About Leather Furniture
It used to be that only the upper crust could afford to own real leather furniture; the rest of us had to make do with synthetic substitutes. But in recent years, prices have started to come down as leather has become more popular. Manufacturers are offering a greater choice in styles, making it possible to find leather to suit almost every taste and budget. Before you invest in this practical, versatile furniture, saddle up with some savvy buying tips.
Grade is the most important feature of leather's quality--and an indicator of durability and price. Manufacturers and showrooms use similar vocabulary to describe grade, which makes the buyer's job easier. Top grain indicates leather taken from the desirable outer surface of the hide. Leathers taken from the lower surfaces are split grains, and are much weaker. All but the least expensive furniture should be made from top grains.
Top-grain leathers are graded based on the ways manufacturers prepare the leather.
Aniline (or "pure" or "full" aniline) leather is soaked in aniline dye, but does not have other finishes or pigments applied. Only the best hides are used for this superbly soft leather. Semi-aniline (or "protected" aniline) leathers have a small amount of coating or pigment, giving them slightly better protection against stains and fading. Pigmented leathers are fully treated with surface color. Made from lesser-grade hides, they are stiffer than anilines, but also more stain- and scuff-resistant, and more affordable.
Leathers are graded by how much manufacturers have to do to get them ready for market. Nearly perfect, mark-free hides are rare and, therefore, highly prized. Most anilines will have visible markings, such as wrinkles and scars, that contribute to their natural beauty. Like a well-worn wallet or bomber jacket, they develop a lustrous patina with age and use.
Keep in mind that added finishes and surface pigments aren't necessarily bad. In fact, if you prefer more consistent color in your furniture, untreated anilines may not be for you. Finishes and pigments also provide greater protection from scratches, stains, and sun fading. The "best" leather, in other words, is by no means always the best choice for your family or situation.
The texture of leather furniture, like its appearance, is partly a function of its grade. The highest quality hides become the softest and most supple leathers. (In industry-speak, they have a more luxurious "hand," or feel.) Pigmented leathers and "corrected grain" leathers (those that have been buffed to remove obvious surface imperfections) have a stiffer hand. Beyond these differences, the following texturing techniques can give leather its distinctive appearance and feel:
Nubuck leathers are lightly brushed or abraded, resulting in a short nap with a plush softness. Nubucks are top-grain leathers, so they last longer than do their cousins, suedes. Nubucks also have the advantage of being treated with a protectant that makes them more stain-resistant than other anilines. Suedes approximate the look and feel of nubucks but are made from less-durable split grains.
Sauvage is a two-toned effect that lends depth to leather, producing a marbled or creased appearance.
Pull-up leathers are full anilines that have an oil or wax application. When the leather is pulled, or stretched, the oil or wax separates, producing a lighter burst of color. The pull-up technique is used for distressed or weathered looks.
Embossed leathers are corrected grains that have a new pattern or grain imprinted on them with high heat or pressure, resulting in anything from alligator to floral effects.
Grade will largely determine how much you pay for leather furniture. A sofa made from top-grain leather will range from $700 (a good sale on corrected-grain, pigmented leather) to $6,000 or more for designer names and pure aniline leather.
Leather may take slightly more care and upkeep than fabric upholstery. But in the long run, it's worth the trouble. Here are tips for preventive maintenance:
Keep leather furniture away from heat sources, which will eventually dry the leather out.
Place furniture out of direct sunlight, which causes leather to fade.
Vacuum leather regularly to remove dust.
Blot any spills immediately with a dry cloth, and let air dry.
Regularly use the recommended cleaners or creams to improve leather's resistance to staining and to keep it soft and supple.
Leather-care products are available from furniture manufacturers and stores; salespeople can recommend products for the furniture you select. Many retailers also offer leather warranties. For a moderate price (about $100 for a seven-year warranty on a sofa, half that for a chair), your leather will be repaired or replaced if it cracks, stains, or tears, ensuring that you will enjoy it for years to come.