Sustainability: What is leather, really?

What is leather and how is it made? Learn how leather is processed, graded, and transformed into consumer products.

Why I only use real leather in my Strévé Design coats, capes, and accessories

With the rise in popularity of ‘vegan leather’, many of my clients have asked me why I choose to only work with animal leather.
The truth is, vegan leather has been around for decades, under different names like pleather, fake leather, and faux leather. However, while it has recently reached new levels of popularity, it is not necessarily the most sustainable option. Without a solid understanding of what real and fake leathers really are, it is almost impossible to make an educated decision about your purchase habits.
At Strévé, I choose to only use real leather in my clothes and accessories. To help you understand why, here are the basics on leather, fake leather, and all the considerations I make when choosing my materials.
In the first installment of my new Sustainability series, I will explain how leather is processed and graded. I will also show you how I carefully select the leathers I use for Strévé Design products.

What is leather?

The natural properties of leather allow it to be worn in Spring, Winter and Fall. High-quality leather is windproof, breathable, and always luxurious.
Most leather is produced as a by-product of the meat industry. Animal hides are sold at leather auctions and receive a quality grade.

Leather hides that have been processed and dyed. Image: Unsplash

Leather Grades:

Number 1: Top Grade hides with no imperfections. (Strévé only uses Number 1 grade hides.)
Number 2: Have more holes that must be cut around.
Number 3: Have larger and more frequent holes that must be cut around.

Leather tanning is the process of converting cleaned, perishable raw hides into leather to preserve their natural beauty and inherent characteristics. Untanned leather will become dry, stiff, and unusable over time. When leatherworkers tan the hides, they add value to the product and increase the material’s resistance to environmental factors like heat and humidity. Tanned leather will remain flexible and will not break down, even over long periods of time.
However, not all leathers are made equal. Leatherworkers frequently refer to five ‘types’ of leather, which indicate its quality.

The 5 Leather Types

The quality, feel and look of a finished leather product is highly dependent on the parts of the hide used. Leatherworkers classify the parts of the hide into five ‘types’ of leather, commonly referred to as the ‘five leather types’. These are: full grain, top grain, genuine leather, split grain, and bonded leather.

Full grain
Full grain leather is the strongest and most durable type of leather. It undergoes very little processing, and in most cases only the hair has been removed from the hide.
Because it has undergone minimal treatment, full grain leather usually has naturally occurring marks or blemishes. However, these blemishes do not impact the strength or durability of the material. In fact, full grain leather is the only leather type that retains the hide’s natural water repellency. For this reason, full grain leather is often used for heavy-duty goods like footwear, furniture, horseback riding equipment and luggage.

Leather can be dyed, painted, brushed, or stamped. These processes can give the material a unique colour or texture.

Top grain
Top grain leather is very similar to full grain. The major difference is that the top layer of the hide is sanded down to remove any blemishes or imperfections. The result is a durable and slightly more flexible leather. Top grain is the most common leather for high-end garments.
One important characteristic of top grain leather is that it tends to stretch over time. This can improve the comfort and fit of leather clothing and footwear, since it will stretch to fit the wearer’s body.

Genuine leather, or corrected leather, is a catch-all term for leather made from any part of the hide. Usually, genuine leather is made from parts of the hide that are leftover after other more desirable layers are removed. Genuine leather is sanded to remove imperfections, then dyed or spray-painted to create a more uniform appearance. In many cases, genuine leather is also stamped with a ‘leather-style’ pattern.
Contrary to popular belief, genuine leather is not the highest quality of leather. Due to the amount of processing genuine leather undergoes, it is less flexible and breathable than full or top grain leather. As a result, it is most often used for lower-quality leather goods.

Split grain
Split grain leather is made from the lower layers of the hide, under the full and top grain layers. Split grain suede is made from looser fibres and is the weakest of all the leather types.

Bonded leather
Bonded leather is made from the scraps left over from the production of other types of leather. It may look like the real thing, but in reality it can be made from as little as 10% leather. Scraps are mixed with other fibres and bonding materials, which hold the leather fibres together like glue. The material is then painted over and stamped to give the appearance of leather.

Final Thoughts on Leather

Animal leathers have been used for centuries thanks to their function and luxury. Real leather is durable, breathable, and flexible enough to be used for a variety of products and functions. However, there are also some drawbacks to using real leather.
Turning an animal hide into usable leather is a multi-stage process. Some of these stages, including liming, hair removal, bleaching, pickling and tanning processes, can leach harmful toxins into the environment.
Thankfully, cleaner leather processing methods are used in the European market and Japan. In the last decade, several alternatives have been introduced to the industry. A widespread adoption of these new methods will significantly reduce the global environmental impact of leather production.

Stréve Leather Products

Strévé Design products are made to last, and use high quality, durable, sustainable material. I only use top grain leathers and suedes in my products and work with my suppliers in Toronto and Montreal to bring you the most beautiful, luxurious, and high-quality materials. My leathers, suedes and shearling are sourced from Italy, Spain, and Japan, where the use of AZO Dyes, PCP and Chrome VI are banned. This means the materials used in Strévé Designs are safer for you and the environment.

How Strévé Design leathers are processed

The hides I use are drum dyed. The leather is immersed in dye and tumbled in a rotating drum to ensure maximum penetration of the dye throughout the hide. This means that if you scratch a Strévé leather jacket with your fingernail, it will not show a mark.
Once hides are dyed, they receive a combination of treatment of wax and oil which completely permeates the hide and provides moisture resistance. These treatments are designed to bring out all the unique characteristics that make leather a truly natural product. Like a grain of wood, each piece of Strévé leather has patterns and markings that make it completely unique. As each year passes, the leather will acquire a rich and beautiful patina, and will develop a character that is all its own.

Strévé leather garments and handbags can be worn in light rain and the dyes will not run. This will also allow you to wear your luxury items in most weather.

Quality makes a big difference. At Strévé Design, I only use Grade 1 Top Grain leather.

This coat was originally sewn in 1986. After some reworking, it has once again found a place in my wardrobe – 37 years later!

Designing with leather

As a designer I enjoy working with leather and the creative possibilities are endless. The drape and hang of top-quality leather is different and more luxurious than any other fabric. I am amazed at the way top Italian tanners emboss, perforate and laser cut the most beautiful of hides. These luxury materials are my paint and canvas and allow me to create one-of-a-kind coats and handbags.
I hope this gives you some insight into how carefully and meticulously I choose the leathers to make my timeless designs. A Strévé Design coat, jacket or handbag can last over twenty years. In fact, I am still wearing the leather and suede coat that started my business. This coat is thirty-seven years old and still going!

Making decisions about what we wear or don’t wear, or what we consider luxury, is a matter of personal choice. However, I hope that by giving you a peak into my business and the world of leatherworking, I can help you make an informed and educated choice. In the end, I think we all want the same thing – a sustainable future!

Shop Strévé leather coats.

Shop Strévé Suede capes.

Shop Strévé leather handbags.