For prospective leather couch buyers, it is important to know the details of the materials used in making their new sofa. Thus, we created this guide to help consumers understand the ins and outs of leather.
So what is leather?
Leather is a natural material, made from tanning the hides of animals. Leathers are used for many different products, including car interiors, shoes and clothing. While leathers are sourced from many different animals, the most common is from the hides of cattle. As for leather couches, most of the best quality leathers are made from the hides of steer (a male cow), with the leather commonly known as 'steerhide'.
Let's take a closer look at how leather goes from animal to the products that you use in your home.
What Is Leather Made Out Of?
Leather is made from the skins of various animals, typically those of cows, but can often involve the skins of goats, sheep, snakes and alligators. The process of creating leather from animal skins (or 'hides') is a fairly elaborate process; skins are first washed and treated with chemicals to remove bacteria and hairs, while then undergoing a process known as 'tanning' to strengthen the material and turn into the leather used in our homes today.
Leathers are believed to be created as a byproduct of the meat industry, meaning that leftover hides are used, and there is no killing of animals in order to create new leather products. Although some animal lovers debate that either way, animals are being killed in order to create leather products. This is a good take on the debate. Note that industry food trends and what people are eating often dictates what animals are used for leathers.
The majority of leathers are produced from cattle, with the best leather couches utilizing leathers from steer hides (male cows). I had initially learned of some of this information reading some of the posts over at the My Furniture Forum, which is a highly recommended resource. This is also a great article discussing some of the different types of cattle hides.
Where Is Leather Produced?
There is little leather production done today in the United States (now roughly less than 2% of overall global leather production). This table below is slightly dated and shows overall leather production (along with shoe production). China, Italy and Brazil are the top three in terms of worldwide leather production. Now note this involves all types of leathers, thus for leather sofas, it typically comes down to China, Italy, Germany and Belgium.
Note that just because leather is sourced from China or elsewhere doesn't necessarily mean that it was also built and assembled there. Leather is just a raw material that goes in the production of sofas and other furniture pieces. I have to once again recommend a post from the 'My Furniture Forum' where they discuss hide origins.
"Leathers from China are almost all finished hides (painted leather). The Europeans tanneries excel at Aniline hides (Dyed). The finest hides come out of the north of Germany and Belgium, as the cows are pampered there and the tanneries don't salt the hides for transport, they use refrigerated trucks for transport. The result being butter-smooth, velvety hides that have big price tags."
What Is The Process Of Tanning Leather?
Leather gets its start as leftover hides from the meat industry are sent to the leather factories (often known as 'tanneries'. These hides are inspected for quality and then brought to the tanning facilities. During the pre-tanning process the hides are thrown into large drums which soak and wash the hides which chemicals and water to wash out the salt and hair from the hides.
The hides are then removed from the drums as the excess fats are stripped from the backs of the skins. Note that excess fat from hides is commonly used to make bio-fuels and as gelatins for food consumption. The skins then go back into the drums for the actual tanning process.
What Is Tanning?
Tanning is the process of taking the pre-treated animal hides and turning them into a more stable material. Tanning prevents rot, stabilizes structure and improves the leather's resistance to temperature. This is a great paper which discussed more on the science behind tanning and why it is necessary in the transformation to end leather products.
This is also a great video from Optimal Leathers which discusses the process of tanning and the finishing process of leathers.
As shown in the above video, after the first portion of the tanning process is complete, the hides are then re-inserted into the large drums for dyeing and re-tanning. This is the step in the process which provides the skins with their trademark leather look.
What Types Of Leathers Are Used For Sofas?
While the terminology can often vary, there are four basic types of leather you should be familiar with: Full Top Grain, Top Grain, Genuine Leather and Bonded Leather.
Full "Top Grain" Leather
When I first started researching leather types I was completely confused. Thus, I want to break this down as simply as I possibly can.
When hides go to leather tanneries (where they process hides for leather) they are split horizontally.
Hides are naturally quite thick and on their own wouldn't be suitable as a material for furniture.
When tanners split the hides, the outer most portion is known as the 'Top Grain' with the remainder known as the 'splits'. Tyler at Rugged Materials does a great job illustrating this in the video below.
The portion of the hide immediately below the hair of the animal is called the 'Full Grain'. This is named as such since it inherits all of the imperfections and 'grains' of the animal’s hide and are completely undoctored.
Full Top Grain leather is considered to be the highest quality leather and is very durable.
This chart below is a bit confusing but shows the area near the top of the grain as more structurally sound, whereas when you get near the bottom, or near the 'splits', the hide loses a lot of its durability.
Full Grain leather is also quite smooth, yet can experience some fading over time (although most people pay a premium for this exact effect). It has a more relaxed look, and develops a natural patina over time.
What Is 'Grain' Anyways?
We've mentioned it a few times, and I figured I would just pause to take a break and explain what 'grain' means when we're talking about leather. In leather circles, grain refers to the surface of the leather and how much it has been corrected. These corrections are done by buffing or sanding out the imperfections on the hides. Thus, when we refer to 'Full Grain' it means that the hide has not been altered in any way. Sometimes, leathers will be referred to as 'Corrected Grain' if the imperfections have been removed. This is where most of the Top Grain leathers will be categorized.
Note that Full Top Grain leathers have no added pigments or protectants and thus can be more susceptible to staining. Full Top Grain leathers represent on average around 4% of the world's leather supplies, thus it is no surprise that these are the most expensive types of leathers.
Top Grain Leather
The next best quality leather after Full Grain, Top Grain leather is a leather in which the top grain has been buffed or sanded down. This altering of the surface grains removes any of the imperfections from the leather. Sometimes Top Grain leathers can be referred to as 'Corrected Grain' leathers. These are more widely available from tanneries and are less expensive than Full Grain leathers. It is more durable than Full Grain leather.
Genuine leather is made from the 'splits' on the hide; remember that tanneries will separate the animal hide into different materials, notably a 'top grain' and the splits, which are the inferior structure of the hide. The splits are combined with numerous chemicals (often plastics!) to artificially create the look of a more expensive leather. While it can sometimes look pretty good, we would not recommend purchasing any genuine leather made couches. Genuine leather is made up from the scraps of the hide and is prone to cracking.
Bonded Leather (also known as Bicast Leather)
This is generally the lowest grade of leather, although in many countries they cannot actually refer to bicast (aka as 'bycast') or bonded leather as actual leather. Bonded leather is made up of ground up chunks of leather (typically the scraps at the leather factory) and is glued back together. Bonded leather does not have the typical structure of an authentic leather and is compared to particle board in the furniture world. It is certainly the most inexpensive type of 'leather' although if consumers can afford a true top grain or full grain leather we would recommend it. Pros are that it is much cheaper than genuine leather but the material is not very durable.