It can be challenging to choose a leather handbag. Many cheap imitation types of leather are on the market, with low-quality artistry and hardware that will break after a few seasons. We spoke with a leather expert to gain insight into what happens under the hood to help you distinguish between the high-quality and the low-quality.
Frank Clegg is among the few Americans who can make a leather bag well. For more than 40 years, he has been hand-crafting top-quality leather goods in his Fall River, Massachusetts, shop. My Clegg duffle is now five years old and looks even better with the patina of chestnut leather that has been broken in. Frank is a legendary American craftsman. He doesn’t take shortcuts, and he constantly experiments with ways to improve the products he makes.
FAKE LEATHER VS. REAL LEATHER LEATHER VS. FAKE LEATHER
Only buy a bag if you are sure it is accurate or fake. Nothing artificial can match the quality and durability of quality leather. When possible, look for “full-grain” leather; this is leather that hasn’t had its surface altered or “coated” to hide the natural markings (literally the scars) on the skin. The items that are marked “genuine” leather (rather than “full grain”) usually consist of split leather from the backsides of the skins. They are then stamped with a grain pattern and painted like full-grain leather. These hides are more durable and soft than they appear.
DIFFERENTIATION OF LEATHER QUALITY
The quality of the leather (and its price) is determined by two factors: the selection of the hide and the tanning procedure.
The selection of hides is based on how clean and free from natural marks the leather is. Leathers are usually graded and priced based on how pure the hair is and the health of the animal’s skin.
Tanning treats the animal skin to make leather more durable and resistant to decomposition. Tannin, a chemical compound that is acidic and derived from oak or fir tree bark, was traditionally used in tanning. Tanning is done using either mineral or vegetable methods. The skins must be dehaired, cleaned, desalted, and then soaked in water for 6 to 2 days before tanning. The tanning process can also result in coloring.
In the end, quality leather should have a soft and supple feel that is appealing and inviting. It shouldn’t resemble vinyl or any other synthetic material. Avoid plastic or rubbery materials, as these “leathers” won’t have the same durability or aging benefits.
LINING & FINISHING
Bag linings must be made of a durable fabric and feel like they will last a long time. Any flimsy material or cheap materials on the inside reflect the quality of the product and its expected lifetime. Remember to think long-term and that you will probably be rough on the product.
Cleaning and finishing the edges is one of the most labor-intensive operations in leather goods. The advantages of high-quality bags are usually polished by hand. This is one way a crafter can demonstrate the care and attention he has put into his bag.
HARDWARE & ZIPPERS
Zippers are an essential part of any bag and should never be compromised. A bag can only become applicable if the zipper breaks. For a high-quality zipper, brass is the most common metal. Nickel or copper platings are also available. High-quality zippers will have teeth that do not point and a slider made of brass, a superior metal. The fabric along the teeth’s edges is usually worn down, causing zippers to break. It would help if you looked for zipper tapes that are made of sturdy material. Test the zippers to ensure they are set up correctly and operate smoothly. The zipper size and weight should also be appropriate to the size of your bag. You will likely overstuff the bag at some point.
Hardware is the second most common cause of repairs after zippers. Hardware, such as d-rings and buckles, should be made of solid brass and from copper, bronze, or nickel silver. Hardware should have a clean finish with no cast lines. Its size and strength should also be appropriate for the maximum weight and capacity of the bag. All hardware must be attached securely, and extra stitching should reinforce stress points. Backwashers prevent pulling through when rivets are used. The tongue of the buckles should be heavy enough to prevent it from bending and failing. Feel free to test the hardware to ensure it is built to last.
HANDLES & STRAPS
Handles are the first thing you will touch when handling a bag. They should be comfortable and sturdy in your hand, made of multiple layers of leather stacked (and not hollow or flimsy). Carry handles should be brief, which will cause the bag to sway while walking.
It is essential to consider how the straps or handles are attached to the bag. When the bag is stitched, there should be an extra layer of tack stitches where the handle meets. Additional support should also be behind this point of contact to prevent pull-through.
To ensure your bag lasts, apply a leather conditioner to prevent it from drying out. Do not dry a wet load in a dark area. Mold can cause weakness and become a problem. Allow leather products to air-dry before storing them. Regularly applying conditioner nourishes the leather and prevents the stitching from drying out. However, it’s a good idea to test the new conditioner on a hidden area where it is unlikely to damage or stain your bag.
If you leave leather products out in the sun for a long time, the leather may dry out, or the color will fade. Avoid putting leather bags into plastic bag that is tightly sealed. Containers should have a way to vent. Avoid placing leather bags on wet surfaces or rubbing them against rough surfaces. Pick up the bag with both handles unless there is only one. When traveling, make sure that all containers with liquid are placed in another container so they don’t spill into your bag.