Vegetable Tanned Full Grain Aniline Leather hides are the most coveted and sought after, because they have the most natural beauty and strength, producing luxurious products with that unmistakable leather fragrance. Products that age gracefully and are passed down from generation to generation. Each hide is one of a kind, and no two items will look completely alike. Exactly what you need when creating a truly unique premium product that’s intended to last a lifetime.
Beauty in. Beauty Out.
Why make something out of leather if you’re not going to make it to last a lifetime? We’ve all owned items that broke or fell apart after only a couple of years of use. Painted leather scratches. Painted edges crack and peel. Linings tear. Stitches rip. Zippers fail. It doesn’t matter how expensive it is. Poor design, substandard construction methods and inferior materials ruin an article long before the leather itself is ruined. To create a premium product, you have to first start with premium materials. Which is why I only work with top quality waxed threads, solid brass (or steel) hardware and premium leather.
There are many types of cow leather available, but the highest quality leather is vegetable tanned full grain aniline leather. That’s a mouthful, I know, but I’ll try to break it down for you. The time consuming vegetable tanning process is more expensive than the alternative chrome tanning process, but it’s better for the environment and it results in a soft buttery surface that is ultimately stronger and ages more gracefully. Full grain means the hide includes the skin layer which makes it much stronger than other leathers. Aniline means the leather has not been sanded or painted to cover up imperfections in the hide. Instead it’s been carefully selected for minimal marks and scarring then dyed, which allows the natural beauty of the leather to shine through.
Most leather you see is painted, which does create a clean uniform look. But when marks and scratches occur (and they inevitably will), the surface appears to be damaged and ruined. On the other hand, the more natural varied look of aniline leather darkens and collects marks as time passes to create a deep rich patina. Which is what you want in a product that’s designed to endure. Plus, without a coat of paint covering the surface of the hide, you can really feel the soft supple nature of the skin.
I source almost all my leather from two tanneries located in the Tuscan region of Italy. Conceria Lo Stivale and Conceria Badalassi Carlo (Conceria = Tannery). Both are members of ConsorzioVeraPelle, a consortium of leather tanneries committed to traditional vegetable tanning methods with respect for the environment. You can read more about their commitment to excellence on their website.
It’s extremely difficult to convey over the internet just how amazing premium vegetable tanned full grain aniline leather is. The way it looks, feels and smells. I can’t help you with the last two, but I can give the first one a shot. This leather is 1.6mm thick but it’s so soft and buttery, it inspired this slightly ridiculous short film.
Leather 101 - A Crash Course in Leather
Leather is made from many different animals, but I choose to work only with cow leather that is sourced from the food industry. Which means the hide is being put to use rather than wasted. For me, cowhide (vacchetta) offers a perfect balance of strength and beauty.
There are three different layers that make up a cowhide. The top layer, called the Grain (Skin). The middle layer, which is the Grain and Corium Interface. And the bottom layer, the Corium (Flesh). A Full Grain Leather means that all three of these layers are present in the finished product. It is widely accepted as the highest grade leather on the market. Known for its strength, durability and inherent beauty. If cared for properly, a bag made of full grain leather will remain with you for the rest of your life.
Depending on the thickness and overall condition of a hide, it could be made into several different types of products to work with.
The first and generally least expensive leather is Split leather. This is the underside of the hide (Flesh) after the top layers have been removed to make Full Grain leather. It is then surfaced with paint and a protective coating. Although less expensive than other leathers, Split leather is not nearly as strong and does not age as well.
Nubuck is a top grain leather that most likely had too many markings to make into a Full Grain hide. It consists of the top layers (Skin & Flesh), but the top side is fully corrected (sanded flat) and brushed to create a Suede-like product. Suede is almost the same as Nubuck, but it contains more of the Skin layer, so it is more durable than Nubuck. Both are susceptible to water damage and must be regularly brushed to maintain their looks.
Next we have a range of Full Grain leathers, which include all three layers of the hide. If there are too many marks and scratches on a hide, the upper Skin side can be sanded smooth to make a Corrected Full Grain product. These are fully painted and sealed with a protective coating. They are strong and relatively durable, but the skin layer integrity has been compromised with the sanding, and being painted, they are more susceptible to scratches and cracking over the years.
Finally we have Semi-Aniline and Aniline Full Grain leathers. Semi-Aniline leather has minimal corrective sanding and may be lightly pigmented to mask any imperfections. While Aniline leather is made from the hides that have the least amount of marks and scratches. They are cut to the final thickness then left natural or dyed. Maintaining the full strength of the uncorrected Skin layer and allowing the inherent beauty of the hide to show through in the final product.
There are two processes to convert raw cowhide into a product for leatherwork. Chrome Tanning and Vegetable Tanning. Chrome Tanning was developed towards the end of the 19th century and is much faster than traditional methods, which makes it much more inexpensive and consequently more appealing to corporations looking to keep costs low and profit margins high. Since this process contains toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment, I opted early on to go with the other option… vegetable tanning.
Vegetable Tanning is the traditional processing method that uses naturally occurring Tannins to transform raw hide into workable leather. Thus the term “Tanning”. Each traditional tannery has their own blend made from barks (chestnut, oak, mangrove… etc.), rinds and other natural extracts, some refined to perfection over centuries. Raw hides are cleaned and immersed in this concoction within giant barrels for several weeks. After which they are rinsed and dyed (or left natural) and finally treated with fats and oils resulting in the luxurious premium product that I then use in my workshop.
Just like the skin on your body, the key to caring for leather is keeping it properly moisturized with oils and fats. Depending on how often you use it and the general appearance you prefer, you can treat your leather from once a month to once a year.
There are many products out there for the treatment of leather. I have no problem with most of these products as long as they have natural ingredients that won’t spoil like neatsfoot oil or mink oil… possibly mixed with some kind of wax (preferably beeswax). My personal favorite brand is Saphir, used by luxury brands like Hermes. I treat almost every product with this before I send it out of the workshop (Depending on the customer’s preferences of course.) It is a blend of oil and wax that you can wipe on with a soft rag or sponge, wait 3-5 minutes, then buff.
Just as an example: I handle my leather wallet every day, so the oils from my hands keep it nice and supple. I treat it maybe once a year. Not because it needs it, but just to remove some of the dirt that it’s collected. Whereas my larger bags that I use only a few times a month, I’ll treat a couple of times a year to even out some of the marks and refresh its natural luster.
If the leather gets wet, it’s not the end of the world. Just wipe off the excess water and set it out in the open where it can dry, not in the direct sunlight. After it’s dry, if needed you can treat it with whichever product you prefer. It may or may not leave a watermark, but this is what makes full grain aniline leather more beautiful as it ages. The first few marks may be difficult, but the more you use an item, the faster all the various marks blend together to form the coveted patina.