What is shoe leather?
Shoe leather is the material that is used to make the shoe in all its parts: the upper, the sole, the lining and the insole. Only one type of leather is not suitable for use as each part of the shoe requires leathers with suitable properties and characteristics. When choosing the leather to make a shoe, it is important to keep in mind the main distinction between the types of leather: in general, leather for footwear can be of two types:
- Top or full grain leather, the most priced skins that are the top side of leather, they can be finished in various ways;
- Split (or suede), obtained from the underside of the skin, giving the classic velour effect.
The leather for making a shoes is divided in the following parts:
- The out-sole part of the shoe is called sole leather
- The insole of the shoe called insole leather
- The internal of the shoe is made with lining leather
- The exterior part of the shoe is the upper leather
The leather for shoes, boots and sandals is similar to the leather used for bags. They also need to have particular physical qualities, like resistance to bending and waterproof. Another important aspect is the look of the leather that is important for the kind of shoes you are making: classic for classical shoes and fashion for all the rest of shoes.
Leather for shoes: Main features
Unlike other objects made of leather, like sofa, garment goods, purses and so on, the majority of shoe leather is stretched over a last (a wooden or plastic form in the general shape of a foot) to create the shoe upper. Because of this the leather has to be inside a particular range of thickness. The type of leather also influences the look of the shoes you are making.
Types of leather for shoes
- Bovine Leather
- Pig Leather
- Exotic Leather (snakes, crocodiles, fishes..)
- Sheep, lamb and goat leather
- Kangaroo leather
One of the most used leather is calfskin, because it comes from a calf and it has a tighter grain and fiber, and usually is thinner and lighter than cow hide. Other types of leather are goatskin, sheepskin, pigskin, snakeskin and other exotic animal like buffalo, elephant, kangaroo, crocodiles and so on. Reptile skins are more expensive than the bovine leather.
The importance of thickness
Leather thicknesses is measured in millimeters or ounces of weight, and fractions of an inch.
- A leather out-sole on a man’s shoe is around 5 mm.
- An insole leather is typically around 2,5 mm,
- Shoe upper is around 2 mm on a typical dress/business shoe
- Lining is about 0,5 mm
All of the above listed thicknesses can vary due to leather type, fashion and style.
Corrected grain leather
Corrected grain leather is sometimes referred to as bookbinder leather. If the grain has not been corrected it is referred to as full grain. One of the final stages of tanning leather is applying the color and finish (although chromium tanned leather can be bought in the “wet blue” state” it comes out of the tanning process in). The high quality leather is typically aniline dyed, which saturates the color completely through the leather. The leather won’t have a coated feel to it. The leather is also pressed under high pressure to give it some shine, and a very thin coat of clear or colored acrylic is applied as a final finish, in most cases.
Some shoe manufacturers may also add an additional clear or colored finish. In the case of corrected grain, the pressing and acrylic finish is also where the corrected grain is applied. Because of this, corrected grain leather will have a thicker finish than non-corrected grain. Corrected grain finishes can range from a simple smooth surface to faux animal skin. Corrected grain leather is typically lower grade leather, simply because the grain and aniline dye would be covered up if done to a higher quality leather. And, the thicker the finish the poorer the leather quality can be. There are exceptions to this rule of course; for example: some pebble grain shoes/boots can be made of good quality leather, but it is hard to tell because of what the finish covers up.
The best way to tell if a shoe is made of corrected grain leather (actually, leather that has a corrected finish on the grain) is to flex the shoe. The finer the creases the more finish on the shoe (the greater the correction). Shoes come in all types and qualities of leather, so it helps to have an idea of what you are really buying. Another of the biggest indicators you can use for determining if a shoe uses corrected grain is price. Quality costs good money. Yet another way is to look at the shininess since corrected grain leather has a much thicker layer of acrylic.
Which is the best leather for shoes?
When it comes to leather shoes it is helpful to have an understanding of leather in general, and shoe leather in specific. Most people think of leather as cow hide, but it really relates to any animal skin that has been through the tanning process to convert the dead animal skin into a lasting useful material (Leather). Although the tanned skin of a young calf is called calfskin it is still leather. Because calfskin comes from a calf it has a tighter grain and fiber, and is thinner and lighter than cow hide; this makes for better shoe leather. There are other types of animal leather like goat and sheep, Pigskin/Peccary (from pig), Cordovan Shell (from horse), and of course other exotic animal skins like buffalo, elephant, kangaroo and so on. There are also bird skins, like ostrich, and reptile skins like alligator, crocodile, lizard and snake.
Reptile skins tend to last longer and need less care than animal leathers, but they are also more expensive. Bovine leather (cow hide/calfskin) is by far the most commonly used leather in shoes.
As already said an high quality leather for shoe uses can be in the following places:
- The out-sole of the shoe (the part that touches the ground)
- The insole of the shoe (the part your foot rests on)
- The lining of the shoe (between your foot and the upper)
- The heel of the shoe (as in stacked layers of leather to create the heel)
- The shoe upper (the rest of the shoe, excluding the items above)
Shoe that are not all leather may have rubber soles, insoles made of various materials, and heels made of wood, rubber or plastic. I would suggest going with all leather if you can, with the exception of perhaps rubber soles if you need to stand in cold wet environments.
How to recognize the quality of leather for shoes
The quality of the leather used in a given line of shoes is determined by the grade of leather the shoe manufacturer purchased to make the shoes. The leather on a shoe upper is typically grain side out leather, but shell cordovan has no grain, waxed leather is used inside out (flesh side out), and suede leather has had the grain removed entirely. Leather that has blemishes in the grain are often buffed (sanded) of the grain side to remove the blemishes, which then requires the grain to be corrected.
The quality of the leather used in a given line of shoes is determined by the grade of leather the shoe manufacturer purchased to make the shoes. Leather is graded in two basic ways:
- The quality of the hide in general (amount of scars, blemishes, etc…)
- The area of the hide a specific piece of leather is cut from (back, belly, front shoulders, etc…)
Leather quality is typically graded in four grades, with grade 1 being the best, and grade 4 being the worst. This means that even grade 1 hides (little to no blemishes) have grade 4 leather (belly skin).
Some tips to recognize the quality of the leather:
- The grade of leather used is the most critical in the shoe upper, as this is where the quality of the leather is most visible. Shoe uppers made from the back area leather of a grade 1 hide would be the best shoe leather you could get (and also makes for a very expensive pair of shoes).
- The leather on a shoe upper is typically grain side out leather, but leathers like shell cordovan and waxed leather are used inside out (flesh side out), and suede leather has had the grain removed entirely. Inside out leathers are typically pressed under very high pressure to compress the fibers to a smooth surface.
- Leather that has blemishes in the grain are often buffed (sanded) of the grain side to remove the blemishes, which then requires the grain to be corrected. Corrected grain leather is sometimes referred to as top grain leather or bookbinder leather. If the grain has not been corrected (no existing blemishes in the grain to begin with) it is referred to as full grain. The term top grain has also been used to define the grain side of the leather, making full grain and top grain synonymous, so it can be confusing.
- One of the final stages of tanning leather is applying the color and finish (although chromium tanned leather can be bought in a “wet blue” state).
- The high quality leather is typically aniline dyed, which saturates the color completely through the leather. The leather is also pressed under high pressure to give it some shine, and a very thin coat of clear or colored acrylic is applied as a final finish, in most cases.
- In the case of corrected grain, the pressing and acrylic finish is also where the corrected grain is applied. Because of this corrected grain leather will have a thicker finish than non-corrected grain, and also tend to be a little shinier. Patent leather is corrected grain leather with a thick acrylic finish, pressed to a high shine.
Basics of shoe making Video
Where to buy leather for shoes, upper, lining, sole and insole?
In the category of our website Leather for shoes you will find the most suitable material leather for making shoes in general, from décolleté to boots, elegant or sporty, both for the upper, the sole, the insole and lining parts. Leather for footwear is resistant to flexion and atmospheric agents, can be rigid, semi-rigid or soft ant it’s also used for the top of the boots.