. A properly placed rivet prevents seams from separating and further strengthens the stitching. Well placed rivets and evenly spaced stitching can also be quite beautiful.