My personal pair of Lofgren Engineer Boots in black Chromexcel leather.
Spend enough time looking at reproduction leather jackets and you’re bound to come across the term “tea core”. No, it’s not a form of British old age pensioner punk rock, it’s a term to describe a kind of leather. But what does it mean? Let’s find out.
The term “teacore” comes from the Japanese term 茶芯 (chashin) for a kind of leather that is brown and has been surface-dyed another color, usually black. The character 茶 means “tea” but it also is short for “the color brown”. Meanwhile, 芯 means “core”. So really, the term “teacore” should be “brown core” or even “brown base” in this case.
Why does teacore matter?
I’ve seen some people describe teacore leather as a much-ado-about-nothing hipster term, while other people seem to consider teacore leather as divine mana from the gods that has no equal. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
In the context of reproduction clothing, teacore is a detail not wildly unlike raw or one-wash denim that fades with wear and time. That is, you’re or using wearing teacore leather as part of a journey to watch it evolve and take on character and “patina”. I put the last term in quotation marks only because technically “patina” is a green or brown film that grows on metal such as bronze because of oxidation. That said, in the heritage clothing world, "patina" has entered the lexicon and changed in meaning to refer to leather aging.
Another important consideration is that when we’re reproducing leather items such as jackets, boots, belts etc. and looking at vintage originals for reference, there’s a lot of instances of “teacore” leather in the past. Here’s a prime example, a black leather “barnstormer” coat that’s from the 1930s or ‘40s:
Here's my personal Codina Leather belt in black Hermann Oak tooling leather:
And my personal The Rite Stuff x Wild Frontier Goods ‘Blackburn’ belt in Shonan Benz leather that’s been surface hand-dyed black with sumi ink:
However, think back to most black leather items you've bought in the past few decades at a regular store or the mall: were any of them teacore? Odds are, no. Instead, they were drum dyed black with the dye striking all the way through the leather. When this leather scuffs and ages, it reveals a grey color underneath, or maybe even a green-grey or greyish brown. Again, that’s because it’s not a surface-level dye but one that went through.
For example, the leather on this 1980s or '90s Schott Perfecto:
Note how the edge of the leather pull tab on the zipper is not brown but grey.
Now, was all vintage leather teacore? No, but it was more commonly found in jackets and boots, say, pre-1960s. For example, here's a 1930s Sears Hercules half belt jacket posted by Rivet Head that was made in a chrome-tanned black that was drum dyed and only shows a greyish-brown coming through in areas of wear:
Zen and the art of leather appreciation
Another aspect of why teacore came into the denimhead world is that it relates to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂), or loosely translated, “subdued, austere beauty” and “rustic patina”. This concept relates to the Buddhist teaching of the “three marks of existence”, or “impermanence”, “suffering/dissatisfaction/unease”, and “without a lasting essence”.
Wabi-sabi aesthetics are generally characterized by a rough, rustic and austere nature that are meant to invoke serene melancholy and contemplation in the viewer as they ponder the fleeting nature of their existence. This in turn helps them on their path to enlightenment.
For example, the rock garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan when I visited it in 2015:
The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects "sabi" and the rock garden represents "wabi", according to Morigami Shouyo in his book "侘び然び幽玄のこころ" ("The heart of wabi-sabi and yugen).
Taken from a purely context-free perspective, there’s also something to be said for black and tan color contrast as an aesthetic as well:
Who offers teacore leather?
Horween tumbled black Chromexcel leather, image courtesy of OA Leather.
Although it seemed as if teacore leather fell by the wayside in recent decades, some leather tanneries kept offering all along while others revived it due to modern demand. Some of the most famous black teacore leathers available today include:
-Hermann Oak bridle and tooling leather
-Shinki front quarter horsehide
-Bill Kelso Liberty horsehide
-SB Foot Black Klondike and Prairie leathers
Of course a leather artisan can also hand dye brown or natural-colored leather with a black top coat to create a teacore leather as well.
So the next time you see teacore leather bring mentioned online and wonder what the big deal is, that’s a brief overview to get you started!