Types of Leather
Leather has been a cherished covering for centuries, sought out by royalty, armies, nomads, and home folks like us. We trust that you will appreciate this educational section, and let’s start with where the leather comes from.
Where in the World do Leather Hides Come From?
Great leather that does not need any buffing or correction is very rare – only 3-5% of hides are of this high quality; it is Grade A.
Hides come from beef cattle from all around the world. Since different countries have varying standards of care for their livestock (as well as insects that bite the hide), the rating of any batch of hides is based primarily on the country.
Grade and Location (approximation)
First Grade (A): Southern Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Northern Italy
Second Grade (B): Northern Germany, the UK, Netherlands, United States
Third Grade (C): Australia, Africa, South America, Central America, Asia/China
High-end furniture manufacturers primarily use the best Grade (A).
Low-end furniture suppliers, who need to offer lower sales prices, often use the lowest Grade (C).
Hides and the Top Split
All leather hides have to be split because a hide is too thick to upholster or use in any type of manufacturing. The hide goes into a machine where a blade 'splits' the hide into two layers.
The top portion of the above process is known as Top Grain Leather.
The bottom layer is known as Split Leather.
The most confusing term used within the leather industry is the term 'Top Grain Leather.' The word 'top' simply indicates the 'top' portion of a hide, not the quality of the leather. Top Grain Leather is stronger and longer lasting than split leather.
Top Grain Leather is further divided into three basic categories: Full Grain or Corrected Grain or Decorative, depending upon the quality and use of hides.
Full Grain: A sofa usually uses 5 hides of 40-50 square feet each. The leather artisan selects hides that look similar. Every hide is a canvas with Mother Nature’s signature on it. The cow’s history and personality includes: branding, insect bites, barbed wire scars, and fat folds near the neck or legs. When the customer or the artisan want to preserve and feature these genuine marks, the hide qualifies as Full Grain. Only 3% of all Top Grain hides are selected as Full Grain candidates. Being more rare, they are also more expensive.
Corrected Top Grain: When these leather imperfections are too ugly and not desired, the artisan can either cut them out, or buff or sand them down. Sometimes the artisan will buff the entire surfaces of the 5-hide set. Then the hides are lightly embossed to give the surface a uniform grain. This is called “Corrected Grain” leather. Both Full and Corrected grain leathers benefit from the durable and attractive top, outer layer of the hide. (Many home and office pieces are of the Corrected Top Grain variety.)
Decorative Top Grain: Decorative leathers are used to create more unique looks and give expression and personalization to our rooms. They are most often used as accents on panels or in place of inside and/or outside backs, borders, or as bases on occasional and accent pieces.
Decorative patterns or motifs are embossed onto the hide. Highly skilled craftspeople hand apply layers of dyes and stains, which is often followed by tipping or antiquing with a glaze.
Protection to Dye For
Two more terms: Full (or Pure) Aniline, and Semi Aniline (or Aniline Plus)
Full Grain as well as Corrected (Protected) Grain can use either type of Dye process.
Full Aniline leather gets its name from the aniline dyes that are used to produce it. Typically only Full Top Grain Leather hides use this method. Hides are soaked or tumbled with aniline dyes in large rotating stainless steel drums. The translucent dyes permeate the leather down to the bottom side, giving it color without covering up any natural markings or grain pattern.. The result is exceptionally soft, buttery leather in its most natural state. NOTE: protective top coats or color pigments are never added to full aniline leather.
Owners who desire finer things in life and appreciate natural beauty prefer the elegance and luxury of this silky feel. However, due to the lack of protection, full anilines will age differently. If they absorb moisture, other spills, and body oils, these over time will produce a rich patina, much like a well-worn bomber jacket. Sunlight will readily fade full aniline leather, and therefore the room placement is important.
Semi-Aniline Leather (Protected)
Semi-Aniline is an unfortunate misnomer. It actually means that additional protection and pigment layers are added to the aniline dye process.
After dyeing and milling, a light pigment coat is sprayed or rolled onto the soft hide surface. This helps to control shade variations from hide to hide and provides a greater degree of protection from fading. Finally, a top coat of synthetic, transparent resin is applied as a protective coating in either a high gloss or matte finish.
Which is the “better” leather choice for you – Full Top Grain or Corrected Top Grain?
That can be made clear by who will use that sofa or chair. If you have kids, pets, teenagers, or even Hubby’s buddies in the man cave, then you definitely want a protected leather, namely “Corrected."
Hides and the Bottom Split
Split Leather is the kind of leather used for 'cowhide work gloves' you often see at hardware stores. Split Leather can be sliced thinly, sanded down, and embossed with a consistent graining pattern to be used on the outside back and sides of sofa to achieve certain lower price points. Most high-quality manufacturers do not use Split Leather for upholstery at all, even for the outside back and sides of sofa.
Cheaper “Leather” that Many Stores
Pass Off as Real Leather
Bonded leather is hardly leather at all—by definition, it only has to be 17% leather.
Discarded scraps and sandings are ground up into smaller pieces; mixed with other inexpensive materials (e.g. polyester/ cotton/ polyurethane/ vinyl); laid out in a thin layer, and then glued together with polyurethane (plastic).
In reality, a person sitting on Bonded leather is just sitting on plastic, not leather . And unlike real top-grain leather, the ground-up hide and plastic will never acclimate to your body temperature or get better with age.
Result: Virtually all Bonded Leather furniture will crack or peel. Note: Many stores admit to “Bonded Leather” on their marketing tag.
Bicast leather (also known as bi-cast, bycast, or PU leather) is what some consider the next step up in quality.
Bicast leather is from the lower split which was too thin or flawed for normal use. Like Bonded leather, Bicast is completely sealed on top with a layer of polyurethane. No contact is possible between the natural leather and your skin, and therefore Bicast doesn’t demonstrate any of the same wear or comfort attributes of top-grain.
Result: Bicast can still serve as an economical alternative for people wanting the look of leather without the price. Another benefit might be that Bicast and Bonded leather wipe up easily (since they have plastic surfaces) and you won’t run into many of the food/drink stain issues you may experience with upholstered furniture. Bicast won’t peel, but it will crack and fade.
Patent Leather comes from the Split layer. It is coated with 3 high-gloss layers of a polyurethane / acrylic plastic and (usually black) dye solution.
Interesting note: Color migration. When patent leather is pressed against another colored leather or plastic item, the color can transfer to the patent item. Also, long-term exposure to sunlight can cause irreversible color fading. Prevent this by storing in a white dust bag.
What is Married Leather, or Leather-Match?
Leather-matching is placing real, top-grain, 100% leather everywhere you touch on a piece of furniture (e.g. the seat, back cushions, and arms), but then filling the side panels, back panels, and the backs of the cushions with Split Leather or non-leather.
Leather-matches are often vinyl on the back and sides. However, manufacturers who want to maintain the ability to say “all 100% leather” will use top-grain everywhere you touch, but affix Bicast or Bonded to the sides and back.
Why You Don’t Want Married or Leather Match
Think about it: leather is like skin, and it will age. Top Grain leather can gradually change its patina, especially on parts that are more exposed than others. That being said, different materials acquire patina at different rates. Top-grain leather will change colors differently than splits, splits differently than Bicast leather, Bicast differently than Bonded, and Bonded differently than vinyl.
Because your furniture may be in your home for a long time, what started out as a subtle variation in color in the back, sides, and front will eventually become a glaring mismatch.
For the true leather-lover, the patina is one of the most charming qualities of the material. However, if you buy anything less than 100% top grain, you will be disappointed.