What is Leather and What Isn't?
If you’ve recently gone furniture shopping, you may have had some curiosity about the material used to craft a product. This is particularly true for those in the market for leather furniture or for those who are interested in purchasing a product that features leather.
The list of leathers and counterparts has certainly grown, so much so that it’s become difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Whether you wish to purchase only genuine leather products or prefer the affordability of faux materials, we’re here to explain to you what goes in to the production of each, as well as the value behind what you buy.
Genuine leather is created by splitting the cowhide into two layers: Split leather (the bottom layer) and top-grain leather (the top layer). From here, top-grain leather can become either full-grain or corrected-grain. Each leather is made from the outermost layer or “top” of the cowhide, but is treated in different ways that affect quality.
Split leather is typically used on the backs and sides of furniture to create a more affordable product. Sofas, loveseats and chairs that advertise all-leather seating tend to follow this rhythm, with top-grain leather on the back and seat cushions and split or faux leather on the posterior.
The leather is sanded down and an artificial grain is applied to the surface to mimic the look and feel of top-grain leather. Untreated split leather is what you might find in cowhide hardware gloves.
Top-grain leather is found most commonly in high-end products that have a consistent, smooth design. The grain is thinner and therefore more flexible than full-grain leather, and the surface is sanded and finished.
The resulting material tends to have a stiffer feel and doesn’t contain the same breathability as full-grain leather. Top-grain leather also lacks a patina or tarnish, which is caused by oxidation, sunlight or oil. Although many enjoy the look of a patina, its nonexistence in top-grain furniture can be appealing to those who prefer leather that looks “perfect.” The leather is typically less expensive than full-grain and harbors greater wear and stain resistance due to its treatment.
Full-grain leather has not been altered to remove natural imperfections on the surface. Because the grain is left intact, full-grain leather has optimal strength and durability and breathes better than any of its counterparts.
Full-grain leather will also develop a patina overtime, which can be aesthetically pleasing and add to the beauty of the piece. It is also considered high-quality and tends to be more expensive than top-grain leather.
Corrected-grain leather is typically used for colored leather furniture and involves the application of an artificial grain to the leather’s surface. The grain is corrected to remove any imperfections and dyed or stained for a consistent look, but is of a lower grade than top-grain leather.
Both full-grain and corrected-grain leathers can be bought as semi-aniline, which means that a thin, protective coat has been applied to the leather’s surface to resist wear and staining. Full-grain leather can also be bought as full-aniline, which means that the fabric is pigmented with insoluble dyes and the leather’s natural surface is retained.
IT’S NOT REAL
With a demand for the look of genuine leather without the price and maintenance came the onset of faux leather. Faux leather is composed of man-made materials and is used to create a look and feel that closely imitates natural leather. Two types of man-made leather exist, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. Each material is used to create various types of faux leather.
Bonded leather combines what’s left over from a cow’s hide and other bonding materials to create a faux leather fabric. The mixture is spread onto a fiber or paper cloth and adhered to a leather-like texture.
Bonded leather is environmentally friendly, affordable and free of natural imperfections, but because bonded leather mixtures can vary from product to product, it’s difficult to determine durability. Some products may last for a decade while others begin to peel within a few years of purchase.
Bicast is made from split leather, but lacks the overall durability to be deemed genuine. The split leather is covered in a layer of polyurethane and adhered to a leather-like texture, making it a very easy material to clean and maintain.
Whereas genuine leather products tend to improve with age, bicast will do the opposite and, with constant use, crack with age. The cracking can result in unattractive abrasions in the furniture.
Leatherette is made of PVC and is a plastic-based material. The plastic makes the material unabsorbent, preventing liquids and food stains from penetrating the surface and ensuring easy upkeep.
Although leatherette is low maintenance, it lacks breathability and can become hot and sticky if sat on for too long.
Leathaire is 100% synthetic, but carries traits similar to that of genuine leather. Developed only a few years ago by Chinese manufacturer Man Wah, leathaire is marketed as a fabric and breathes better than any of its faux leather counterparts.
Lethaire is capable of adapting to body temperature and is a durable fabric that looks and feels like real leather. Like most faux leathers, the fabric is easy to clean and maintain while remaining soft with continued use.
The next time you’re out furniture shopping, keep this list in mind. Our hope is that you are better able to make distinctions between the types of leather available and work towards making an informed buying decision that leaves you feeling satisfied.