Simply put, full grain leather is the real deal, the best you can get. Take a look at the picture above. This kind of richness, depth and character is only possible with full grain leather.
When people first hear the term full grain leather they sometimes think it means that the leather will look really grainy or pebbly. That is not the case. Full grain refers to the full hide with all of its layers intact - not sanded down.
Here's a whiteboard explainer video we put together that sums up full grain leather vs. genuine leather:
Here's a deeper look at full grain leather vs. genuine leather. First, to better understand the difference, it helps to look at the composition of a hide. There are essentially 3 layers to a hide.
The grain is the top outermost layer of the hide. It’s the part you see. This layer of the hide is also the strongest, its fibers are very dense and tightly “woven”. And that makes sense if you think about a cow in the wild. It needs the outer layer to be tough to contend with predators, fences, etc.
The junction is where the fibers start to loosen up a bit and the grain transitions to the split or suede part of the hide.
The split as it is often referred to is essentially suede. Its softer, looser fibers make up the bulk of the hide. It is also the weakest part of the hide.
But it’s what happens from here that matters most.
Once the top layer of the hide has been altered in certain ways, it is no longer full grain leather. This is also where the semantics start to get a little dicey. Once the top layer has been altered, you could end up with top grain, corrected grain, or genuine leather.
The term top grain leather usually refers to the top layer of the cowhide that has been minimally altered, perhaps sanded down a bit to hide imperfections. Some people may tell you that top grain leather is the same as full grain, but in my experience that is simply not true.
Here’s one way you can tell. Anyone selling top grain leather is happy to have you believe that it’s the same as full grain leather. But anyone selling full grain leather makes sure to let you know it’s full grain leather and they don’t market it as top grain. It seems that industry practice is that top grain leather means at least something has been done to the hide, usually some sanding of the surface.
So why does this matter? Two reasons. First, sanding the hide makes it weaker. We’re building bags to last a very long time, we don’t want to weaken the hide. Second, the leather loses some character. With full grain leather, you can see the leather surface in its natural state - imperfections and all. For example, if the cow ran into a barbed wire fence, you may see a little scar on the hide. Full grain leather also allows the natural marbling, texture and variety of color in the hide to come through fully.
Corrected grain leather is usually more altered than top grain leather. It could just be sanded, but it is often buffed or embossed or resurfaced in some way. Why would anyone do this? Money. You can take a cheap hide with lots of flaws and resurface it to make it appear uniform.
Genuine leather is the catchall term for anything that is technically leather. Over the years, this definition has gotten so stretched that it is almost meaningless for consumers. It’s also perhaps the best-kept secret in the industry.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers still believe genuine leather is the “best” or at least a premium product that warrants a higher price. The opposite is often the case.
Again, genuine leather just means “technically leather”. But think about that. What is leather? It means cowhide, right? Wrong. Awhile back, the definition of genuine leather was changed to include other animal hides. That means pig leather, goat leather, etc. also qualify as “genuine leather”. It also means that discarded scraps of leather reconstituted into a bag form can qualify as a “genuine leather bag”. So you could take scraps of pig hide, sand down the surface, emboss it, and reformat it into a bag, jacket or wallet and call it “genuine leather.” Surprised?
Now, one other thing to note. Full grain leather is also genuine leather by definition. But again, someone selling full grain leather generally won’t market it as genuine leather because they know the difference.
So, to recap, full grain leather is considered the best because it’s the full hide, not sanded or corrected or weakened in any way. Because of this, hide selection is important, as is the tanning process itself.
Now, the hide can be split or shaved down to a different thickness. But this is done from the back (suede) side so as not to weaken the hide. This allows you to have full grain leather of different thicknesses for different products/purposes. In any event, the top layer of the hide is not weakened with full grain leather.
Hope that helps shed some light on an often misunderstood topic.