Choosing the best leather for shoes is essential to the final look and comfort of your footwear. Rubber soles may feel nicer at the beginning, but they break down faster and are more difficult to maintain than leather.
Understanding shoe leather types can be confusing. This blog post provides a brief overview of the most common shoe leathers.
Vegetable tanned leather is one of the oldest leather tanning methods. It consists in transforming raw animal skin into a material that respects its natural characteristics as much as possible, using only tanning agents of vegetable origin, extracted from barks of trees such as chestnut or quebracho, fruits and leaves. The result is a natural leather with an earthy and pleasant scent that develops a unique patina over time. It is also very durable, making it perfect for shoes and boots that will be worn on a daily basis.
Vegetal tanned leather is the choice of shoemakers for whom quality and sustainability are paramount. Its use does not require the killing of animals and it has a minimal environmental impact compared to chrome tanned leather, which is extremely toxic for the environment and human beings.
Moreover, vegetable tanned leather does not release harmful substances during the production process or upon use. It is also very suitable for allergic subjects, being free of any chemical additives and heavy metals. This is a very important fact given that the majority of the footwear on the market today contains synthetic materials, which are not only harmful to the environment but can cause allergic reactions in predisposed persons, such as hives and itching.
At Melvin & Hamilton, we decided long ago to use vegetable tanned leather for our shoes, even though it makes them more expensive than other leathers. This is because we believe that leather is the most important element of our products, as it is what gives them their character and personality. The high quality of vegetable tanned leather allows us to achieve unique and original shades, colors, and finishes that are impossible to replicate with any other leather type.
We have a wide selection of shoes and boots in vegetable tanned leather from well-known tanneries such as Garat, Rendenbach or Badalassi Carlo. These are some of the most prestigious dress shoe manufacturers in Italy, offering a great variety of styles and models for all occasions. For example, we have a moc toe boot in a beautiful dark brown vegetable tanned leather from Badalassi that is similar in look to Red Wing’s Classic Moc 875 but costs less than $350.
If you want your shoes to really darken up and get that gorgeous patina with age, veg tanned leather is the way to go. However, for a more durable and weather resistant option chrome tanned leather is also an excellent choice. The vast majority of men’s quality shoes are made with chrome tanned leather, and this is a good choice for uppers in particular. It’s more supple than veg tanned leather and it doesn’t crack as easily when it gets wet (although, in the low-quality options this can still happen). Chrome tanned leather also takes shoe polish much better than veg tanned leather.
The tanning process itself has changed a lot over the centuries. Originally, all leather was vegetable tanned but this method is very time-consuming and can leave a finished product with a weak luminosity. It’s been replaced by chromium tanning, which adds chromium sulfate salt to the bath to accelerate the process and add different properties to the final product. This type of tanning is now used for over 90% of the world’s leather.
There are a number of tanneries which produce high quality chrome tanned leathers. Ilcea is probably the most well-known, and they are based in Bassano del Grappa in Italy. They produce a range of calfskin leathers, including Radica leather which was used by John Lobb Paris for their Museum calfskin models and is now the standard for their Fort Belvedere models. They also produce a range of crust leather and embossed grain leather. Another very high-quality option is Tannerie d’Annonay, who are based in the French town of Annonay. They make a number of very thick and high-quality tanned calfskin uppers, including their popular range of “box” calfskin which was used by John Lobb Paris for many years under the name “Museum calf”. They also produce smooth pressed leather and embossed crust leather.
In terms of price, it’s important to remember that leather is an expensive material, so you need to budget for it. That said, for the average pair of shoes you’re looking at around $300 for a decent tanned calfskin.
Full grain leather is a premium material that’s used to create some of the finest shoes around. Because it is not sanded or buffed to remove imperfections, the surface of this leather retains its natural pores and marks, making it an incredibly attractive and authentic-looking material. It’s also very strong and resilient, despite its thin exterior, which makes it an ideal material for shoes that will see heavy wear and tear.
The pores of this leather type allow it to absorb moisture from the air, which helps to keep your feet cool and comfortable. It is also highly breathable, meaning that it will easily expel sweat and vapors. This is especially beneficial if you’re wearing a pair of boots that will be exposed to rain or snow as these shoes will have the ability to quickly release the excess water.
Another reason that full grain is considered to be the best quality leather is that it’s extremely durable. The natural fibers that make up this leather are tightly woven together, which means that it’s very difficult to damage the surface of these shoes. It will easily withstand being scuffed, scratched, and even slashed by sharp objects without becoming damaged or ripped. This is why it’s often used in weapon holsters, work belts and other items that will see rough use.
However, it’s important to note that the scuffs and scratches of this type of leather will eventually begin to wear away over time, as the fibers beneath begin to break down and degrade. This is why it’s crucial to only buy a quality pair of shoes that are made from this leather type, so that they can last you for as long as possible.
Other types of leather include suede, corrected grain, and bonded leather. Corrected grain leather is a lower grade of leather that has been sanded and buffed to remove imperfections, before being dyed or stamped with various finishes. This process gives it a more uniform appearance, but it sacrifices some of the strength and water resistance of full-grain leather. It is usually sourced from cow skin, but it can be made from other types of animals as well, including pigs.
The leather of choice for dress shoes and boots, calfskin is a supple, durable leather that can be tanned to produce different types of leather. It is typically sourced from young cows or calves, which give it its natural fine grain structure that’s free of blemishes and scars. It’s also denser than the hides of older animals, making it more resistant to wear and tear.
Calfskin can be made into various types of leather, and the type you choose should be tailored to your needs. For example, if you want your shoes to last, go for full-grain calfskin rather than top-grain. Top grain is processed so much that the natural grain has been sanded away, which degrades the leather’s texture and makes it less pliable. It will also not be able to breathe, so it won’t develop a beautiful patina over time.
You can also find grained calfskin that has been stamped on at the factory instead of allowing the natural grain to develop. This is often used on cheaper leathers like nappa or pebble grain. Grain calfskin is tough and can withstand heavy wear, but it won’t develop a gorgeous patina the way a genuine patina can.
There’s also smooth calfskin, which is a very popular choice for dress shoes and boots. It has a sleek look and is very pliable, making it a great option for footwear that will be exposed to water or other liquids. Smooth leather is more expensive than pebbled or grain, but it’s worth the extra expense for its superior quality.
You can also find suede calfskin, which is tanned to make the leather soft and supple while still being waterproof. Suede leather can be waxed, which enhances its resistance to liquids and stains. You can find great suede calfskin from high-end tanneries like C.F. Stead and shoemakers like Crocket & Jones. You can even find great waxed suede calfskin on boots from Taft Dragon, Grant Stone, and Truman Boot Company. The type of calfskin you choose will depend on your particular needs, but whatever kind you choose should be properly cared for to keep it looking great and lasting long.