Shoes, unlike other leather products which vary from geographic location to geographic location, are primarily constructed in the same method universally. While there are some slight stylistic differences between the “type” of shoe, creation is the same. However, it is the type of leather which is used which makes a substantial defining factor to the quality, luxuriousness, and durability of the fabric. Leather in shoes is not exclusive to cowhide, and so the artisan as well as the consumer should understand some of the differences between leather options which are available.
Types of leather used in shoes
While calfskin is the more popular of choices among shoe craftsman, goat, pigskin, cordovan (horse), as well as exotic leathers such as buffalo have been used. Additionally, the use of non-mammal skins can be used for more luxurious projects. Ostrich, alligator and snakeskin are leather derivatives. The case in point is that there is such a diversity in the types of leather available for use on shoes, that one should focus on the construction and the functionality of the shoe. The more luxurious a shoe’s construction, the thinner and more delicate he leather used in the shoe can be. However, even with something as delicate as lambskin, there is a certain standard to the thickness and the application. Understanding the type of leather, and its practical applications for shoes is the first and most essential part.
Consumers should be aware that a great many “luxury shoes” which are offered at discounted prices are not genuine leather but rather bonded leather or imitation leather. At its simplest definition, the appearance of leather is presented under the guise of leather, but in reality the person is purchasing trumped up vinyl.
Typically, a shoe is constructed by stretching the toe of the shoe over a wooden or metal frame and then sculpting the rest of the shoe accordingly. As such lower portion of the shoe tends to have thicker ounces leather ratings than the top of the shoe. The toe and along the laces may also have slightly thinner leather. If luxury leathers are used, the shoe is traditionally layered with a thicker more durable leather to ensure durability. This allows for the more delicate leather to be presented on the exterior for aesthetics while the inner is formed for contact with the foot and for functionality.
Professional leather artisans should pay careful attention to problematic areas when choosing the type of leather in shoes. Areas such as he back inside where the sole rests, the exterior heel, the toe, all need to have thicker leather as these areas will receive ample amounts of abrasion.
- 1 oz = 1/64
- 2 oz = 1/32
- 3 oz = 3/62
- 4 oz = 1/16
- 5 oz = 5/64
- 6 oz = 3/32
- 7 oz = 7/64
- 8 oz = 1/8
- 9 oz = 9/64
- 10 oz = 5/32
- 11 oz = 11/64
- 12 oz = 3/16
- 13 oz = 13/64
- 14 oz = 7/32
When determining the type of leather to use for shoes, especially where it pertains to the durability of the shoe as well as the perceived value of the shoe, the thickness of the leather should be noted. As one would assume, the thicker the leather the less flexible he shoe will become. This does not mean that the shoe should be made of thin material either (as it would be prone to tearing). Typically, a luxury grade shoe is made from 7-9 ounce rated material. Rated ounces are equivalent to 1/64th of an inch or .4mm in thickness. Keep in mind that finer quality may fluctuate a few ounces, but there should not be anything which ranges in the 1 to 3 ounce range on a shoe.
What is the grain and how does it play into the type of leather I should use?
Grain is a nice way of talking about the pores and the defects on the leather. You need to remember that leather is the skin off of an animal and so there are going to be pores and defects present naturally. While most people are comfortable with the term grain, putting “this material has very little skin defects visible” is a little bit upsetting. That being stated, there are two main kinds of grains.
Top-grain is leather which has been made from the very outer part of an animal’s skin. Nubuck is one such example. In most cases, the leather is sanded and then dyed to give it a sleek and suede appearance. Top-Grain tends to be a bit more susceptible to stains, tears, and such, especially if the top grains have been sanded. Full-grain leather is leather which shows all of the natural grain (defect). It is the most natural look.
It is important that the artisan ask about the grain. It may be that the so called grain that is being presented is in actuality a print. There are a few ways in which you can tell if you have real full-grain leather or imitation. First, look at the cut of the leather. Real leather will have a bit of ruggedness to it. Secondly, look at the grain for a pattern. Real skin defects are not in a pattern but are rather sporadic in the design. Third, look for the pores. All of this adds up to show the quality of the grain.
Define the purpose when you determine the type of leather
Finally, in determining the type of leather in shoes to use, determine the practicality of usage. You would not want to put lambskin on a pair of tennis shoes. The application would make no sense. On the other hand, you would not want to use thick leather on a pair of loafers as the appearance would be more to the tennis shoe than to the luxury shoe.
It all comes down to a balance of experience, education, and evolving as you hone your craft. Of course, if you have any questions about which types of leather are best for a shoe, please feel free to contact me. With the information available, there is no reason why you should not be able to create the perfect shoe using the perfect leather selection.