Genuine Leather or Faux Leather: Which Is the Right Choice for Your Project?

In addition to its selection of over 4,000 top-quality upholstery fabrics, Kovi Fabrics offers a wide range of genuine leather and vinyl.  Clients often wonder whether real or faux leather is the best choice for their project. The answer is that it depends on a number of factors, including the application, budget, and personal preferences.

What Is the Difference Between Real Leather and Faux Leather?

Where Upholstery Leather Comes From

The type of leather that is suitable for upholstery is bovine, or cow, leather, although a small percentage may be buffalo. It is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry.

Upholstery leather is normally chromium tanned for suppleness and pliability, aniline-dyed in one of an endless choice of colors, and ranges between 1.0 and 1.3 millimeters in thickness.

Many different types of cowhide are suitable for upholstery applications, including monochromatic, two-toned, distressed, antiqued, metallic, and brushed, i.e. nubuck. In addition to its natural beauty and inherent elegance, genuine leather is prized for its durability and longevity, often developing a patina and becoming more appealing and valuable over time.

How Faux Leather Is Made

Faux leather, sometimes called imitation leather or vegan leather, is man-made. Just as there are many different qualities of upholstery leather, there are several varieties of faux leather, which is made from different synthetic fibers. Imitation leather is made to look like real leather, but it contains no leather parts or by-products.

Two types of plastic leather are suitable for use on furniture: vinyl (sometimes called pleather) and polyurethane (PU). Vinyl is derived from ethylene, or crude oil, and is made by fusing vinyl with a textile base such as polyester. PU is an artificial leather made by coating a fabric such as cotton or polyester with a thermoplastic polymer, then treated to mimic real leather.

While vinyl-based leather is the more flexible of the two, PU leather is more breathable, making it more suitable for clothing.

PU is also a more realistic imitation of real leather in terms of overall appearance as well as its hand or surface feel. Other advantages PU leather has over vinyl are that it can be tufted like real leather, it doesn’t peel or crack, it remains supple and soft after being upholstered, and it’s “greener” because it doesn’t create dioxins.

The Cost of Real Leather Compared to Faux Leather

When considering whether to use real or faux leather for your couch, kitchen banquette, or custom-made pillows, the cost might be the determining factor. PU leather is typically more expensive than vinyl, which costs about 25% less than leather. While leather is supplied by the hide, vinyl is sold by the linear yard.

Because leather hides are irregularly shaped and narrower in the neck area than in the butt area, it has a high waste factor, so you will need to buy more. However, real leather will last much longer than its synthetic counterpart, so your leather furniture will not require reupholstery for many years.    

Natural vs. Uniform Look

One of the beauties of leather is that each hide is unique, with individual characteristics such as neck wrinkles, imperfections, and range marks, evidence that it is a natural material. Leather has a luxurious appearance.

Its distinct aroma, feel, and appearance cannot be replicated by man-made products. Any chair, sofa, or banquette will simply look more expensive and elegant when upholstered in leather. Imitation leather will not develop a patina over time and may have a plasticky, chemical odor.

Once frowned upon as imitation leather, advances in technology have made vinyl and PU leather more aesthetically appealing, so often it is hard to distinguish them from genuine leather. However, faux leather lacks the aroma and physical characteristics of leather and can appear man-made, almost too perfect. As a result, your favorite couch might seem as though it is upholstered in plastic.

Depending on your taste, you might welcome the natural look and feel of leather, or you might prefer the more uniform, pristine look of synthetics. PU leather tends to have a more realistic look and feel of leather than types of vinyl.

The Seamless Approach

For wall paneling, window treatments, and oversized pieces of furniture, such as sectional sofas and banquettes, large cuts are needed.

Since the length of leather hides is limited (rarely exceeding 6 to 7 feet) and gets narrower in the neck area, long, seamless runs are impossible to achieve. As a result, you may end up with seams on your upholstered furniture where you did not expect them when you choose leather over vinyl.

Cleaning, Repair, and Maintenance

Furniture upholstered with either real or artificial leather is generally easy to clean.  Most leathers, especially those with protections added to the topcoat, can withstand soap and water. However, aniline leathers, including nubuck and suede, may require specific cleaning products or cannot be cleaned at all.

On the other hand, faux leather can withstand heavy-duty cleaning. However, synthetic leathers wear over time and even crack and fade.

Some leathers, particularly aniline-dyed leather, can fade when exposed to direct sunlight.

The finish on pigmented or older leather can crack. Vinyl is normally fade-resistant and crack-proof. On the other hand, leather ages well, often becoming softer and developing a patina over time. Leather is tougher than vinyl, and because it is puncture resistant, it is less likely to tear, making it a good choice for furniture in high-traffic areas.

Both leather and vinyl can be repaired either professionally or with a do-it-yourself repair kit.

The Comfort Zone

Many people prefer leather on their upholstered furniture because, unlike vinyl, leather breathes. Leather is porous, so it’s cool to the touch in summer, absorbs body heat, and feels warm when there’s a chill in the air. Bare skin won’t stick to leather as it does to vinyl. If you don’t like sticky seats in the summer, vinyl is not the right choice for you. In the sunlight, vinyl can start to feel more like plastic.

Environmental Concerns

While there are concerns that leather production is detrimental to the environment, especially because of the use of chromium sulfate in the tanning process, don’t forget that vinyl is a petroleum product and therefore is not “green.” Leather, on the other hand, is a natural product as well as a by-product of the meat and dairy industries. It is also a renewable resource.

If you are opposed to the use of animal hides for food, clothing, and shelter, you should go with faux leather, which is vegan. However, faux leather has its own negative impact on the environment.

Even though it takes fewer resources to produce than leather, plastics do not decompose. While leather has an overall worse impact on the environment in terms of chemistry, global warming, resource depletion, and water scarcity, the production of faux leather requires more use of fossil fuels than genuine leather.

Keep in mind that because genuine leather lasts longer than synthetic leather, ultimately, less of it will be used over the lifetime of a piece of furniture. The choice is yours. 

When deciding whether to use real or man-made leather on new custom-made furniture or to reupholster one of your favorite pieces, it comes down to your aesthetics, lifestyle, concern about the environment, and your wallet. At Kovi Fabrics, we are attentive to the wide range of our client’s preferences – that’s why we offer both!

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