Leather 101

Common Terminology



Vegetable-tanned leather is tanned using tannins and other plant-based substances found in trees, leaves, and fruit. The color is determined by different combinations of these substances and the color of the cow’s skin.  When you hold vegetable-tanned leather, you’re experiencing an ancient art: historically, it was used to bind books and make armor. But it’s still a sensitive leather. Water will have a severe effect on vegetable-tanned leather, causing it to discolor, shrink, and stiffen. Hot water will cause dramatic shrinkage, and can even make the leather become hard and brittle. 

Chrome-tanned leather dates to the mid-1800s, and is tanned using a family of salts derived from chromium, a natural element. Chromium naturally has a blue tint, which is why this leather is sometimes called “wet-blue leather.” The chrome-tanning process only takes one day, and allows the leather to be dyed more vibrant colors. In water, it will not discolor or shrink as severely as vegetable-tanned leather, and is more soft and flexible.  Most of your favorite leather pieces are probably chrome-tanned: it makes up around 80% of the global leather supply.

“Oil-tanned leather” is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s not actually tanned with oil. It’s typically chrome-tanned leather that has special oils worked into its surface after the tanning process is complete. Vegetable-tanned leather may even be used in special cases. The added oils provide a unique look and texture, and also protect the soft leather.

All leather can be oiled to add water resistance properties. Processing, called currying, happens after tanning is finished.  But that water resistance isn’t permanent: the added oils can be washed out if it’s repeatedly exposed to water. 

Hot-stuffed leather is a specific variation of this process. It is usually vegetable- or chrome- tanned leather that has been dipped into a mixture of hot oils, waxes, and tallows. The mixture infuses the leather, giving it a buttery texture, rich natural color, and water-resistant properties. 



Full-grain leather is the cream of the crop. Considered the highest quality leather on the market, full-grain leather has never been sanded, buffed, or had its surface refinished to remove natural marks and variation. That’s about more than aesthetics: the intact fibers in the grain are what makes leather strong, breathable, and durable. If you’re looking at luxury footwear or beautiful antique leather furniture, it’s most likely made from full-grain leather. That’s because where other leathers might crack and wear out, full-grain leather instead patinas with age and a little TLC.  Chic Sparrow uses full-grain leather for all products unless otherwise noted.

Suede leather is also made from leather that has been split – meaning the top grain has been cut off the hide. leaving the fibrous, fuzzy layer behind. It then undergoes special treatment to bring out the nap and texture.  It's strong and beautiful. Chic Sparrow occasionally uses suede in limited release products.

Top-grain leather is the second highest quality leather, and the most common leather used in leather products. It is thinner and more flexible than full-grain leather because it’s been split. Then, it is sanded and a finish is applied to the surface. That finish is what makes top-grain leather smoother, more stain resistant, and more uniform than full-grain leather – but it also makes the leather less breathable, and prevents it from developing a natural patina over time. 

Bicast leather leather is also called PU leather or PVC leather. Don’t confuse it with vegan leather or pleather, which is made entirely from synthetic material.  Bicast leather is made from real leather that has had its top layer – the grain – removed, and then a layer of polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride glued to the surface. You can recognize Bicast Leather, PU, and PVC leather by its uniform texture, solid colors or patterned designs, and plastic-like finish. Chic Sparrow does not use any corrected-grain leather in our products.