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Leather Upholstery

Fine leather upholstery used to be found in the dens and living rooms of only the very wealthy. Heavy, traditional styles and the use of strong colors such as burgundy, oxblood, burnt orange, rust, walnut, tortoise, navy, and blackberry characterized the category. These leathers generally have heavily glazed, shiny finished. Massive, traditional chesterfields, tufted wing chairs, traditional saddle-arm and double bustle pub sofas characterized leather upholstered furniture styles.

Today, due to advances in tanning technology and style innovations, sales of furniture upholstered with leather covers has grown at tremendous pace.

Contemporary styled leather upholstery has emerged as a strong selling category with broad consumer appeal. Not only has the styling of upholstered pieces changed, the leather used to cover contemporary pieces, now comes in a wide variety of designer colors and is generally soft, pliable, and comfortable. The way leather is applied to frames has also changed. Leather is now gathered, pleated, and draped in much the same way as fabric covers.

At the same time, manufacturers have found ways to make leather upholstered pieces available at lower price points. These suppliers may use less expensive leathers, or mix and match leather and man made materials on individual pieces. There is always a trade-off between price and quality.

Leather History
Like stone, wood, and wool, leather is a natural product. It has been a prized commodity throughout history. The entire earlier Renaissance styles, particularly the Spanish and English favored leather upholstery. Spanish craftsmen disseminated techniques for embossing, tooling, painting, and gilding leather in the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout this period, all types of furniture were covered with leather and studded with decorative nail-head patterns. In the 18th century, the art of preserving hides and tanning them into leather had become an old, respected trade. The tanning process took almost a year and was completed by coating the hides with oil and grease, then scraping and treading on them. Oxhide and calfskin were a favorite in the late Louis XIV styles and fine goat leather was often used by Chippendale and subsequent designers. Then, as today, cattle hides were the major leather source because of their availability, strength, and hide size.

Features & Benefits
Leather has properties that make it superior to other upholstery materials. It outlasts fabric covering, has an exceptionally long, useful life, and ages well. Leather will not tear, and is resistant to heat and sun damage. It breathes, like our skin, assuming body temperature rapidly and instantaneously becomes comfortable. Also, modern leather does not crack or peel, it rather stretches and retains its shape without sagging.

Quality Leather
Furniture upholstered in leather can retail for hundreds of dollars or thousands. The actual quality differences between promotional and higher-end goods may be equally dramatic. One of the major determinants of leather quality is the type of hide used in its manufacture. All leather is the product of animal hides, however, these hides vary in their quality and the ways in which they are converted into leather. High quality leather is expensive, and this raw material cost represents a substantial percentage of total cost of manufacturing fine leather upholstery. This cost is further exaggerated by the fact that 30% or more of each individual hide cannot be converted into usable upholstery panels due to hide imperfections.

Types of Upholstery Leather
Leather is made from animal hides that are converted through a many step process, which preserves, softens, beautifies, and protects the finished product. Only a small percentage of hides are used to make upholstery leathers, which must have large sections that are free from serious blemished. Whereas it takes only a small piece of leather to make a good shoe, a sofa cushion requires a large panel of high quality leather.

It is important to understand the differences between the basic types of upholstery leathers, because the kind of leather used on an upholstered piece greatly affects its cost, wearability, and beauty. Although the terminology may seem confusing at first, it is actually very straightforward. As part of the involved upholstery leather preparation process, suitable animal hides are split into a top layer (the one that had hair on it) and a thick lower layer.

The top layer, also called top grain, can either be processed into full grain leather which is not buffed and sanded, showing the natural grain of the leather; or into corrected or embossed grain leather that has had the surface markings altered by buffing and sanding. Generally, leather that has too many surface imperfections (too much character) will require correction. Full grain leather is considered to be of greater beauty and higher quality than corrected grain leather, and so commands a higher price.

The lower layer may then be further split and processed into suede split or coated split leather. Coated split leather is somewhat stiffer and less durable than top grain leather. It is sometimes used to cover upholstered sides and backs that do not need to flex and move much. Generally, it is heavily pigmented and embossed with a less-natural uniform grain pattern.

Tanning is the process that turns an animal hide into leather. It preserves the hide, makes it softer, more pliable and durable. Virtually all of the leather produced today has been tanned with a chromium tanning process, which is a type of mineral tanning.

Dyeing & Finishing
Tanned leather is first colored with a penetrating dye. The dye permeates the surface of the hide giving it color, but not covering over natural markings. The leather can then be finished in one or more coating operations, with clear or pigmented finishes that do not penetrate the surface. These final finishes provide abrasion and stain resistance as well as color enhancement. Generally, the more surface finish leather has, the stiffer it becomes, but tanning formula and hide quality also affect leather stiffness.

Aniline dye in common industry usage refers to any clear dye that penetrates into the leather, coloring it, but not coating its surface with pigment. Virtually all upholstery leathers are initially treated with a penetrating aniline dye, which allows the natural grain to show through.

The amount of dye used in leather production depends on the extent to which the dye has penetrated the leather. The dyeing of leather can be controlled by the manufacturer to either fully or partially penetrate it. Leather that has been fully penetrated with dye is known as fully struck through leather. If it has only been superficially dyed (only the flesh and grain surfaces penetrated), it is called partially struck through. For obvious reasons, leather whose cut edges will be exposed in the finished upholstered piece must have the dye fully struck through, but normal wear will not expose the interior of partially struck through leather.

The three most commonly available basic types of leather are pure aniline, semi-aniline, and protected aniline leather.

Pure aniline leather, sometimes called aniline leather, aniline finish leather, or premium select leather, is a product that has a clear protective coating but no applied pigmented surface coating (finish). This is the best quality and most expensive leather. It is made from hides having a minimum of natural markings which have not needed to be grain corrected, embossed, or coated with pigment. This leather may receive a clear protective coating, but not a pigmented coating. Natural characteristics of the hide show through and the surface is soft and supple. Moderate color variations are normal and these unpigmented leathers tend to develop a rich patina with age. Only a small percentage of hides are good enough to be converted into pure aniline leather.

Semi-aniline leather (aniline plus leather) has not as some believe had less aniline dye used in its manufacture than leather described simply, as aniline leather, pure aniline leather, or aniline finished. The term semi-aniline leather describes full grain leather which contains only a small amount of surface coating (finish), a premium product which allows most of the natural character of the leather to show through. It is, therefore, misleading to describe heavily finished or protected leather as being semi-aniline dyed.

Protected aniline leather is less expensive and more common than pure aniline or semi-aniline leather. Its coloration is more consistent and because it has been coated with protective pigments, the leatherĂ­natural markings are less noticeable. Protected leather is more heavily pigmented than semi-aniline leather and is actually easier to clean than pure aniline leather because surface pigments repel water and stains.

Bonded Leather
It is not leather, it is a synthetic PU material with leather shavings “sprinkled” on the back to make it look like leather. Bonded leather comes in 30m rolls and is 140cm wide – very strange-looking cows. Starting from the top surface and going down, bonded leather is a PU or plastic topskin coated on to a textile backing. A sprinkling of leather shavings is applied to the back. About 85 percent of the total thickness is synthetic, with leather shavings making up the other 15 percent (sometimes less). This can’t be referred to as genuine leather.