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Material World: Understanding Smooth Calf

In part two of our guide to shoemaking materials, we look at smooth calf leather – a much more complicated material than you might think…

Material World: Understanding Smooth Calf

Have you ever wondered why some shoes crack, or lose their shape quicker than others?

The answer almost always lies in the quality of leather a shoemaker uses. All the leather a tannery produces is graded, and there are commonly eight different grades of material to choose from; from ‘A Grade’ or ‘Top Grade’ right the way down to third rate material that isn’t appropriate for shoemaking.

At Crockett & Jones, we only use ‘A’ grade skins, and they are always aniline tanned full-grain leathers. We know this sounds technical, so let’s break this down.

Full grain leather is (to quote our Head Leather Buyer, Steve), ‘a fine quality material where the leather’s natural pore structure or “grain” is healthy, and is left untouched. This material will then be tanned with aniline dyes to bring out its natural characteristics and depth of colour.’

For these reasons, we restrict the use of corrected leathers during product development. There are a couple of options in the collection but 99% of Crockett & Jones’ leathers are full-grain calf or calf grain. There are no plans on changing this line of thinking whilst we are in the firm belief that you cannot make fine shoes without a fine upper leather. In fact, we’re such sticklers for quality that some of the tanneries we choose to work with (and we only work with the best European tanneries) can only provide us with five or six ‘A’ grade leather skins for every 100 hides they process. This adds a fair amount of time and cost to our manufacturing process, but it makes for better shoes.

That’s not the only thing that elevates our smooth leathers, either. Even with A grade skins, we only use those parts of the hide that are free from growth marks, visible veins or hair follicles that mark weak spots in the material. On some skins we might only be able to use 50 per cent of the leather. Imperfections always show up under aniline dyes, and on lighter coloured shoes like our Tan Antique Egerton Oxfords or Balfour Derbies, you’d spot these flaws straight away. Our ‘Clickers’ must skillfully cut each skin for the best possible efficiency, minimising wastage as much as they can without sacrificing quality.

When we are producing smooth calf shoes, we’re also looking for material that has a ‘fine break’. There’s a saying in the industry: ‘the break of the leather’, which refers to creases made as the leather naturally flexes time and time again as it is worn. Of course, all shoes take a huge amount of punishment as they’re worn day-to-day, open to the elements. Only the finest full-grain leather, if cared for well, will continue to spring back and hold its shape over time, so Steve always looks for ‘a good clean break’ in our leathers.

Really, it’s not rocket science; when it comes to smooth calf shoes, full-grain calf wins hands down, every time. That’s why we use it, and why your C&J shoes will be with you for years to come, without fail.