Leather Buying Guide

Leather is a beautiful, rich and time tested upholstery option. Once reserved for luxury chesterfields in up-scaled country clubs and sport cars, is now within nearly anyone’s prices range. Leather now represents more than 50% of all furniture sold.

 

Leather is desirable because of:

1) The hand – how it feels.

2) The color – how beautiful does it look.

3)  Ascetics – the simplicity of leather

 

It is important to note that cows are slaughtered for their meat NOT their hides. The value of a cowhide is so minuscule in comparison to the rest of the cow for its meat that leather tanneries are actually a by-product or a “recycler” of the animal.

 

 

Historically, leather tanneries were next to slaughter houses because that’s where the hides were. There are almost no major US tanneries left producing leather for furniture due to three major factors:

1) The development of synthetic substitutes for leather (Bi-cast, bonded, performance fabrics: all explained below).

2) Increased imports of leather.

3) Environmental regulations- US environmental law has made it near impossible to tan leather as it is a dirty process. Most tanneries are now in places like Brazil, India, China and Italy.

Leather Information

Leather is to thick and too rough to be sewn in its natural state, so leather is always split (or cut) leaving you with the “top-Grain” and “Splits.”

The “Top Grain” is used exclusively on all the seating areas that have tension, like seats and backs. The reason Top Grain is so valuable is because the cell structure of the skin is tighter and more unidirectional the closer you get to the surface, just like in ours.  So, when we cut ourselves we don’t get a run up our arm like you would in a fabric: same with leather. The top grain is a lot stronger and durable.

Splits are generally used on outside arms and outside backs which isn’t a bad thing. The split is not as strong as the grain and will never be as soft because in order to make a split look like a grain you need to apply a great deal of heat and pressure to simulate the grain on the top. All that added pressure makes the leather stiff. Splits are also used in things like belts, handbags, shoes… a lot of different uses.

Many companies will have different grades for their leather. However, all you need to know are the following leather classifications, all of which are Top-Grain leathers:

  1. Pigmented
  2. Semi-Aniline
  3. Aniline

Pigmented leather:

The ugliest, most beat up, scared up, tic bitten hides will become pigmented leather. They sand off all the grain and use stucco, which is essentially bondo, to fill in the scars & holes. Then through heat and pressure, an artificially grain is embossed (stamped) onto the hide. Anytime you press leather it will make the product stiffer. After that they spray on the dye (as opposed to drum dying) through a spray line that fixes the dye to the hide. When you feel this leather, you are not feeling the natural grain of the animal. These are the least expensive but the most available, nearly 50-60% of leather will qualify for this product. Most durable leather for kids and pets. Aka Protected/ Corrected Leathers

Semi-Aniline leather

Aniline dyed but they are far less rough in the sorting process. So, when you make the hide you use far less heat/ pressure and color to make the finished product so they are softer than pigmented leather. Can be top grain or full grain.

 

Aniline leather

Leathers that have been dyed only with aniline dyes, no opaque color has been added. All full grain leathers are aniline dyed. Since aniline has no paint you will see the scars, insect bites, wrinkles, we like to call them “hallmarks of the trail” because it sounds better. What it really is, are the finger prints of the life of the animal. The payoff of these products is that they are remarkably softer. Aniline leathers can have sub-categories as well

  1. Wax-pull-ups: Highest of the aniline leathers. These leathers are crusted and instead of dying the hides they get wax dumped on them. Heat and pressure is added which impregnates the wax into the hide. It will take a greater patina over time; a baseball mitt is a good example of what a wax pull-up will look like over time. The wax also acts as a natural protectant. This leather will scratch easily because what is happening is you are physically separating the wax in the leather.
  2. Oil Pull-ups: Are the same as the wax but oil is more robust and lightens in tension areas and stays longer. Scratches in both Wax and oil leathers can be redistributed using heat
  3. Wipe-ons & Wipe offs: After the main dyeing has taken place, these hides get an added dye that is either hand rubbed on (or removed) as a special effect.

The easiest way to delineate the difference between the an aniline and the pigmented leather is imagine you have two pieces of wood in your hand. In one hand you have a piece of wood that has been painted and in the other is a piece of wood that has been stained. The stained wood is an aniline because you can see the natural grain of the wood and the painted is pigmented because it covers up the natural grain. Aniline leathers generally cannot have a vinyl match because the grain and color is so volatile that they cannot match a synthetic product.

Imitation Leathers:

With the increase in leather prices worldwide the industry has come up with alternatives to make fabrics that look like leather (and also to help out the pocket book) and in some cases can legally be sold as leather (at least in the U.S.A.) Most big box stores advertise these imitation leathers as “genuine leather.”

Definitions and examples:

***Before we get into these it is important to note that none of the following products will every feel, act or breathe in the way that “Top Grain” leathers will. Most are derived from splits. As stated before, splits are the lower cuts of leather. Splits are always embossed and stained to make it look like a top grain. Splits are less strong and are never used on the seating area alone. The grain of a split only runs north to south, east to west, not uni-directional like a “Top-Grain” and would disintegrate without further protection. ***

  • Bi-Cast leather: Always a split leather with polyurethane added to the top. In a sense it’s vinyl with a leather backing as opposed to a fabric back (like real vinyl). These products will not breath, it was made to look like authentic leather and that’s it. Real cheap Bi-Cast leathers are made with future substrates of splits because with modern technology we can split leathers 3 or 4 times. Those leathers by themselves would deteriorate with any tension so that’s why the polyurethane is added to the tops, too add durability. This is where you see flakes coming off peoples furniture because they have worked thorough the polyurethane layer and the leather starts to deteriorate. In some cases it has been reported as happening in the first couple months.
  • Bonded Leather: When a sofa is covered in leather only about 70% of the hide can be used and the remaining 30% (neck, feet, scraps…) ends up on the floor. That 30% is gathered up, grinded up and sold to a third party. Bonded leather is made by starting with polyurethane, matting material (like a screen), adding layers of polyurethane on the top and bonding the leather shavings onto the back. Then the surface is embossed for grain and texture. To legally sell bonded leather as “Genuine Leather” you need to use around 26% leather chips. You do not touch any leather on this product (same as Bi-Cast).