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We often get asked "what is full grain leather?" and simply put, it is the natural, top layer of a cowhide that is unchanged except for the removal of hair. The diagram below illustrates how a cowhide, which initially is very thick, is sliced into at least two layers - the top cut and the bottom cut. The top cut which includes the full and top grain is the strongest and most valued part of the hide. The bottom cut is called "split leather" and typically made into suede.
Because full grain leather is not altered through any mechanical process, natural markings on the skin such as scratches, stretch marks or insect bites are can be visible after the leather is dyed and are considered the "signature of fine leather." On close inspection of the grain, even the hair follicles are visible! Of course, full grain leather still has to be tanned and finished to create hides that are used for furniture, automotive, or other applications but the resulting product is true representation of the original cowhide. However, since most cowhides require some altering due to excessive markings on the skin (top grain), only 10-15% can be finished as full grain leather, making it the most desired in the marketplace.
Top grain leather is the top cut of a cowhide with the outermost layer of the skin removed or "corrected" for blemishes. While top grain leather is the same cut from the hide as full grain, it requires alterations beyond the removal of hair. Due to the excessive natural markings, or blemishes, the leather's surface is mechanically sanded. Once the leather surface is uniform, it is tanned, finished, and embossed - typically into a natural grain skin texture or pebble grain texture.
So, what is top grain leather used for? The controlled, uniform nature of top grain leather makes it a top choice for most furniture, auto, or other leathercraft applications. It is especially common for high traffic (high use) applications such as seating. During the finishing process, a protective topcoat is typically applied to top grain leather, which acts as a safeguard against staining and "wear and tear." The consistency, durability and price make top grain leathers the most popular leather on the market.