What is aniline leather? Why does it make Horween Shell Cordovan great?
Genuine Horween shell cordovan, Chromexcel, and Essex are aniline leathers. Aniline finished leather is considered to be a premium leather but what does "aniline" even mean? Simply put, the grain of aniline leather appears more natural, often feels better, smells better, and is finished without the use of plastic-looking pigments. Furthermore, aniline leather has the unique ability to patinate (age with beautiful coloration and texture) and mature over time as it attunes to your personal lifestyle. These all sound great! Why isn’t every leather aniline?
No animal is raised for leather. Leather is a by-product of the meat industry. As an animal grows, every hide (whether it be steer, pig, goat, or horse) will have some natural variance in its grain. These inconsistencies could be in the form of healed scratches, rotten grain, or even manure damage/burns.
Clear grain with minimal cosmetic issues is extremely rare and is very expensive. About 2% of the leather that Horween Leather tannery receives has 1-2 cosmetic issues. Most have 10 or more. It is very difficult for a tannery to take infinitely variable hides and manufacture them into the same product every time. Shoe brands in particular, cannot have an inconsistent product on their shelves. In order to reduce this variability, tanneries have developed different finishing techniques.
Finishing process - buffing and finishing
Two of the most effective methods of creating consistent leather are buffing (sanding) and heavily finishing the leather with pigments (paint). However, the results from these methods do not always look, feel, or smell natural/appealing. At a certain point, using too much finish results in leather that more resembles plastic, than natural leather. The leather finishing process is analogous to the process of finishing wood. The hardwood floors in your home are most likely finished with a stain (aniline) and not painted. The reasoning behind this is simple: You want to see and appreciate the beautiful, natural grain and character of the wood. The same logic for staining a floor also applies to using an aniline finish on leather.
Notice below, how the grain character slowly disappears with more finish.
In this close up shot, notice how the grain has almost completely filled in by the larger pigment molecules in the full finish.
Why use non-aniline leather?
Aniline leather is not better or worse than full finish leather. A leather sofa in your home or the leather interior of a car would be awful as full aniline. It would change color due to sunlight, soak up moisture, wear inconsistently, and accumulate scratches like nobody's business.
Here is a great example of an aniline leather seat in a restaurant. You can see that food and drink has spilled and has penetrated and discolored the grain.
The best automotive leathers are challenging to produce. They need very clean, even, and accurate finish coloring, plus they need to be both abrasion and ultra violet resistant. Coloration from a person wearing raw denim can "crock" or rub off on the aniline leather, while finished leather is resistant to such discolorations. Aniline leather "is what it is" and the leather will naturally absorb color.
Aniline is the best for small leather goods
Here at Ashland Leather, we specifically choose aniline leather for all of our wallets and small leather goods. We want to create something that gets better with each use as it conforms to your personal style. Aniline leather is the only way to achieve this unique patina-effect.
Below is a photo of a Fat Herbie in a marbled color #8 finish that is only achievable with aniline leather.
Let’s “finish” this up
In summary, aniline leather is a term used to describe the amount and coverage of finish on leather grain. An aniline finish leaves the leather as close to its natural state as possible, which encourages unique and beautiful patina while highlighting the natural grain of the leather.
Aniline leather is not for everyone. Many people prefer the more even and consistent visual offered by full finished leathers. These finishes do not change over time. Additionally, there may be a specific desire to apply an abrasion resistant or water repellant top coat. There is nothing wrong with any of these preferences. We believe that leather goods are one of the only material things you can use every day that will get better over time. This is why Ashland Leather chooses to craft with leather that is as close to its natural state as possible. This is why we craft with aniline leather.
Here is a beautiful image of how aniline leather ages over time. On the left is a brand new Fat Herbie -- Natural shell cordovan. On the right, the same product but after 1000 days of use. Fat Herbie - Natural Shell Cordovan