This is the first of a five-part series on leather.

Throughout history, leather has and continues to be utilized for all types of items like bags, clothing, shoes, accessories, tools, and more. Because real leather, unlike vegan leather, is crafted from animal hides, it’s prevalence in the wild has made it one of mankind’s most trusted materials.

What is it about leather that makes it so desirable and frequently used? Archaeologists studying the historical trends of leather have come across its use case in every type of ancient civilization, making it significant both as a way of understanding how our ancestors used tools, as well as its role in shaping cultures at the time (like civilizations that used animals as sacrificial tributes).

One reason for its prevalence can be seen in the versatility of leather compared to other forms of non-synthetic materials. It can be soft and supple, firm and inflexible, or hard and impermeable to the elements depending on how it’s made and used.

Although on the surface, leather may seem like a simpler material, it’s forms and types can be more complex upon a deeper dive, from the way that it’s made to the types of animal hides used to create different types of leather goods.

What are the different parts of leather?

Typically, there are four parts to a leather hide, the butt, bend, shoulder, head and belly. Each of these areas yield a different quality leather, similar to how different parts of a fish or cow can be used to make different types of cuisines.

“The Butt”

The “butt” provides the best quality leather and makes up approximately 13 percent of the hide. This area is the strongest and toughest part of the hide.

“The Bend”

The “bend” is a step down in quality compared to the butt of an animal hide, yet it can still result in high quality leather, especially given that it makes up 30 percent of the hide. Portions of the hide can result in both tough and soft leather depending on the area of the bend, its size, and the type of animal providing the hide.

“The Shoulder”

The “shoulder” is commonly considered as a fair quality, and it covers a larger area of about 32 percent of the hide. Shoulder hide tends to be the softest of the four parts of a leather hide.

“The Head or Belly”

Lastly, the “head/belly” portion of the hide is considered the lowest grade in quality and makes up 25 percent of the hide. This area can be stretchy and often varies in thickness, making it the least consistent area of the hide.

The 24 Most Common Types of Leather

When most think of real leather, the type of animal used that probably springs to mind is cow leather. While cows (commonly the elder cattle) are the most common animal that leather goods are made of, there are also 23 other types of real leather that designers and bag makers use to create leather objects:

1. Cattle

Usually the most popular and common type of leather; leather from cattle has a structure that varies across the hide, but it’s extremely strong. It is incredibly common as use in bags and other small leather goods due to its familiarity and cost (compared to the other types of animals used).

2. Calf

The younger cow hide has its own category due to the significance in quality of leather compared to cattle. Calf leather in comparison is slightly rubbery, has finer grains, and less variations across the skin (due to its smaller mass and volume). Calf leather is frequently used in higher quality designer handbags.

3. Buffalo

Buffalo leather is extremely strong, tough, pebbly in appearance, and thick. This type of leather tends to be used to make bag shell material and gloves due to its hard shell and texture.

4. Goat

Goat leather is a strong but thin leather that contains fine grains, a regular pattern structure, and almost papery like feel. Goat leather is also used in bags as a shell material, like Balenciaga’s The City.

5. Sheep

Sheep leather is an extremely good heat insulator as its thin, soft, loose grain surface and light handfeel makes it a nice material for a bag’s outer shell and lining (as well as leather trims). On the other hand, sheep leather is considered as less durable than other animal types, mainly due to the porousness found in the leather grains.

6. Lambskin

Lambskin is the softest most supple type of leather, with a buttery texture and fine grain. It’s elastic, form-fitting, stretches well and can reshape after being worn, which makes it a luxurious material for designer bags like the Chanel 2.55.

7. Deerskin

Deerksin leather is a tough, soft, supple, extremely stretchy; washable and abrasion-resistant type of leather. It’s excellent for high-use items like handbags and wallets because of its durability.

8. Elk

Elk leather is very similar to deerskinin leather’s handfeel and texture but much heavier and thicker. This type of leather is used as bag shell material and in wallets.

9. Pigskin

Pigskin leather is a highly breathable leather, one that is also soft, thin, supple, while remaining durable and tough due to its tight grain. It’s commonly used for its suede and can be found in bags as a shell material.

10. Alligator

Alligator leather is thick in the bend and thin in the belly and limbs. Scaly, supple (belly area), tough, and durable due to the nature of the animal and its role as a predator in its environment, alligator leather is most commonly as a luxury bag shell material like the Hermes Kelly. Alligator leather is also commonly used as a form of vegan leather, since the pattern of an alligator hide is so unique.

11. Snake

Snake leather has many variations depending on the type of snake used for the hide. Like alligator leather, snake leather has a very distinctive pattern and is lightweight and strong, with a papery like feel. Snake leather is used in bag shell material and ornate decorations on bags and other types of small leather goods.

12. Frog / Toad

Frog leather is lightweight, thin, and strong, especially considering the smaller hide due to the size of its animal. It can also result in great variation depending on the species. This type of leather is utilized in bag shell material and decoration.

13. Ostrich

Ostrich leather is one of the finest and most durable types of leather in the world with a unique bumpy texture that’s flexible, pliable, soft, and strong. Ostrich leather is great for a high quality bag shell, which is why its preferred by most big fashion houses like Hermes, Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton.

14. Kangaroo

Kangaroo leather is one of the strongest types of leather as its thin, lightweight and uniform fiber structure makes it 10 times stronger than cowhide and 50 percent stronger than goatskin. Kangaroo leather is great for high performance motorcycle gear.

15. Salmon

Salmon leather inherits the fine scales from the fish and is pliable, strong and elegant looking, making it the most popular type of fish leather. Salmon leather can be seen in certain types of wallets and handbags.

16. Perch

Perch leather is thick, large, soft and contains round scales, since most of its production is sourced from the Nile. Perch leather is used in wallets and purses.

17. Wolffish

Wolffish leather is smooth and contains scale-less skin compared to other types of fish leather. It’s easily recognizable due to stripes formed by the friction of marine rocks in wolffish and its use case is seen in belts and wallets.

18. Cod

Cod leather is a type of fish leather that can vary in texture, from smooth and fine to rough and scaly, although it does feature much finer scales than salmon. Cod leather is used in wallet and purses.

19. Eel

Eel leather is smooth with an elegant horizontal pin-striped pattern. It’s also lightweight, supple, and incredibly strong, especially when its sewn together to create a leather panel. Eel leather is used in handbags and wallets because of its distinctive pattern.

20. Tilapia

Tilapia leather is similar to salmon skin, but much more beautiful because of the soft and scale-less nature. Tilapia leather is common in wallets and purses.

21. Stingray

Stingray leather has a distinctive pattern and unique, supple texture. It’s 25 times more durable than cowhide which makes it great as a bag shell material or in wallets, and belts.

22. Rabbit

Rabbit leather is small sized, thin and fragile compared to other types of leather and is used for handbag shell material and decoration.

23. Lizard

Lizard leather is strong, lightweight, and thin with a papery feel. This type of leather is usually only used for luxury bags as a shell material and hardware decoration.

24. Horse

Horse leather is tough, thin, extremely stretch and. comes in non-uniform quality levels. Because it stems from a larger animal than other types of leather, it makes it an economical use for bag shell material and shoes.

Closing Thoughts

Leather, upon a deeper dive, can be a bit more complex when considering all of the different ways in which it can be made. Similar to how a great butcher or chef will use every part of an animal for making different types of dishes, the same can be said for a piece of leather hide. Even with the rise in vegan leather and other forms of synthetic imitations, types of real leather will continue to have a during impact, as it has throughout human history.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this four part series on leather we expore the different types of leather tanning methods…

Everything You Need to Know About Leather Series

Part 1: How is Leather Made & What Are Common Leather Types?

Part 2: Vegetable Tanned Leather or Chrome Tanned Leather?

Part 3: The Grades of Leather & What They Mean

Part 4: Why is Full Grain Leather Considered the Best of the Five Types of Leather?

Part 5: How to Care For Your Leather Bag