Small Encyclopaedia of Leather and Similar Materials
Below, we’ve compiled information on the topic of leather and its alternatives. In alphabetical order, you’ll find common terms describing various types of leather and leather-like materials. Discover the applications and unique characteristics of each.
Alcantara (also Ecsaine, Ultrasuede)
Often confused with leather or suede, Alcantara is actually a trademarked microfibre material made from polyester and polyurethane. Through a specialised extrusion process, ultra-thin threads of these materials are woven into a fabric resembling suede in texture. Alcantara finds use in numerous industries, including fashion, furniture upholstery, and automotive interiors.
The benefits of this fabric include a soft feel, elasticity, and crease resistance, making it durable and adaptable. It’s available in a wide range of colours and is easy to clean, antistatic, breathable, and hypoallergenic. Despite its complex manufacturing process, Alcantara remains a high-quality and costly material, often priced similarly to genuine leather. Its consistent quality in industrial production results in less waste, making it a preferable choice in certain applications, such as bag manufacturing, over traditional leather.
Aniline Leather (Natural Leather)
Aniline leather, a type of coloured hide, is dyed exclusively with soluble dyes, preserving the natural surface, grain, and pores. Imperfections remain visible, lending a rustic appearance. Commonly used for teacher’s bags, shoulder bags, briefcases, and saddlery, this material’s history traces back to the first synthetic colours derived from aniline. Despite the toxicity of aniline dyes and their discontinuation in modern processing, the term “natural leather” has yet to replace “aniline leather” colloquially.
Bright Leather (also Saddle Leather)
Bright leather typically refers to a vegetable-tanned, slightly greased cowhide, available in transparent or opaque colours. Transparent varieties are often wax-sealed, while opaque ones can mask imperfections and offer better colour fastness. This leather’s tanning process imparts significant stiffness and strength, making it suitable for items needing structural stability, such as teacher’s bags, school bags, and certain shoulder bags.
Buffalo hide, a variant of cowhide, possesses a more open or coarse-pored structure than typical cowhide. Its coarse-pored texture allows external elements like water to penetrate this robust and durable material, depending on tanning and surface treatment, often causing it to darken or fade. Buffalo hide is prominent in the creation of bags, upholstered furniture, and sometimes car interiors.
In the context of hide materials, ‘doubleface’ describes sheepskins worn with wool inside and the sanded outer side exposed, commonly seen in items like coats and slippers.
Only animal skin with intact natural fibres qualifies as genuine hide. Materials processed with binding agents into sheets cannot be labelled as genuine hide. Thus, items mainly composed of such mixed materials are not genuine hide products and must be labelled as synthetic. An article’s primary material must be explicitly identified, like a wallet made of artificial material with hide trim.
If a layer (such as paint, foil, foam) exceeds 0.15 millimetres or one-third of the item’s total thickness, it’s classified as a coated hide. The underside of the split hide must be labelled as such. Items that are both coated and split must be declared as coated split hide.
Mislabeling non-hide or fur products with terms suggesting genuine hide is prohibited. However, the term ‘artificial leather’ is acceptable, clearly indicating the material isn’t genuine hide.
Calfskin (also box calf, related to cowhide)
Calfskin, derived from young cows under a year old and weighing less than 150 kg, features a firm, evenly structured grain finer than cowhide, making it a premium-quality material. In the world of high-fashion accessories, the Chanel Black Aged Calfskin Casino Lucky Charms 2.55 Reissue 225, adorned with aged gold hardware, stands out as an exemplary example of the use of calfskin. Produced between 2016 and 2017, this piece highlights the timeless elegance and luxury that calfskin lends to designer bags. The aged calfskin lends a unique texture and sophistication, perfectly complementing the intricate gold hardware. This bag is not just a fashion trend, but a testament to the timeless appeal and versatility of calfskin in luxury goods.
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Synthetic Leather (also skai, vinyl, pelliccia artificiale, piel artificial)
Synthetic leather mimics the appearance of hide but is not classified as such. Developed as a cost-effective alternative to real hide, which often has irregular structures or damage, synthetic leather offers uniform quality at a lower price. It’s widely used in industries like footwear, clothing, bag manufacturing, furniture, and vehicle interiors.
Distinguishing between real and synthetic leather visually can be challenging, but manufacturers’ labels are usually reliable. Caution is advised when purchasing from online auctions, trade fairs, or abroad, due to potential mislabeling. Products made of synthetic leather should be clearly marked to inform consumers that the material is not genuine hide.
Imitation material is commonly used in producing various types of bags. The benefits for manufacturers and retailers include lower costs. However, consumers may be at a disadvantage, particularly if misled into believing they’ve purchased an item made from genuine hide.
In terms of the typical physical attributes of real hide (sturdiness, longevity, breathability, etc.), synthetic variants still fall short. Nevertheless, there are scenarios where using synthetic materials is advantageous, such as in products exposed to harsh environmental conditions (e.g., motorcycle seats, boat seat coverings). Also, for items requiring regular disinfection, like medical examination tables, real hide is unsuitable due to its vulnerability to solvents. In these cases, synthetic alternatives are preferable.
Derived from young sheep, lambskin is noted for its softness and lightness, often used in smooth variants. It’s synonymous with high-quality, and is a popular choice for expensive clothing like jackets, pants, dresses, skirts, as well as accessories like purses and bags.
Hide is animal skin preserved through tanning to prevent decomposition, retaining its natural fibre structure. It’s composed of the outer papillary layer, contributing to the smooth surface, and the underlying coarse-fibre reticular layer, crucial for mechanical strength. Varieties include those predominantly made of the reticular layer (like split material) and those mostly comprising the papillary layer (like thin sheepskin).
There’s a distinction between hide, fur or pelt, and skin. In larger animals (like cattle, buffalo, pigs), the untanned body covering is referred to as skin, but also as hide. For smaller animals (like calves, sheep, goats), it’s called skin. If hair remains post-tanning, it’s known as fur.
Nappa is a term for processed grain-side animal skin, characterised by a soft, smooth surface. Originally, it referred exclusively to glove and garment material from Napa Valley, USA, but now it broadly applies to any supple, smooth material, regardless of origin, animal species, or intended use. The term often implies exceptional softness or quality, but its lack of clear definition means this isn’t always guaranteed.
Nappa comes in various forms: full-grain (unpolished surface) and grain-corrected or embossed (altered natural grain pattern). Sometimes, firmer skins (like cowhide or crocodile) are also termed nappa, though it traditionally signifies a softer texture.
Nappa is ideal where material strength or stability is less critical, but a pleasant surface quality is desired. High-end leather covers for furniture and luxury vehicle interiors, as well as leather goods like handbags and backpacks, often employ nappa. Its soft, non-slip, and elastic nature also suits small items like purses and key pouches.
Nubuck is a finely roughened material, sanded on the smooth grain side of the animal skin. This sanding process endows the surface with a velvety texture and a soft touch, enhancing breathability. However, this velvety surface is more prone to stains and grease, and has increased UV sensitivity, leading to quicker fading under direct sunlight.
Fine hides from calves, cows, or buffaloes are typically used for nubuck, but lamb, goat, and deer skins are also processed into this material. Nubuck is utilised for shoes, gloves, upholstered furnishings, and softer carrying items like rucksacks and handbags. It’s occasionally chosen for car interior finishing, although materials with a closed surface are more common for this purpose.
Oil Pull-Up (OPU)
OPU is a largely natural upper material from cattle, transparently dyed with natural colour pigments and oiled for a smooth finish. This colouring process preserves hide irregularities, giving each piece a unique character. Scratches on OPU can often be rubbed out to some extent.
Easily crafted into carrying items, OPU is used for rucksacks, briefcases, shoulder bags, and even wallets.
Approximately 1.6 billion cattle globally contribute to the abundance of available hides for processing. This abundance makes cowhide the most extensively used material in the industry, accounting for about 65 to 70 percent of worldwide production.
Derived from bulls, cows, and calves, bovine hides include various types of cowhide with minor differences in grain and texture. Cowhide is robust and tensile, suitable for numerous applications like shoes, belts, saddles, clothing, and various bags. Its relative stiffness makes it particularly fitting for items requiring self-stability, such as briefcases, teacher’s bags, and school bags. Robust shoulder bags are also crafted from cowhide.
For softer items like backpacks, handbags, wallets, and key cases, the tanning process of cowhide is adjusted. Due to its large average size of 5 square metres, cowhide is also a popular choice for upholstered furniture and car interiors.
Pigskin comes from domestic pigs (referred to as pork in processing) or wild boars, primarily from the Peccary breed. Domestic pigs have sparse, bristly hair, resulting in easily recognizable hair channels characteristic of pigskin’s grain.
Pigskin in Apparel
Pigskin is widely used in the clothing industry. Alongside lambskin and goatskin suede, it ranks as a commonly chosen material for apparel. However, lambskin is more tear-resistant and costlier than pigskin, making the letter a popular choice in the budget-friendly apparel segment. Pigskin is primarily used as suede, and occasionally as pigmented smooth material. Its lightweight and moderate warmth make it suitable for leisure wear, whereas wild boar skin is preferred for high-quality gloves. Pigskin is unsuitable for motorbike suits due to safety concerns, where the thicker and more durable cowhide is the standard choice.
Suede (Also Known as Suede)
Suede refers to materials with a rough surface, derived from the coarse-fibre reticular layer (flesh side) of the hide. Unlike the fine, velvety texture of nubuck, which involves slight abrasion of the grain side, suede has coarser fibres and a rougher feel. Its open-pored nature enhances breathability, making it ideal for sports shoes and work gloves.
Wild Animal Skin
Suede from wild animals like deer, elk, buffalo, chamois, antelope, and others, is rare and costly due to the limited numbers and higher damage rates from living in the wild. Despite its roughened, velvety surface, the term ‘suede’ is often used interchangeably with ‘rough skin’ for any such material, irrespective of its wild origin. However, smooth skins from wild animals are not typically classified as suede.
Suede generally denotes water-permeable material primarily used for clothing and bags.
With around 550 million goats globally, goatskin is a significant contributor to the industry, ranking third after cowhide and sheepskin. Tougher and more robust than sheepskin, goatskin is supple, light, and considered higher quality, though it’s relatively affordable compared to lambskin.
Goatskin is a choice material for shoes, gloves, and bags, particularly suited for fine backpacks and handbags due to its softness and thinness. Less ideal for stiffer items like briefcases, it’s also employed in making goat suede clothing such as jackets, pants, and skirts. Its toughness lends itself to the production of highly tear-resistant leather cords.