Introduction to Leather Upholstery

Leather is made from tanned animal hides. Tanning softens the leather, which may also be dyed or pigmented or treated in other ways. Although upholstery actually refers to the four parts of a piece of furniture that are not the frame—the springs, the padding, the material that covers it, and sometimes cushions—when we say “leather upholstery,” we are referring to the covering.

Like any other upholstery material, leather upholstery determines a great deal about how a piece of furniture looks and how it feels. Also, as is true of any upholstery material, to a large extent, it determines the cost of the piece of furniture.

Preparation of Leather Upholstery

Leather can be split, a process that divides it into the “top grain” and “split leather” (sometimes called the “split hides”), which is the middle and lower portions. The split leather may be sueded or embossed. Sueding involves buffing to raise a nap, generally on the flesh side. Embossing imitates natural leather grain.

Because of the cost of leather, various techniques have been devised to lower the cost. For example, sometimes top grain leather is used only on the cushions and pillows of a piece of furniture, while cheaper, split hides (or even vinyl) is used on the rest as a means of cutting cost. Other techniques include using split hides on the entire piece of furniture, or using a less expensive hide.

home institute 1 Leather upholstery may be glazed, dyed, or pigmented. Glazing is achieved with the use of glass rollers. Dyeing can use natural products, like the technique for making Russia leather that employs dye made from brazilwood, or synthetic dye, generally referred to as “aniline dyes,” whether or not they contain aniline. Dyes are transparent and allow the natural grain and markings to show through. The nubuck finish method involves brushing the leather's surface, and also involves transparent dye. Nubuck is distinguished from sueded leather because it is made from the top-grain, not the split-hide leathers. Pigments are a finish of leather paint, which is an opaque dye.

Other approaches to leather finishing include:

    Two-tone—in this finish, a second color is sprayed or hand-wiped over the first.

    Metallic/Pearlized—this finish introduces metal flakes over a pigmented leather finish.

    Semi-Aniline or Hybrid—this refers to a light coating or a hand-wiped application of a pigment dye or a metallic finish over an aniline finish. This can help cover imperfections.

    Top coat—a protective coating applied over other finishes.

Caring for Leather Upholstery

Leather wears between four to seven times better than fabric, but it does change appearance, even though it lasts a long time. Some precautionary measures will help with this. It needs to be kept away from direct heat, which will dry it out, and protected from sunlight, which will cause it to fade.

Spills should be blotted (not rubbed) with a soft, white cloth. Don’t rub them. Allow spills to air dry (don’t try to apply heat). Professional cleaners can help with difficult stains. Pigmented leather, though it shows surface cracks, is less vulnerable to wear and spills.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

Related Home Institute Articles

  • Sofa Buying Guide