One of the fundamental challenges of procuring high-quality leather is the fact that you’re trying to make it out of an animal; a big, lumbering oaf of an animal. One that routinely walks into jagged things, attracts all manner of parasites, and isn’t above going to sleep in a bed of its own poop. The challenge, then, lies in using this animal’s skin to produce leather that doesn’t show the signs of its rock n’ roll lifestyle. Unless of course parasite-scarred oxfords or feces burned upholstery starts to become a thing.
Let’s use the tick-ridden cow in the picture as an example. Let’s say that this cow gets slaughtered and its skin is sent off to a tannery. An entire hide is pretty thick so it gets split into a couple of layers in order to meet the thickness specifications of its end user (shoemaker, upholsterer, etc.). The uppermost layer containing the epidermis is called the grain (or top grain) and the bottom layer is called the split (or corium), which can then be further separated into sub-split layers. The top grain is the densest, most durable, most water resistant, and therefore the most desirable/ expensive. Unfortunately, however, it’s also the one that was damaged by all of the ticks. So the tanner has to look at the grain layer, his biggest money maker, and decide one of two things: sell the hide as-is at a dramatically reduced price (because so little of the hide would actually be useable), or somehow cover up the damage. This second option produces what’s called corrected grain leather; basically an attempt to salvage a damaged hide from the scarring incurred by a life of being enormous and stupid and/ or poorly cared for.
Unfortunately, the new and refined face of corrected grain comes at a significant cost to its quality. First of all the scarred leather is buffed with an abrasive material until the blemishes are evened out. But because the grain layer has… grain, the buffed area stands out; imagine taking a belt sander to your dining room table. This is covered up with a pigment coat made of chemical dyes (such as casein, nitrocellulose, polyurethane, acrylic, and polymer compositions) which even out the surface. The leather is then embossed with an artificial grain pattern to give it the look of real grain. The problems associated with corrected grain leather shoes stem from the chemicals used in the pigmentation process.
These chemicals affect shoes in several ways: they limit breathability, cause visible cracking over time, and keep the leather from being able to absorb polishes and creams, which causes further material damage over time and prevents patina. If you were to ask me to make a list of desirable qualities for shoe leather, the above list would be its exact inverse. You want a shoe that breathes, that doesn’t crack, that takes a nice polish, and that will patina, not deteriorate, over time. Grain correction prevents all of these. But corrected grain leather makes up the vast majority of leather sold in the world and, unfortunately, a large percentage of the shoes that you’ll see on an average store shelf.
When assessing the quality of a pair of shoes, determining whether or not they’re made with corrected grain leather should be your first priority. So how do you identify corrected grain? The short answer, unfortunately, is that it can be pretty hard to do just by looking at them. The surest way to know is to find out from an authoritative source. Brands that use real top grain typically like to brag about it, so a knowledgeable salesman will be likely to tell you before you even ask.
There are some rough guidelines if you want to see for yourself, however:
1) Because true, uncorrected, top grain leather is so precious it’s very expensive. So your first cue in trying to determine if a shoe is corrected grain will be price. Again, this isn’t a sure thing. While you can be pretty sure that a cheaper shoe isn’t going to be full top grain, you can’t always be sure that an expensive shoe isn’t corrected grain.
2) Keep in mind how it’s made and look for a plastic-y shimmer or an unnatural gloss.
3) Try to mark the surface with your fingernail. Generally, if it’s corrected grain leather you won’t see a scratch. If it’s real leather, you’ll make a small mark that can easily be buffed out.
4) Drop water on it (not exactly something you can do in the store). The chemicals used in grain correction typically will keep water from soaking in whereas uncorrected leather will absorb the water and turn slightly darker in that spot.