How to Buy Leather Bag - Vegetable Tanned VS Chrom Tanned Leather

As we all know, good leather is definitely expensive and luxury right now. Bags made of good leather are even more expensive, but the leather industry is full of terminology, full of pits, so, how can you not be fooled when buying a leather bag? 

Leather categories

First of all, leather can be divided into two categories, vegetable tanned leather and chrome tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather means that tree bark and leaves, roots are often used to treat leather during leather tanning, which is a traditional leather tanning method.
Chrome tanned leather refers to leather treated with chemical acid and chromium sulphate, which is a leather tanning method in modern times. The characteristics of the two types of leather are completely different. Firstly, let's talk about vegan tanned leather. 

Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable tanning leather has a long history, and the earliest vegan tanned products found at present can be traced back to a thousand years ago.

This wallet was made in Iran in 1170:

Ancient leather caving pattern | leather carving wallet

We can see the carving patterns on it. Vegetable tanning leather has been combined with carving art since ancient times and was named leather carving. 

This quiver was made in Italy in 1350, and you can see the quite intricate patterns on it.

Italy ancient leather carving pattern quiver

Why did I show you two leather carving products first?  In fact, these photos are telling about the properties of vegetable tanned leather - strength and durability.

The density of vegetable tanning is generally great. Wherever the region of production, whatever plants are used, the ultimate aim is to retain the natural fat and dehydrate water. After being compacted, the finished leather will last for a thousand years even with leather carving.

Take a look at the section of leather, it is obviously divided into two parts, the outmost layer and the corium junction below.  The outmost layer here is what we usually call the "grain" of hide. This is the strongest, wear-resistant part of hide, and can also be somewhat anticorrosive after alcohol treatment.  Below the first layer is the subcutaneous fiber layer. The thickness of this part can sometimes reach one centimeter, so it is often sliced into many layers. After coating, these layers will be the so-called split leather.

 vegetable tanned leather | section of vegetable tanned leather

Advantages of Vegetable Tanned Leather

The first advantage of vegetable tanned leather is that the split layer is quite strong as well. After grinding and fatting, hardening the split part can have the same density as the grain layer, and it is waterproof and durable at the same time. In fact, all the old leather carvings, the carved parts and a lot of the places around lines are the split part of vegan tanned leather, since not much of the grain layer left after carving.

This is a leather saddle hanging box made in Italy in 1440, it entirely made from split leather.

 ancient-leather-carving-pattern-pen case

The second advantage of vegetable tanned leather is its great durability.

Vegetable tanned leather is almost three to five times thicker than chrome tanned leather. If it is well maintained, it will not wear out for thirty or fifty years. Even if worn out, the second layer of vegetable tanned leather can form a protective surface which is similar to the first layer of leather after a long period of wear. Although the second layer of leather is not as strong as the first layer, as long as caring regularly, it could last for a few more decades.

This is a vegetable tanned leather horse saddle made in Britan in 1899. The raised back part of the saddle has been worn out, but it is hard to be noticed.

Old vegetable tanned leather horse saddle

So, up to now, all the old high-end leather goods or luxury vintage leather goods are almost made of vegetable tanned leather, instead of chrome tanned leather. All vegetable tanned leather has the characteristic of self-healing, small scratches in use will disappear with the absorption of oil and wax.

There are four vegetable tanned leather varieties: harness leather, carved vegetable tanned leather, ordinary vegetable tanned leather, soft vegetable tanned leather. There is a basic characteristic that I want to mention, and it is that there are very few colors for all vegetable tanned leathers. Since natural plants are applied for vegetable tanning, the color is very limited. Usually there are only about ten colors.

Harness Leather is a vegetable tanned leather, finished with generous coats of oils and waxes than bridle leather for durability. The reverse side will also be compacted and polished so the boundary between the grain layer and the corium junction is not obvious.

harness leather vegetable tanned leather cross section

Harness leather crafts do not require linings. Generally, almost all harness leather goods, except doctor's bag, do not have a lining.  The polished leather back is used in place of the lining.  The first reason is that this kind of leather is usually thick and heavy.

Bridle Leather is a vegetable tanned leather as well, finished with oil and wax after dyeing. Regular bridle leather is given a smooth coat; a wax coat with a bit of spew for texture (like spackle on walls but you'd have to use a microscope to see it) is English bridle leather. This kind of leathers are very strong, waxy and weather-resistant. 

bridle leather briefcase leather laptop bag

bridle leather doctor bag

The harness leather was followed by vegetable tanned leather for carving. Carving vegetable tanned leather is similar to harness leather. It is also a vegetable tanned leather, finished with oils and waxes. The difference is that less oil is added during treatment, so that the leather between the first and second layers still have a clear boundary though the grease is increased in the leather. The reason is that the dye and conditioners used in leather carving contains a lot of oil. It's important to care your carving leather. If you forget to care it, it's life will reduce.

The life of carved leather is about the half of the life of harness leather. If it is not well maintained, it will last only twenty or thirty years. But the carved leather in medieval was also classed as carving vegan tanned leather, which finished vegan tanned leather soaked in oil and wine and dried in a natural gelatin. This kind of leather lasted far longer than harness leather, though today no one makes it except a few leather artisans in Italy.

This pen case was made from vegetable tanned leather by ancient ways in 1450.


Its details are still distinct today, engraved in Latin with the words "Sincerely, I love you with all my heart."


The appearance and section of carved vegetable tanned leather is similar to ordinary vegetable tanned leather, and ordinary vegetable tanned leather can also be carved. But the life and performance of the two are very different.

The back of ordinary vegetable tanned leather is coarser because it is not as pressurized as that of engraving vegetable tanned leather. In addition, the hardness and stiffness of leather are not as good as vegetable tanned leather for carving. If you know the business, you only need to touch it and you can distinguish it. If you have no experience, you can observe the leather surface carefully. Ordinary vegetable tanned leather has a rougher texture and can also be distinguished by untrained eye.



The left side is ordinary vegetable tanned leather, and the right side is vegetable tanned leather for carving. The coarse degree distinction of the backside is very distinct.

Finally, there is a kind of soft vegetable tanned leather. This soft vegetable tanned leather is a vegan tanned leather without press seal of the backside; and it soaked a large amount of oils. It has vegetable tanning characteristics and great softness; its surface is very greasy. It is not afraid of scratches. It retains partly the texture of the original leather surface.

Soft vegetable tanned leather is light, suitable for making travel bags and leisure bags.

vegan tanned leather travel bag leisure bag

Chrome Tanned Leather

Chrome tanning is by far the most common tanning way that applied in modern industries. Basically, chrome tanning is a method whereby chromium sulphate is used to preserve animal skins and prevent rot. This process gives a soft and very strong leather with many benefits and some drawbacks.

chrome tanned leather black

Weight might be the first consideration when choosing chrome tanned leather. Chrome tanned leather is less dense than vegetable tanned leather. So for a given thickness and area, chrome tanned leather will be lighter. In the same time, the heavier chrome tanned leather, the better when comparing two similar chrome tanned leathers. Because all chrome-tanned leathers rely on the underlying fibers for their lifetime. The better the leather, the thicker the fabric.

A good chrome tanned leather will retain amount of natural oil, and the leather surface has the feeling of oil embellish. The higher the oil content in the leather, the better the leather is.

chrome tanned leather bag black

Compared to the limited color options for vegetable tanned leather, vibrant color options are another benefit for chrome tanned skins. If you like bright colors free of color variation, then chrome tanned leather may be your best choice.

Great chrome tanned leather has a higher tensile strength. Please look at this wallet below. Wallet made from high tensile strength chrome tanned leather can achieve to this effect without any fillers.

chrome tanned leather wallet black

High quality chrome tanned leather, with a thickness up to 0.5 mm in the grain layer, have a service life of more than 10 years at worst, or around 30 years under careful carness. But the lower grades of chrome tanned skins with only 0.1mm or thinner grain layer, will soon dump. In the case of visible section, it is easy to distinguish leather grades.

At the same time, high quality chrome tanned leather retains natural features of hide like scars, growth marks. In contrary, the cheaper chrome tanned leather has fewer natural marks of hide.

There are so many types of leather available, suitable for a range of needs. If you are so confused what types of leather would work well for your leather project, check POPSEWING leather project ideas for bags, accessories and everything else. Choose a leather bag kit that you like, starting the easiest and funnies DIY projects with all making tools we get for you! Explore trendy diy bag kits, wallet making kits, diy bag charms for the thoughtful handmade gift ideas here.

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