The Leather Story

August 20, 2012


Clients often ask us about the quality of leather that is used on furniture. There are a number of different grades of leather, and a bunch of terms that are used in the furniture industry that can be misleading for clients. In this article, we’ll share the background story on how leather is processed and what is really meant by the terms that you hear while you’re out shopping for leather furniture.

The leather used on furniture typically comes from cows. Since leather is a byproduct of the beef industry, it often has natural flaws in its original state. It might have a combination of branding marks, mosquito bites, loose skin or nasty scars.

Leather initially goes through a tanning treatment to prevent decomposition and remove hair. The process – which is known to smell to high heaven – leaves the cowhide in a grey, fermented state. This is the beginning stage for all leathers.

At this point, the process varies greatly . The leather may be cut at different thicknesses and there are a variety of ways that leather is dyed and textured. All of the methods that tanneries use creates a wide selection of leathers that vary by colour, texture, thickness, feel and durability.

Leather grains

When leather is referred to as full grain, it means that the leather is unaltered and possesses its original, natural grain.

Top grain leather comes from the outer layer of the cowhide, which is extremely porous and elastic. Top grain leather makes an ideal seating surface because it has a rub count of over 1 million. This means that you can sit and get up off the leather surface over 1 million times before it will wear out. Oils can be added to top grain leather, and like our skin, it becomes soft and supple. Top grain leather will vary in thickness depending on the cut line the manufacturer chooses.

Split leather comes from the meatier, lower surface of the leather. It is created by splicing the leather and it is used extensively for shoes, handbags and other consumer goods. Split leather does not feel as soft and cannot be used for loose seating surfaces.

Leather treatments

Leather may be dyed a different colour by spraying, hand-rubbing or immersion. There are a number of finishing treatments that can be applied to leather, including dyeing, rolling, pressing, spraying, lacquering, antiquing, waxing, buffing and glazing. Because every hide will vary in grain structures, the dyes and finishes penetrate to differing degrees in different parts of the hide to give an attractive variation. While every attempt is made to achieve uniformity, it is not always possible.

Since most hides are marred by naturally occurring imperfections, leather may be treated by an embossing process, in which design is added to leather by pressure to alter or correct the surface, resulting in uniform imitation grain. Some natural softness is sacrificed in this process, but this is the most economical grade of top grain leather.

Semi-aniline or Aniline Plus leathers are drum-dyed in penetrating aniline dyes. Then a thin matching topcoat is applied to even out the color of the hide surface and protect against fading and stains. Semi-Aniline leathers are available in hundreds of colors. They retain softness because their natural top grain is left intact. A large proportion of the world hide supply is suitable for this class of leathers and as a result this class is moderately priced.

Aniline dyed leather has a buttery, glove-soft texture that adds an extra dimension of comfort to your sofa or chair. To create luxurious softness and rich gem like colors, aniline dyed leathers are tumbled for up to 12 hours in drums containing transparent dyes. These dyes enhance the subtle textural and color variations of each hide. Through the years, aniline dyed leather develops a distinctive patina which adds to its value as a focal point in your home. Only the best leathers are suitable for this process. Because of the rarity of the hides suitable for this process, they are priced higher.

Leather terms in the furniture industry

One of the catchiest and most abused terms in the furniture industry is Italian leather. If you have ever been to Italy, you would have noticed an abundance of beauty and a shortage of cows. Italian leather refers to Italian tanneries. Most cowhides come from South America and other large beef producing regions, not from Italy. The cowhides are fermented close to the source and then shipped for further processing.

In the past, Italian tanneries have had an excellent reputation in finishing leathers into their final form.  But today, Italian leather does not mean much because the best tanneries are located closest to the best cowhides.

Clever marketers also use the term 100% leather seating. This gives the illusion of a 100% leather sofa – but the term refers only to the seating surface. The top of the arm is real leather and the rest of the furniture is vinyl. The vinyl used is inexpensive and does not wear well causing the sofa to suffer from seam pulling, vinyl flaking and differing rates of wear and tear between the leather and vinyl pieces.

When a sofa is called a 100% leather sofa, it is referring to a split leather sofa. In this case, the seat and the top of the arms will be top grain leather while the rest the sofa is made from split leather. The disadvantages of this sofa will be that the split leather feels rougher, the colour will vary between the leathers and the leathers will wear differently over time.

If a sofa 100% top grain leather, it means that the sofa is entirely upholstered in top grain leather.  This type of sofa has the greatest consistency in both feel and wear and tear. Since it is made of only the top grain leather, it’s also the most expensive option. Virtually all of the sofas at revolve furnishing are 100% top grain leather.

Caring for your leather furniture

Here are some tips to care for your leather furniture:

Dust frequently to prevent the clogging of pores

Blot spills and stains with a clean, dry, absorbent cloth or sponge

Matte leathers can be cleaned with a slightly damp, clean cloth

Do not dry wet areas with hair dryers!

Don’t use water to clean butter, oil or grease spots

Avoid exposure to sunlight

Don’t use furniture polish, varnish, ammonia, saddle soaps, oils, abrasive cleaner soaps, etc.

Don’t use leather care kits – this would void any warranty claim.

We welcome you to visit our showroom to view our selection of leather furniture. Our interior designers are knowledgeable about the grades and various finishing treatments that are used on leather, and they’ll be happy to answer your questions and show you samples to help you understand the differences in texture, appearance and durability.

About Revolve Furnishings

Revolve Furnishings has provided savvy urbanites with the largest selection of modern furniture in Calgary since 2003. Created to add the fun and inspiration back into furniture shopping, Revolve offers its clientele unique furniture design options, an upbeat atmosphere and the hottest new furniture trends. Step foot into our showroom and you can instantly feel the difference. Gone are the days of elevator music, dark lighting, and pushy design staff. At Revolve, we provide you with modern furniture to fit your unique design needs. Think Sexy. Be Rebellious. Redefine Modern.

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Revolve Furnishings | 403.253.2838 | Calgary, Alberta |

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