Know Your Material
Not all materials are the same. It is always good to learn what kind of material you are dealing with, because certain materials may not be compatible with some products By knowing what you have, you preserve and prolong your goods in form as well as in function.
Real or Fake?
There is hardly visual difference between genuine leather and man-made or what we call synthetic leather. Labels will help a lot. Labels are supposed to show fiber content using the universal symbols for the various materials used for the product.
If there are no labels, then turn to ones senses. In the past, it was very easy to tell which is real leather and which is fake just by its smell because leather has a very unique and distinct odor. Nowadays, that scent of leather can be artificially replicated, and even the most experienced person can be deceived. Don’t rely on just one, make sure to use your 3 senses: sight, smell, and touch.
Genuine leather is the hide or skin from an animal that has been put through a process called tanning. In almost all cases, genuine leather will always have irregular fibers along the cutting edge. If it happens to have no lining underneath, you will be able to feel the underside of the leather. This usually has a rougher texture than suede.
On the other hand, synthetic leather will still feel like genuine in front, but the fibers along the cutting edge will always look regular and clean. The underside is usually textile and will have a canvas feel.
There are different grades of synthetic leather, some of higher quality than others. It is not common knowledge, but all synthetic leather have expiration dates. It can be as early as 6 months for the low grade or it can take years for the high-quality ones. It is just a matter of time but it will always peel off from its underside.
For this very reason, luxury houses took note. Back in the 80s, even high-end brands used synthetic leather to line their bags, though the higher grade ones. After a decade or so, the lining of their products eventually melted and peeled off. Now, most luxury brands use textile such as microfiber or canvas to line their bags to prevent this from happening again. A few use leather for the lining, but it makes their products even much more expensive.
Types of Leather
Now you know how to tell the real from the fake. But the real one also comes from many different sources, the most common ones are cowhide, lambskin and pigskin. Apart from the source, each material will have its distinct characteristics depending on how the surface has been processed and treated – called the finish. You can tell by the finish how robust the material is.
A note on types and leather and finishes: leather can have more than one finish which is why we have materials like pearlescent patent leather, oily or greased nubucks, even exotic-looking smooth leather. Ultimately, it is the finish that will dictate how you care for the material and what products to use.
Smooth leather is one of the most commonly used leathers. It is covered with a water- and dirt-repellant smooth finish that makes the material extremely robust. For this reason, it is also known as coated leather. There are countless types of smooth leather. In some types you can still see the natural grain of the coarse leather and others are, as the name implies, simply smooth.
Fine leather is a soft material that usually showcases the real feel of leather. It leaves your skin with a very comfortable feeling. Napa and vachetta are common examples. Fine leather is much more sensitive and water-permeable due to the fact that there is no finish applied. The pores remain open, allowing water and unfortunately dirt as well, to be absorbed by the material straightaway.
Nubuck and Suede
Nubuck is a top-grain cowhide leather. Many people mistakenly assume top-grain means top quality. That is not the case.
Full grain leather is the highest-quality leather. Top-grain means splitting a full-grain leather and taking the top layer. Nubuck is created using this process. The top layer is taken from the outer side of the hide, making it thinner and more pliable than full-grain. Its surface is then sanded and buffed, giving nubuck its typical velvety surface. It is usually dyed heavily to cover up the sanding and stamping process.
Some of the identifying characteristic of nubuck: it is very soft to the touch and the surface will change shade when you run your hand across it; it will scratch very easily; water drops will darken the leather temporarily but it should return to its original color upon drying.
While nubuck is taken from the outer side of the hide, suede on the other hand, is taken from the inner side that gets buffed into a soft nap. The fibers are more visible and the texture is rougher than nubuck. Suede does not include the tough exterior skin layer, making it less durable but softer than full-grain and top-grain nubuck. Its softness, thinness, and pliability make it suitable for clothing and delicate uses.
Greased leather, also known as oiled leather, has a very characteristic surface. If you gently scratch the surface with your fingernails you cause a wax displacement which results in a clearly visible line. Greased leather has this special rustic look. Don’t get it wrong – some types of leather can also be treated with this finish so nubucks and suedes can be greased leather too.
Metallic leather is leather coated and finished with a metallic or pearlescent effect. Usually, the leather is either sprayed with a metallic color or pressed with a metallic foil to give it its metallic effect.
Patent leather is made from real leather finished with a surface coating of acrylic and polyurethane, giving it its high-gloss look. This coating makes a longer-lasting and durable finish, but has the disadvantage of reducing the breathability of the material. Patent leather’s finish on the one hand is absolutely impermeable to water and dirt so there really is no need for waterproofing. On the other, this finish makes it difficult for active ingredients of care products to reach the material underneath the foil coating.
Leather can come from different sources. The most common ones are cowhides and lambskin, but there are also fur and the more exotic ones like crocodile skin and even snakeskin. Leather can also be embellished with sensitive materials like sequins. We call all these fashion leather.
Fashion leather, depending on the source, can be very robust or very sensitive. These types can also be very unique in that there are never 2 patterns alike. It can also be very expensive especially if it comes only in smalls sizes, as in the case of snakeskin. For this reason, patterns of these exotic sources are often imitated by stamping and/or embossing on cowhide or lambskin to create a similar effect.
It is hard to make a difference between synthetic leather and genuine leather. Material symbols help a lot. Alternatively, look for the cutting edge. If the edge is even, regular and clean, and you cannot make out any fibers, the material is likely to be imitation or synthetic leather.
There are many different types of textile depending on its component fibers – cotton or canvas, linen,, silk, wool and the synthetic fibers such as rayon, polyester and nylon. The list goes on. Textile are popular because aside from being lightweight, they are also versatile, and can be very affordable. But one big problem with textile is that they are very hygroscopic, attracting dirt easily. For this reason, textile needs to be taken care of more than leather if you want to prolong its use.
High-tex materials are recognized by their label. On the outside of the shoe or clothing, small tabs have been sewn on, such as Gore-Tex or Sympatex. These are brands of high-tex. Take note that high-tex is not an upper material. The upper material can be leather or textile. The functional membrane in between the upper material and the lining material is what is referred to as high-tex. The high-tex membrane is water and moisture repellant, ensuring that no water can penetrate inside but at the same time allowing the material to remain breathable. For this very reason, it is popular with mountaineers and people love the outdoors.