Leather furniture can be a great investment. Leather is a natural product and holds up well for everyday use. There are several things that determine the quality and therefore the cost of leather. Hides are split during processing into two or more layers. Top grain leather comes from the top surface of the hide. It has a dense cell structure and is best for furniture. Bottom layers, split leather, often identified only as real leather or pure leather are not as strong and are heavily processed with resins and applied texture. Split leather is used for clothing and accessories, like purses and wallets. Top grain is the natural top surface or fur side of the hide. If it does not have damage such as brand marks, insect bites, or cuts it can be sold untreated and is called full grain. Undamaged hides are rarer to acquire and therefore the most expensive. All the markings on full grain leather are natural. Buffed full grain creates suede. Cooler climates in Northern Europe where animals are kept in pens or enclosed pastures produce the finest leather with the least imperfections. Fewer than 5% of hides on the market are considered premium select, the very top grade. The cost of leather is determined by the origin of the animal and by supply and demand and not by the location of the tannery.
Processed top grain leather is most common and still excellent quality. More cattle roam open ranges all over the world. Their hides are more weathered and have more scarring. To make them attractive for furniture, the imperfections are buffed out and sanded. Aniline dye is used to color the smoothed surface. Color can be applied by spraying on, hand rubbing or immersion. Most quality leathers also receive a clear top coat that encases the leather fibers and offers Scotchguard-like protection. With no protective coating, leather shows wear more quickly. Embossed leather has texture pressed into the surface by a machine. Embossing can offer a more uniform texture or even some unique design effects like pebble, crocodile and ostrich. Leather can be tumbled to soften the hand. Some scarred leathers are left unprocessed with the branding and imperfections visible. These work well in rustic or western design applications.
Here are a few things to notice when shopping for leather furniture. Leather seat cushions are upholstered with denim or canvas on the underside to allow the cushion to breathe and to let air escape when you sit down. Since leather is a natural product, small imperfections, even in processed leathers, are to be expected and are not considered defects. Color and grain patterns will vary from hide to hide as well as on parts of individual hides. Quality furniture makers work hard to match the color of hides on an individual piece of furniture and to position any visible imperfections in inconspicuous places. If there is a specific color desired, a color swatch sent to the manufacturer when the order is placed can be used to match the hides they plan to use. In lower end furniture, a coordinating vinyl is often placed on the back and even the sides to cut material costs and to make the piece more affordable. These pieces are called leather match or leather plus.
Caring for leather is uncomplicated. Regular vacuuming and dusting with a dry cloth will keep furniture in good shape. A quality leather conditioner should be applied at least once a year, more often if the piece is used daily, to maintain the leather's suppleness. Leather, like any upholstery fabric, will fade if exposed to direct sunlight. Precautions should be taken by properly covering windows with treatments or solar film. Leather should be kept at least two feet away from heat sources like radiators, fireplaces and wood stoves. Dry heat causes leather to crack. Cigarette and cigar smoke and other air pollutants can cause color changes and fading. Sharp objects should not be placed on leather furniture; durable is not puncture-proof. Cat's claws are not a friend of leather. As little water as possible should be used to blot spills. Household cleaners, soaps and soaking with water may ruin leather. For serious spills and stains, seeking a professional leather cleaning specialist is recommended. Minor scratches can often be rubbed out with a moist chamois or the oil from your fingers. Attention to these details will keep leather furniture looking its best and will improve its longevity.
Kristine Gregory is principal of Bedeckers Interior Effects, Inc. an interior design firm in Midlothian, Virginia specializing in custom window treatments and custom upholstery and providing a full range of interior products. Kristine is an Allied Member of American Society of Interior Designers, Past President of the Richmond Chapter of WCAA and a Window Fashions Certified Professional - Specialist Level. She is the only designer in the Richmond area who is an expert in both the psychology of color and personal organization. Visit her website at www.bedeckers.com and view her watercolors at www.kristinegregory.com