Nothing even comes close to the unique beauty of leather. Whether you use genuine leather hides on your living room couch, home office desk chair or the headboard in your bedroom, it will instantly upgrade the look and feel of your home and increase the value of your furniture. Well-made leather will last a lifetime, becoming more magnificent with age.
Leather can be expensive, especially when compared to synthetics and many fabrics, ranging from $2.00 to over $20.00 per s.f. Leather quality can vary as well. When you invest in leather, you want to be sure you are getting a high quality as well as a product that will wear well over time.
In this article, we’ll dive into the details of how you can properly judge the quality of leather, hopefully even before buying it.
Trust Your Senses
Unlike most other materials, genuine leather appeals to 3 of our 5 senses: sight, touch and smell. Each one of these can tell you whether your leather is high-quality, rather than low-end and over-processed.
Leather should look natural and unique. Wrinkles, irregularities and even slight imperfections are indications that your leather is genuine, whereas artificial and inferior grade leather tends to have a more uniform, almost too perfect look. Leather should have a pleasing texture and look like a natural rather than mad-made material.
Leather should feel distinctive. The feel of the leather is referred to as “hand.” Unlike leathers that are heavily coated with pigment and polyurethane, good quality leather should feel soft and luxurious, never plasticky. Look for leather with an appealing hand, one that feels “like buttah.”
Leather should smell pleasant and earthy. Quality leather will maintain a subtle yet distinctive natural aroma for its entire life, that special “leather” smell. Lower quality and synthetic leathers may give off a chemical odor or have no smell at all.
Once you learn a few things about how genuine leather is made, you can become a better judge of its quality. Here is what you need to know:
Full Grain vs. Corrected Leather
The best leathers are the purest, i.e. as close as possible to their natural state. In fact, the more that is done to process the leather, often the less it is worth. The best hides are “full grain,” so you can actually see the peaks and valleys of the skin surface, as well as the tiny follicles from which the hair was removed. However, as much as 85% to 90% of the leather hides on the worldwide market have blemishes such as range marks, healed scars and insect bites. In order to render them usable, they are mechanically buffed to remove the defects, a process which also sands off the beautiful topmost part of the hide surface, giving the leather an artificial appearance. This type of leather is often referred to as “corrected” or “top grain” leather.
Anilined Dyed vs. Pigmented
Almost all upholstery leather, regardless of its quality, is first dyed in a rotating vat or drum, using water-based, transparent aniline dyes that bond with the fiber structure of the hide. Then each hide is superficially sprayed with a specific finishing coating based on its quality. A pristine, full grain hide with no defects typically has an aniline topcoat, which is absorbed into the hide, creating a three-dimensional look. Leather that has been buffed is typically sprayed with an opaque oil-based dye, referred to as pigment, which is used to cover defects while providing a good degree of protection. But the end result is a hide that looks “painted,” with no transparency or depth. Some tanneries compromise by using a “semi-aniline” topcoat, a mixture of aniline and pigment, which retains the leather’s natural beauty while protecting it for daily use. A trained eye can decipher whether the leather is full aniline, semi-aniline or pigmented. A novice can get an idea by assessing the transparency or opacity of the leather; if you can “look into” the hide, it has an aniline topcoat.
Natural vs. Embossed Texture
Leather has a pleasingly light texture which varies from one part of the hide to another. If the leather has been corrected, the buffing process removes this texture. As one of the final steps in the manufacturing process, the leather is embossed under heat and pressure to restore the texture that has been buffed off. This gives the leather an artificial repeat pattern and a stiff, plasticky feel.
How Can You Tell if Your Leather is Good Quality?
When you buy one or more hides of leather, you can usually ask the vendor for a “cutting for approval” (cfa). A sample is cut from the butt of the hide so as not to interfere with its cutting area. It is a good representation of the hide’s color, sheen, thickness, hand and texture. If you are buying more than one hide, you do not need to request a cutting from each hide because hides from a single dyelot should conform to one-another.
Here are some tips for judging your cfa:
Consider the impression the sample makes on you. Is it soft, does it smell leathery, is it the color and texture you are looking for? Let your senses be the judge of the overall appearance and feel of the leather, while making sure you are satisfied with its color and texture.
The Visible Edges
Take a look at the leather’s cross-section. The cut edge will reveal whether the leather is 100% genuine, if any fillers have been used, and if the dye entirely permeates the hide. If the cross-section shows an interior of a different color, white or light blue in particular, it is an indication that the leather has not been completely dyed through in the drum-dyeing process, so if it is scratched, the lighter internal color will become visible. Ideally, the back, cross-section and surface color of the leather should all match as closely as possible.
Get out the Magnifying Glass
When you look at full grain leather, you will notice subtle peaks and valleys, as well as hundreds of tiny hair sacs. Although you can see these with your naked eye, you’ll get a much better sense if you use a magnifying glass or a loupe, a small magnification device held close to the eye to see the small details more closely. If you do not see the hair follicles, chances are the leather has been corrected and pigments have been applied to the topcoat.
Take a look at the overall texture of the cfa. Does it appear natural or does it look like a repeat pattern? The best quality leather is usually not embossed. If you pull gently on the leather and the texture pulls out, chances are it has been embossed.
Leather should be natural and each hide somewhat unique. Even if you are not a leather pro, you can always rely on your senses to tell you if the leather is good quality. It should have a natural appearance, smell and hand. If you have a positive sensory and emotional response to the leather, you are in good hands!