What Is Leather

In my 20-plus years in the furniture business, I have spoken with many people that have incorrect impressions on leather upholstery. This is usually because of preconceived ideas based on negative things they have heard or assumed.

Let me give you some firsthand information from a seasoned professional. I can with all honesty tell you there are many advantages to this timeless, stylish, and cost effective covering.

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True, there are some situations that the consumer should know and I will let you know about these pros and cons so you can make an educated decision.

First let’s look at the major categories of leather so you can pick something suitable for your lifestyle and level of use. Basically, there are two major categories, protected and non-protected (also known as aniline dyed or natural leather).

The tanning process mostly is similar in either category along with other processes that prepare the hide for the dying stage. For natural leather dye is added and nothing else to resist against absorption of spills or hand and hair oils. If they introduce natural leather to moisture, the dye can run and cause a stain.

Also, the places that are repeatedly touched will darken as the hide collects oils from our hands and hair. Not to sound to gross, the industry has a nice name for this darkening, a patina.

I highly recommend a darker color to help mask this kind of look if the furniture will be in a heavy traffic area. We limit cleaning to a damp cloth and light non- detergent soap mixed in a diluted solution. It is also important not to use a lot of leather care products as they can darken the leather with the oils they have in them.

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leather colors and grades


The second leather is the protected kind which makes up the vast majority of leather on the market. From furniture to automobiles the ease of cleaning and cost effectiveness make for a long lasting, durable and low maintenance upholstery.

Within this category there are many looks and feels, from embossed to full grain, and thin to very thick. All of these are simply characteristics that give the consumer a variety of articles to choose from.

Because there is a urethane surface on the outer most part of the hide which resists against spills and the elements, this is a much more cleanable type of upholstery. When shopping for furniture it is important to discuss your expectations and lifestyle so you get the most suitable type for you.

A simple damp white cloth will keep you dirt and dust free, and a high quality leather conditioner will neutralize body oils and restore a supple feel.

Different leather

Some buzzwords you may hear when shopping for leather furniture are “top grain” or “full grain”. These terms describe the type and condition of the hide.

Top grain means it is the outermost part of the hide, and that it is not a split or under part which has less strength and durability. When the processing is started they shear the top of the leather from the hide leaving a split.

A split is good for a back or side, not a place where you will sit as the hide will stretch and lose its shape. It leaves a full grain hide with all its natural characteristics and markings in the processing stages.

You will see a variety of grains from small to very heavy and this is ok. This shows you are getting a genuine, minimally processed hide with natural markings.

You will see many types of grain patterns and can determine which fits your preference. Most of the leather sold on the market has been buffed to eliminate heavy grain or imperfections and give a smooth uniform appearance and feel.

Some hides are embossed with a simulated grain to give a very uniform look. These are all good, long-lasting alternatives to fabric and microfibers. For those who suffer from allergies, it can easily keep the dust that collects in conventional fabrics in check with leather.

Remember that leather is a natural product, so it is never perfect. Scars and various grains are all normal characteristics of genuine leather. The more expensive and natural, the more this rings true.

Finally, beware of ultraviolet rays that can dry, crack and fade just about anything and leather is no exception. Look for a conditioner with UV protection. The good news is, leather can get better with use and age as it loosens up and develops a softer feel if taken care of properly.