A Guide to Leather
There are many different types of leathers that are used on footwear these days. And many different styles to the same type of leather so allow me to break down the most common options and tell you a bit about each, sharing what their plus and minuses, myths and all of the other opinions I might have on each.
Calfskin – Saying calfskin is like saying the word ‘car.’ It’s the general type of leather used to produce many of the sub types, like ‘crust’ or ‘box’ (aka box calf, aka box ‘calfskin’ — see what I am saying?). It simply means that the leather came from calf, as opposed to a full grown cow (which in reality is the case most of the leather used in the high end shoe industry). Cow leather is simply not that great. Think about your 18 year old skin versus your 60 year old skin (no offense, but it’s a reality). That’s the difference between calfskin and cowskin.
The most common type of calfskins found in dress shoes are the following:
- Crust Calf (below) – Crust calf is untreated (read as not dyed) leather. It is left intentionally natural in color in order to allow for a coloring process after the fact (i.e. not in the tannery, but rather by the shoe factory, a patina artist or some other 3rd party). A lot of what is on offer these days is crust calf and that is because a lot of people want a patina/aged/burnished look and doing this on Crust calf is best and easiest. Italians and the French have been the ones to really pioneer the use of Crust calf with their history of colorful shoes. Crust calf, not having been in the drum for dyeing, is usually softer than the other types of Calfskins. However, in some cases, this softness can result to heavier creasing so do beware of that. Everything comes with a trade-off. Also, because it is left untreated, it means that the leathers’ defects (scars/scratches/bites etc) are usually more prominent as they are not hidden by the dyeing process of the drums and finishing of the tanneries.
- Box Calf (aniline – above) – Box calf is the most traditional and commonly used leather there is. It is simply a pre-dyed leather, like 99% of all black calf leather. Most likely any shoe that has a uniform finish is going to be made from Box calf. The English shoemakers have traditionally stuck with Box calf as they never got so much into patina and making Green/Blue/Red shoes (although this is changing 😊. Some notable tanneries producing Box calf are Weinheimer for Black calf, Du Puy and Annonay for everything else.
Box calf will always be stiffer due to the dyeing process. And Black box calf will traditionally be the most rigid. Something about the black dye makes it harder than the rest. For creasing, well this will depend on the quality of the skin as I have seen Box calf hardly crease at all and then some that creased worse than anything else. In this department, there is no true rhyme or reason. But it is also generally thought of as being more resistant and durable with respects to its crust counterpart.
- Bookbinder Calf (image below) – This is somewhat of a contradiction in itself but it’s common in the industry so let’s discuss it. Bookbinder/Polished/Shined calf is simply a way to take cheap leather and give it a top acrylic coating that hides all blemishes and leaves this plastic like look. It allows the shoemaker to buy cheap and sell high, tricking customers into believing that it is top quality calfskin when it is not. Italian brands have been doing this for years. Nearly all designer brands use this type of leather, quite frequently as it is a GREAT way to increase your profit margins. The lower priced welted English brands have been using this too for quite some time although I presume that their ideas for doing so might be more functional for the following reasons.
Bookbinder is durable. Its top coating makes it nearly impenetrable. So if you live in a wet environment, then bookbinder leather can be a good option for you in order to not have your shoes so easily ruined or requiring constant upkeep. The downside is that it is extremely rigid which means it cracks easily, particularly in the vamp where the shoe creases during each step. And once it cracks, that’s it. There is no coming back from that. And it also scuffs easily and you can’t shine those scuffs out as it is in the acrylic, not the leather.
Suede – Suede is leather. Don’t be mistaken. It’s the underside of the hide i.e. the part that is inside the calf. For it’s long hair like textured appearance it has been loved and hated by many for years for various reasons. Let’s discuss the different types of suede and the pro’s and con’s of each.
- Full Grain Suede – Full grain suede is simply the premium uncut suede that you typically find in the very high end, expensive shoes. You can tell that suede is full grain when it is super soft and when you rub your fingers over it, it drastically changes from light to dark depending on which way the hair is laying. The hairs of the suede will always be quite long on a full grain suede. It will also have a shimmery sheen to it. It’s hard to explain but is more vibrant than the other suedes.
- Split Grain Suede – Split suede is like bookbinder in a manner of speaking. They shave off the top layer of the suede, most likely as a way to hide less-premium cuts that have more noticeable blemishes were they to leave the suede uncut. Split suede is cheaper and more often than not seen as inferior. Its texture is not nearly as plush as full-grain suede and does not have as much of a contrast between light and dark when rubbing your fingers across the suede. Its hairs are naturally shorter.
Here are a few of my opinions on the matter of suede and the differences between full grain and split suede. Split suede is often bad mouthed but in reality most makers are using it and let me explain why. First of all, Full Grain is insanely expensive, nearly double (if not more) the cost of split suede. Of course it is nicer to feel but it is not better in terms of durability and I believe that is why it is not used as much. You don’t get double the lifespan from it and it is often more expensive than premium calfskins. It doesn’t age as well either as when those beautiful long hairs of the suede start to get worn down from wear and tear it simply does not look as nice anymore. It shows more so it’s wear and tear. Split suede on the other hand is not nearly as plush and elegant looking but it is durable and holds up well to wear and tear.
I once wore my snuff suede chukka boots (split suede) on a scooter in Paris and got caught in a hailstorm downpour. I got so wet that the shoes turned black. But when they dried, they dried just fine, evenly and the snuff went back to its original color. And that’s the beauty of split suede. When it comes from a good tannery, then its quality is still high and it wears very well. And on top of that, to be honest, it takes rain better and this myth that suede isn’t good for rain is simply garbage. Cheap suede is not good for rain. Sand suede is not good for rain. But Snuff suede and darker takes bad weather like a charm and in fact, I prefer to wear my suede on wet days than my leather. The only thing one must do is remember to steam and brush your suede once it has dried. Do that and you will forever have good suede.
Grain Leather – Grain leather is simply a stamped calfskin. Its look is not natural and is created by the tannery. You buy leather in different thicknesses when buying from the tannery and I want to say that Grain leather is typically a touch thicker than your traditional calfskins as it needs to be when having that texture finish to it. You tend to find grain leathers on models that are more for adverse weather as its textured finish usually hides wear and tear better than a smooth surface does. Some of the more notable grain leather is the dress shoe industry are:
- Pebble Grain (shown above) – This is quite the prominent grain and is often used on boots and/or shoe models like full brogues. This is the grain that really takes the weather well as its thick pebble-like finish allows for the ultimate beat up without showing too much wear and tear. The English shoemakers are quite fond of using this type of grain to combat that rainy environment and particularly for those that live in the countryside, want to dress smart and maintain a good pair of shoes. A country brogue or boot is nearly always grained.
- Pin Grain – Somewhat like the pebble grain in look, the pin grain is simply a much smaller design of grain, that looks like it could have been made by pin dots. For some reason, its finish is often shinier and I never knew why whereas pebble is always matte. You tend to find pin grain in the higher end shoemakers as it is more fine grain and truth be told, not so sure as to how it holds up to the adverse weather as I have never had a pair. But it’s nice for having something different than calfskin and still being able to maintain elegance through its subtle appearance.
- Hatch Grain (shown below) – This grain has taken the industry by storm in the last 10 years. It’s a softer grain all around and much more subtle than it’s pebble-like counterparts. Due to this softer nature, I personally find it more dressy or at least the ability to wear it with more dress attire whereas, for me, I see pebble grain as casual and hence why you often find that on boots or full brogues. But good old Hatch grain is found on all models, even smart oxfords or dressy loafers. It’s the new age grain that many customers seek but that is still somewhat rare to find as it has not fully caught on to being always on offer by all of the tanneries. The only downside is that I don’t believe this grain takes as much wear and tear as the others do.
There are many more variants of leather used in the industry, like Cordovan and a million other types of grain, but the ones in this post make up the majority of what is found on the dress shoes of today.
Knowing the differences will help you make informed decisions about your purchases.
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