LEATHER QUALITY & HOW IT VARIES
Perfect leather all the way around….top grade too
Let me start by saying that this is a long, yet informative post.
I made a comment on the blog the other day in reference to one shoemakeris leather being typically of a lesser quality with respects to another maker. Not necessarily that it was a low quality, only that within the grades of high quality, one was lower than the other. This comment threw off the reader as he was under the impression that leather qualities were of like-quality across the board of handgrade shoes, ranging from brands AS to C&J to EG. Let me first start by saying that this is definitely not the case. They all use different quality leathers, from different level of leather makers (tanneries) and while some might even come from the same tannery that does not necessarily mean that they are using the same leather or rather, using it in the same way, which does make a difference and I will explain it below. Plus there is a reason why some shoes cost more than others and a big part of that is the leather, especially as it is the component that makes up 95% of the shoe. (From this point onward, let us start by assuming that we are talking about factories that make shoes that retail for +£300.
Now prior to making this comment, I had an idea about how the leathers differ as I touch them every day, all day long and can feel the difference. Not to mention that I own a lot of shoes from many makers. But because I did not have a factual answer to give, I had to go ask someone who would know, not only because they currently own their own factory, but have worked for others as well. That being, when a factory buys leather from the tannery, they are usually given an assortment of pieces/hides that come from grades 1-3 (1 being the highest, 3 being the lowest naturally) to then make their shoes with. I was previously under the impression that a factory could simply say, I want grade 1 leather and that is all. But clearly I was wrong. The way in which people then separate themselves is how they use all of that leather, as it greatly differs and here is the secret to why some shoemakers shoes are always brilliant and why others aren’t as prestigious.
A G&G above and a Handgrade C&J below….surely you can see the difference in quality…the G&G’s leather is much more taut and smooth, as it should be for a price tag that is £300 more
Now to make things even more confusing, within a grade of leather, say grade 1, there are then around 5 sub-grades within that single grade. (grades of hide quality are separated by the amount of flaws on the hide, then within each hide you have different levels of quality from the head, neck, spine, belly etc.) That being there are many options to choose from. So let’s assume that we are now talking about factories that are predominantly going to use only grade 1 leather. Now when you get a hide of leather there are certain parts of it that are better than others as there certain parts of the shoe that are more visible/prominent and thus considered more important than the others. For example, the toe box of a shoe is the part that everyone notices and sees and therefore needs to be of the utmost quality, usually the leather that is the tightest. And what part is the tightest? The spine area is, which would be the center of the hide. And the more that you go away from the center and thus reach the belly of the cow, the looser, wrinkly and veiny the leather gets.
An annoying discovery where my factory thought it would be intelligent to use a good piece of leather (the spine of what looks like lower end grade 1) and a bad piece (the belly of what looks like grade 2/3 leather) to make one pair of shoes…..I clearly had to send that back as a reject!!
Now assuming that a factory has this slab of leather in front of them and assuming that utilizing one slab to its maximum potential can cut you 6-8 pairs of shoes. Now the difference is that one factory, may use the center to cut out all of the toe pieces/plain toe vamps etc. and then use the side of the slab to cut all of the heels/quarters/facings and maximize that slab to the fullest in order to get 6-8 pairs out of it, but still using all “grade 1” leather (but remember even in grade 1 leather are subgrades that are not as good in some parts of the hide as others). But then there is the factory that only uses the center of that slab and gets only 1 pairs worth. Which shoe is better? So, you see that even though the leather is the same, the factories used it differently and one factory produced a shoe from only the best part of the cow while the other used parts that aren’t as good but put them in places not as noticeable and thus not as important. (and if you haven’t figured it out, the brand that cut one shoe from the leather as opposed to 6-8, is going to be at least triple the price).
A G&G and a EG….nearly identical but seems to be a slight difference in the leather used in the facing (could be wrong though)
That being, you see now how they all vary and how EG’s leather will be different from C&J handgrade, which will be different to G&G and Lobb and Corthay etc. Plus then you have to factor in that a lot of them then get their leather from different tanneries that produce different types of leather. For example, many English factories tend to source leather from Italian/German/Polish/some French tanneries that produce a thicker, heavier and thus stiffer leather whereas many French makers will get them from French tanneries that produce a typically lighter weight, thinner and thus more flexible leather. You can also buy different thicknesses of leather. Thin ones will wrinkle more, whereas thicker ones do not as much. Whether one is better than the other is subjective really. I believe that the ones that British makers get tends to hold its shape a bit better where some very high grade French calf skin are so soft that they crease very easily. It does not take quality away from the leather but many people associate the idea of bad leather when it creates a lot of wrinkles. So as you can see, the leather quality to a shoe is a tricky concept grasp as there are so many components that make it up and thus comparing leather qualities is even trickier, but allow me to say that they are all different and some are definitely better than others…
The moral of the story is that while many brands will use different tanneries for their shoes, the important thing to realize is that one of the major separators of price is how many shoes are cut from one hide. The top brand in the world whose shoes cost £1200 retail could source the same grade one leather as a brand that charges £350 but cut only 1-2 shoes while the less expensive brand utilizes the entire hide. Same leather though!
Belly used on the inside quarter/counter — not great, but not uncommon for a shoe £200-£300