It has been sometime since man first figured out he could use the dead hide of another animal to cover his own, sit on, or otherwise make into an eclectic assortment of clothing and fine home furniture.
Leather used to be considered the gold standard bearer of the chichi sect. If you owned a leather sofa then you had most definitely arrived. But then leather – or rather ‘pleather’ became more main stream. Manufacturers began making and marketing leather as more affordable. Or did they? Well, not exactly.
For all its decades of practical use, real leather today is still grotesquely misunderstood with too many people running on false assumptions; like all leather furniture is cold to the touch, makes them sweat profusely, has a certain off-putting smell, isn’t as durable as a tightly woven synthetic cloth, or bleeds and fades at different rates; thus, making it unappealing over time.
Where did consumers get such odd ideas?
Well, from buying too much ‘pleather’, being fooled by a lot of clever labels to suggest what they owned was better than it actually was. Some may never have even owned a stitch of real leather, but vinyl or some other synthetic blend mimicking the general look and feel of genuine leather. It is particularly difficult to judge the quality of leather when you have nothing to directly compare it to in a showroom.
Real leather, that is to say, 100% top grain, stripped off Bossy’s back, properly dyed, cured in a tannery and continuously treated with diligently applied oils, cleaners, etc. will last a lifetime – period!
The process by which cowhide becomes a supple wingback in one’s den was perfected long ago and has remained virtually the same for generations; a real craft actually, infusing the porous hide with tannin-rich bark, or a similar agent to homogenize its texture and visual uniformity. So, let’s dispel one myth right off the bat: quality leather will far outlast ANY fabric. Alas, not everything that feels soft and…well…leathery, once mooed in a field of tall grasses. So, how can you tell the difference?
First, when shopping for leather the old adage ‘you get what you paid for’ definitely applies. Bottom line: if it’s cheap, it’s probably not real leather.
‘Bonded leather’ falls into this category – looking like a great deal on paper, but decidedly not a great leather once you get it home. In fact, ‘bonded leather’ is only about 17% actual leather processed almost beyond recognition. Think of it this way: when leather cowhides are being cut to make panels for quality leather furniture there are leftovers on the cutting room floor. Applying the ‘waste not/want not’ philosophy, these scraps are ground up, then laid in long thin strands, later adhered together by a thick layer of polyurethane (plastic). Because it technically contains leather in it, manufacturers can get away including the word ‘leather’ in their product description. But bonded leather is really a leather byproduct, usually priced out by the foot like fabric and far less durable than real leather. This is where the myth about leather always being cold to sit on comes into play, because a person sitting on bonded leather is actually parked on plastic – not leather. Plastic does not acclimate to body temperature. And it certainly doesn’t improve with age!
Bi-cast leather is an important step up because it is comprised of the various horizontal splits of the hide. Top grain leather is exactly what it means; the surface of the cow where all the pores existed and hair follicles once existed before they were plucked out. Because a cow’s skin is very thick it can be sliced horizontally (think of it like shaving salami at the delicatessen). Bi-cast is comprised of layers from this split that were under the top grain, some too thin or flawed for normal use. Like bonded leather, bi-cast is sealed off with a layer of polyurethane. So, you are still not sitting on real leather, but plastic with a leather derivative beneath it. Is there a plus side to bonded and/or bi-cast leathers? Yep, they wipe down easily, are cheaply priced and they resist staining – just like any plastic!
Split leather is the next step up in quality; not a top grain because it exhibits none of the characteristics of a top grain, but it is still classified as 100% real leather. Initially, a split is light-colored and suede-like on both sides. By contrast, a top grain will be shiny on top and possess all the natural variations in thickness and quality one might anticipate, withstanding dyes differently. It also is very soft to the touch and shows a natural pebbling (or bumps) unique to the cow from which the hide was stripped. A split possesses none of these characteristics naturally and thus is synthetically altered to recreate a similar look and feel. Some softness is lost in this processing. But the leather has a more uniform look without natural pebbling and variations in color.
A leather match is basically a cheat: covering the front and sides of a piece of furniture in real top grain leather, but filling the sides that are generally hidden from view as well as the back panels, and, the backs of cushions with a non-leather (a.k.a. vinyl). Why? Well, primarily to keep costs down. Some leather manufacturers substitute bonded or bicast ‘leather’ here to fill in these gaps. But is it a good idea? Not necessarily. For one, vinyl has a tendency to fade over time. And bonded/bicast does not look the same as real leather either. You can ‘fake’ the look for a while, but eventually all of these varying materials begin to break down at their own particular speed of decomposition. Some fade faster than others and the furniture begins to look more like a leather ‘mis-match’ than a leather match.
So, this brings us to top grain leather; the smoothest, supplest, most natural, and best leather furniture money can buy. Because top-grain leather is comprised of roughly 12-14% water it acclimates quickly to your body temperature. It’s a hide. It breathes like one too. So you won’t be sweating in real leather either. There are two different ‘grades’ to consider: aniline and semi-aniline.
Aniline is leather in its most natural state, with no protective coating to alter its natural feel. Because of this, it’s the softest leather you will ever sit on. Alas, it’s also the most susceptible to stains and will show signs of being well-worn as you continue to use it. Some people actually enjoy the ‘weather-beaten’ appeal of aniline leather. It has a genuine ‘lived in’ quality. By contrast, semi-aniline has been given a protective top coat. It will wear better than aniline, but some of the natural suppleness is lost in the processing and invisible to the touch; the leather ever so slightly coarsening up.
Regardless of the choices you make when purchasing leather furniture, you will want to adhere to a few basic rules of thumb to keep your leather looking supple and new for decades to come. First, do not locate leather furniture near sources of direct or even indirect sunlight. Real leather is a skin, remember? Think of what UV rays do to your skin when laying out in the sun too long. A cow’s hide may be thicker than ours, but it is still susceptible to the ravages of the sun. Gradual, natural fading over time is inevitable. But over-exposure to sun and/or an artificial heat source – like a radiator – will not only advance this process but also dry out the leather.
Because real leather is porous, its natural water content will evaporate. Again, think skin. Dry skin peels. Properly moisturized skin does not. So, to prevent real leather from drying out it is recommended you apply a conditioner to it twice a year. Leather requires proper placement and general maintenance. To some, this is a turn off; to others, the hallmark of a true investment in a quality piece of man’s ancestral heritage with the moo and milk set. Looked after with a little tender loving care, you will be handing down those real leather home furnishings to future generations to treasure instead of shopping for another piece to replace them six or seven years down the line.