It takes quite a few steps to turn a leather hide into a finished product, and each step contributes to its quality and cost. Before you invest in leather furnishings, it's a good idea to learn some basic facts so you can ask the right questions and know what to look for in order to make the best purchase to meet your needs.
Keep in mind that leather is a product of nature, not man. Each hide has a character, a color, and a texture that's been created by time, climate, even cattle farming methods. Contact with bushes, trees, insects, and barbed wire can all leave "character" scratches, scars, and pinholes on the animal's hide. These natural markings are a valuable signature that gives each hide its unique appearance.
Before leather can be used as upholstery, the hides go through processing. Expert craftsmen hand-sort the hides and grade them based on quality. The hides with the fewest imperfections are cut into layers. The top layer of the hide, the one that lies closest to the hair of the animal, is known as "top grain" or "full grain" - the highest quality layer.
Full-grain leather has fewer imperfections; "corrected" grain leather may still be top layer, but it has been buffed to remove obvious surface imperfections.
The second and third layers are known as "splits," which are less expensive than top grains. Split and corrected hides can be worked into a finish that appears very comparable to top grain, but the difference in quality will be obvious over time. Be sure you're buying the quality that you prefer.
Manufacturers use one of three dyeing methods to color leather. The highest quality layers are colored using a pure aniline dye, a process that results in beautiful color variation and a softer feel. Aniline (or "pure" or "full" aniline) leather is soaked in aniline dye - the dye actually permeates the hide - but it doesn't have other finishes or pigments applied. Only the best hides are used for this superbly soft leather.
Another coloring process for top-grain hides is a surface finish application called semi-aniline, which produces a uniform color appearance. Semi-aniline (or "protected" aniline) leathers have a small amount of coating or pigment, giving them slightly better protection against stains and fading.
The third coloring procedure coats the leather surface uniformly with an opaque color, which covers most imperfections. "Pigmented" leathers, which are made from lesser-grade hides, are stiffer than anilines, but they're more stain- and scuff-resistant.
The highest quality leathers are free of finishes and pigments. Most untreated anilines have some visible markings, such as wrinkles and scars, which add to their natural beauty.
Added finishes and surface pigments aren't necessarily bad. If you prefer more consistent color, untreated anilines may not be the best choice... Finishes and pigments also provide some protection from scratches, stains, and sun fading.
The highest quality hides become the most supple leathers. Pigmented leathers and "corrected grain" leathers have a stiffer feeling. There are also various techniques that can give leather a distinctive appearance and feel:
- Nubuck is top-grain leather that is lightly abraded, which results in a plush softness. It's been treated with a protectant that makes it more stain-resistant than other anilines.
- Suede approximates the look and feel of nubuck but is made from split grains.
- Sauvage is a two-toned effect that produces a marbled or creased appearance.
- Pull-up leathers are full anilines that have an oil or a wax application. When the leather is stretched, the oil or wax separates, which results in a lighter color variation. The pull-up process is used to create a distressed or weathered look.
- Embossed leathers are corrected grains that have been imprinted with a new pattern. This results in alligator hide, floral, and other effects.
The price you pay for leather furnishings will always be a function of its grade and processing. There's a wide range between the price of a sofa made from a corrected-grain, pigmented leather, and a sofa made from pure aniline leather. One way to save money but still enjoy the prestige and comfort of leather is to choose a leather and vinyl combination. Applied to a chair or sofa, this technique puts genuine leather everywhere the body touches, and places perfectly-matched vinyl in less visible areas. Bottom line? There's a price point for almost every consumer, and leather's long life makes it an excellent investment.