What Interior Designers Should Know When Specifying Leather: Choosing the Appropriate Leather for the Project

Interior designers select multiple products and materials for their projects, including fabric and leather, floor and wall coverings, window treatments, furniture, lighting, and accessories. It’s impossible for them to be experts on every one of the items. When it comes to specifying leather, while interior designers might understand the basics of leather technology, there may be a lot more they need to know to avoid making mistakes.

We’ve previously written about one of two of the biggest pitfalls when specifying leather: the risk of ordering an incorrect amount. In this article, we address the second hurdle in specifying leather: making sure the leather chosen is appropriate for its intended use.

The Evolution of the COL

Until the last part of the 20th century, interior designers who used leather on a project were limited to the choices offered by manufacturers. 

Usually, the leather was available only in basic colors: black, brown, navy, green, and neutrals. 

Beginning in the 1980s, advances in leather technology resulted in many more options for leather, as tanneries began to experiment in the colors, textures, sheens, finishes, and patterns popular in the fashion industry. 

They learned how to dye leather into colors beyond the basics, and add state-of-the-art embossments, special effects, and embellishments. 

With endless options, designers had far greater choices in leather and began to specify their own, which they sent to the manufacturer to be applied to the pieces it is making. It is referred to as a Customers’ Own Leather (COL).

At Kovi Fabrics, we sell a wide variety of upholstery leathers for clients to use on their residential or commercial projects. Whether designers choose Kovi or any other company’s leather, it’s important for them to understand the basic characteristics of the leather, how it will perform, and whether it’s suited for its intended use.

Protected vs. Unprotected Leather

The first question interiors designers should ask themselves when specifying leather is what the leather will be used for? They may choose a particular leather because it’s the perfect color they are looking for, or fall in love with a leather’s silky feel.

The designer should understand how much protection the leather has, asking questions such as: Is it easy to clean and maintain? Does it stain easily? Will it fade in direct sunlight? 

Surprisingly, the most expensive leathers usually have the least amount of protection. See our post, “How to Judge the Quality of Leather,” which explains how to recognize the characteristics that determine the quality of the leather being specified.

Less expensive leathers tend to have the most amount of protection because pigment, an opaque, oil-based dye, is often sprayed onto the surface of the hides to mask defects. 

A major advantage of pigment is that it is super-durable and gives the leather the kind of protection that makes it suitable for use in high-traffic settings. 

On the other hand, pure leathers with a minimum amount of defects don’t require pigmentation and therefore receive an aniline topcoat. 

While aniline, a transparent, water-based dye, gives depth to the hide and allows its natural beauty to be visible, it affords very little or no protection to the leather. 

As a result, nappy leathers such as nubuck and suede, and “naked” leathers such as distressed leathers, have the tendency to stain as well as fade in direct sunlight.  


For high-traffic installations, such as restaurants, hotel lobbies, and dining areas in homes, the leather should be cleanable. 

This requires having protection added to the topcoat, so the leather can be cleaned with soap and water or a mild detergent. Spills should be able to be wiped right off. Unprotected leather will stain easily; in fact, even water can stain some naked leathers.

If you are not sure about how easy it is to clean the leather you are specifying, ask the manufacturer for cleaning instructions.

Hide Size

COL requirements are usually based on a full-size cowhide, which averages 54 s.f., the equivalent of 3 yards of fabric. However, certain leathers are supplied on smaller hides. Here are a few examples:

·   Calf hide: Average 28 – 34 s.f.

·   Suede: Average 18 s.f.

·   Embossed Leather: Supplied on half hides averaging 27 s.f. Width does not exceed 36.”

When specifying leather, make sure you know its average hide size, keeping in mind that the smaller the hide, the greater the waste factor. 

Especially if you are upholstering a large piece, such as a sectional sofa, check with the manufacturer to determine whether the hides you are supplying are the appropriate size. If you are using calf leather, for example, additional hides might be required.

Leather That’s Too Thick or Thin

When specifying leather, make sure it is the right thickness for the job. 

The thickness of upholstery leather is measured by millimeters, with the average thickness of upholstery leather ranging from .9 to 1.4 mm. 

If the leather is too thin, there is a risk that it may rip; too thick, and it won’t drape well or the manufacturer won’t be able to get sewing needles through it. 

Leather that is embossed with a pattern such as crocodile or ostrich tends to be stiffer and therefore may not upholster as well as other leathers.

Designers are often drawn to vegetable-tanned leather because of its unique hand, smell, and beautiful aesthetics. 

But beware – vegetable tanned leather is particularly dense and thick, and is therefore not suitable for upholstery, except for use as inserts or strapping leather. 

To learn more about vegetable tanned leather, see our post, “The Difference Between Chromium and Vegetable Tanned Leather.”

Special Considerations

Not all leather is suitable for every type of installation. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when specifying leather:    

·   Outdoor: Do not assume that “waterproof” leather can withstand the elements. In most cases, leather should never be kept outdoors and exposed to the elements.

·   Healthcare: Different types of vinyl are typically the material of choice in healthcare settings, often because of its durability and ability to hold up to industrial cleaners.  Most leathers do not have the necessary resistance. Check with your supplier before specifying this type of leather for healthcare settings.  

·   High traffic:  Always choose leather with the maximum amount of protection in the topcoat. Make sure it won’t stain easily and that spills can be wiped off.

·   Kids/pets: Durable leather is a must. Avoid distressed leather, pure anilines, and naked leathers that will easily scuff and stain, as well as suede and nubuck.

·   Sunlight: Any leather with an aniline topcoat should be kept out of direct sunlight. Most pigmented leathers, especially those with UV filters, will not fade when exposed to direct sunlight, so choose these in unshaded settings.

Trade Tip:

To determine whether the leather you are specifying has the appropriate amount of protection and is the right thickness, you can request a cutting for approval (CFA) from the leather supplier. 

It will be cut from the actual dye lot the hides you are purchasing come from. When you receive it, don’t be afraid to put on your lab coat and do some tests on the leather yourself. 

For example, if the leather is to be used in a food area, pour on some olive oil, butter, or carbonated soda. See if it can be wiped up immediately and then leave it on for several hours and see if it stains.

You’ll Never Make Specifying Leather Mistakes Again!

Now that you understand how to order leather with the right amount of protection that is also the appropriate size and thickness, you can avoid making costly and time-consuming mistakes when specifying leather. To learn how to make sure you are ordering the proper amount of leather for your project, take a look at Part 1 of this topic.

1 thought on “What Interior Designers Should Know When Specifying Leather: Choosing the Appropriate Leather for the Project”

  1. Thanks for the reminder that taking pets into consideration is very important when it comes to planning the interior design of a home. I’d like to know more about how to hire an interior designer because I’d like to have a new look for my dining area. That will surely help me be a lot more motivated to cool meals for my family if they could be presented on a luxurious table.


Leave a Comment