So you want to buy a shearling coat to finish out the season or a leather bomber jacket to welcome the spring. But as a careful consumer, how do you shop for quality?

"The first thing people do when they're looking at leather is to touch it," says Lili Glassman, managing director of the Leather Apparel Association, Inc., a trade group. "Leather has a soft feeling that everyone loves."Generally, the softer the leather, the more expensive it is, she says. Lamb is the softest of the common leathers, followed by cowhide and pigskin.

A leather garment is made of individual pieces which must be matched for texture and color. The better the match, the better the quality. Also, in more expensive garments flaws will be cut out of the skins rather than being masked.

All leathers must be tanned to make them pliable, but this changes the natural color. So dying is a necessity, whether you want a natural look or one of the brights that are so popular. The best method of dying is drum-dying. The color permeates the leather, making it more durable than when it is applied only to the leather's surface.

During the dyeing process, quality leather also is treated for water and stain resistance, further adding to the cost - and the garment's durability.

The Leather Apparel Association includes U.S. manufacturers, tanners and retailers.