Leather – Frequently Asked Questions
TOP GRAIN LEATHER VS. SPLIT HIDES
When cowhide reaches the tanner it is in one piece, it is then shaved off into layers that are usually 3/64″ thick, or about the thickness of a coin. The outer layer of skin is referred to as the “top grain” and the other layers of skin are referred to as “split hides”.
The top grain is best suited to upholstery because it is the strongest and most durable part of the hide, yet it is soft and supple. In fact, top grain becomes more supple over the years and obtains a soft patina. If properly cared for, top grain leather upholstery should last indefinitely.
The split hides are coarser and stiffer and tend to crack more easily. The average wearing time of split hides is 5 years. Split hides are better suited to the garment industry to make shoes, handbags, belts, etc., which are not expected to last more than a season or two.
Cheaper leather upholstery is often made of split hides instead of top grain leather. The advantages to a manufacturer to use split hides are the cheaper price of split hides per square foot and the greater yield obtained from a split hide. Top grain leather tends to have more scars and surface blemishes than split hides since it is the outside layer of skin. Since split hides have fewer flaws, there is less waste per hide, thus a greater yield per square foot. An average cowhide is approximately 50 to 55 square feet, but only 70% of this area can be used from a top grain hide. In split hides, 90% or more is suitable for use; thus there is only a 10% or less waste factor.
Obviously, the advantage of using split hides is the substantial savings in the cost of the leather; however, that savings is directly responsible for the poor quality and wear ability of the leather.
SEMI-ANILINE VS. ANILINE LEATHERS
The most commonly asked question by the consumer regarding leather upholstery is whether or not the leather is aniline dyed. Unfortunately, the average consumer does not understand what aniline dyed leather is. Most consumers believe that aniline dyed leather is the best leather available because it has been dyed all the way through with the same color; thus, a hide should be the same color on both the front and back. Indeed, this is a feature of aniline dyed leather, but pure aniline leather has other features that may not meet the consumer’s needs. The following paragraphs should clarify the difference between semi-aniline leather and pure aniline leather. Keep in mind that the term “semi” is actually a misnomer; it does not mean partial. In fact, a more appropriate name for semi-aniline leather would be aniline plus pigment.
Semi-aniline leathers or aniline plus pigments are dyed in vats with aniline dyes that penetrate throughout the hide so that the color goes all the way through the hide. However, the processing of semi-aniline leathers is taken a few steps further. After the leather is aniline dyed, a pigment color is applied to the top of the hide to guarantee a consistent color on the top surface of the hide. Next, additional finishes may be applied to the leather by hand or by machine to impart an antique look or some other special effect. Finally, a clear protective coating is applied to make the leather stain repellant and sun resistant. The sheen of this protective coating can be varied to give a matte finish or a high gloss finish.
Likewise, pure aniline leathers (A) are dyed in vats with aniline dyes that penetrate throughout the hide so that the color permeates and goes all the way through the hide. However, neither a surface pigment color nor a protective coating is applied. A hand antique finish may be applied. Because pure aniline leather does not have a pigment color applied to its top surface, there will be variations in color throughout the hide’s surface. Also, the lack of a protective coating makes this leather more susceptible to staining and fading.
Finally, pure aniline leathers may also be distressed or buffed to create an open nap. These leathers are referred to as Nubucks (N). These options are the softest available and have a velvety feel, but are the most susceptible to fading and staining because of the open nap.
It is important that you understand the differences between semi-aniline, pure aniline and nubuck leathers. It is also important that you understand that one type of leather is not more desirable than the other. Each leather appeals to a different customer. When selecting the leather that is right for you, your lifestyle and intended use should be taken into consideration. In general, softness and wear ability are at opposing ends – pure anilines or nubucks are the softest, silkiest options available, but they will also scratch and are susceptible to fading and staining. Aniline plus pigments have a harder, firmer surface due to the topical treatments. These leathers are the easiest to maintain and keep clean, but they are not usually as soft.
FULL GRAIN VS. CORRECTED GRAIN LEATHER
Although we only uses top grain leather, there are two types of top grain leather available: corrected grain and full grain. Corrected grain leather refers to leather that has been altered by buffing its surface to reduce scarring or embossed to develop a special effect. Full grain leather, on the other hand, is left in its natural state; nothing has been done to alter its grain.
Because each cowhide comes from an individual cow, each hide has different markings on it that reflect the lifestyle and personality of that cow. These markings include scars from barbed-wire cuts and insect bites, brands, stretch marks from the birthing process, neck wrinkles, etc. The amount and extent of these markings determine the quality of a top grain cowhide.
A top grain cowhide with excessive scarring is less desirable than a cleaner cowhide because the scarring reduces the yield of the hide. To obtain a better yield, hides with excessive scarring are often buffed to reduce the amount of scarring. The buffing process is similar to sanding a piece of wood; it alters the grain by sanding it to a smooth surface. On some hides the entire surface will be buffed smooth then the grain will be printed back on the hide, which is called embossing. Other hides may only have random scars buffed out and the rest of the grain is left intact. Regardless of the amount of buffing, any hide whose grain is altered is referred to as a corrected grain.
The grain in full grain leather has not been altered. These hides have fewer scars, so it is unnecessary to alter their surface. Full grain hides are considered premium leather and are softer than corrected grain hides. Corrected grain leather is as durable as full grain leather, but the buffing process reduces the natural softness. Full grain hides are often used for the more expensive semi-aniline and aniline leathers. Keep in mind that full grain hides will have a mixture of loose cell structures and finer cell structure from various locations on the original hides. Hence, each hide is a unique combination of smooth and rougher texture as you might imagine.
Please note that some scarring is natural. One of the beauties of leather is that no two cowhides are alike, because each hide has different markings; therefore, no two leather sofas will be the same. Thus, there is no such thing as a perfect piece of leather; every piece of furniture upholstered in leather will have a few scars. These scars are not “defects” in the leather, but instead, genuine proof of its natural origin.