Leather is a classic ingredient in a contemporary or period led interior

Kya de Longchamps looks at how leather is formed and cured for your couch.

Durable, beautiful with an instant hint of sophistication — we have loved leather furniture for centuries, rehanging skins of animals back onto framed furniture.

In the spirit of using the whole animal, the leather industry, despite some undoubted chemical misbehaviour, is largely processing what would otherwise be a hazardous waste product of the meat industry.

Buying leather furnishings, it’s not enough to see the leathermark (the spread hide symbol) and presume it’s all of equal quality and durability. 

This is a natural product with open pores, and as such must ‘breathe’ and retain a certain level of moisture to keep its honest good looks.

The position from which it’s taken from the hide, the method of dying and the method of finishing can deliver a very different look and price point — and long- term look and wear prospect.

Leather is a classic ingredient in a contemporary or period led interior

As with any furniture, the quality of the frame is crucial, so in timber-framed sofas and chairs, look for a hardwood frame in kiln-dried oak, ash or beech with dowelled, double dowelled or wood block joints as a guarantee of the quality of the construction. Here’s the trade-speak you must know when prowling the showroom for that silken skin.

Bonded leather

Right, not really leather, but a good compromise where money is tight and you can’t find what you like on the secondhand market. 

Bonded leather is comprised of leather fibres bonded with latex and given a protective polyurethane top coat. Furniture in bonded leather should be highly economical.

Aniline

This type of leather is dyed by being immersed in a drum to open up the pores of the skin to let it absorb the dye at the tannery. It’s coloured right through rather than being painted on the top. 

With its lovely nuances aniline is a mark of quality, it’s soft, beautiful and can be given an extra protective top coat (semi-aniline), or after-market treatment. Unfinished aniline is really for polite adult quarters only.

Top Grain

The most dense and durable part of a hide, top-grain leather has a high moisture content and the essential quality of warming in around 15 seconds to the touch. Coated leather will take up to 20-30 seconds to warm up against bare thighs.

Full Grain

Using top grain leather, this is as close to the original hide as you are going to get, and with subtle variations in texture and markings, full grain is a perfect choice for a relaxed rustic look. 

Leather is a classic ingredient in a contemporary or period led interior

Large scars and other blemishes are not acceptable — the markings should be subtle. Deep chocolate colours to a reddish brown with obvious grain are typical of full grain, aniline leather. 

Full grain weathers over time to an even better, slightly battered library charm.

Corrected Grain

In contemporary settings, a corrected grain offers a flawless, uniform look, with all the slight imperfections that characterise full grain, buffed out. 

It’s generally given a shiny top pigmented coat which not only adds chic, but protects the surfaces of the furniture too. DFS for example calls this a ‘cherish’ finish, because it simply requires a damp wipe-down once a week. 

Corrected grains with a pigmented top coat are not as soft as aniline. Painted surfaces can be ‘shadowed’ for a variety of looks, but this can lead to uneven fading over time.

Split leather

Split or bi-cast leather is not as durable, due to the position of the hide from which it is taken. Thinner than full grain, it is sometimes used for backs and sides where it won’t receive the thump of a million backsides over time. Generally, splits are not well regarded as upholstery materials.

Suede

Brushed leather, suede has a matt, soft feel in stark contrast to the often chilly feel of leather under the thighs (even when dressed). 

Where it wins for looks it falls down in stain resistance, so probably save this one until the little ones are on their way out the door. Never use standard leather protection products on suede-style finishes.

Leather faced

As the name suggests, these pieces have a seat and possibly part of the wings in leather, but carry a PVC back — fine if you keep them against the wall. 

The difficulty with bonding is that leather will always outlast its faux spouse, and the beauty of the chair or sofa will suffer as a result. A full leather piece should be covered in 100% leather. 

Use a sample of the leather (the retailers should have one) and ensure this is what covers the entire piece of furniture with a physical comparison.

Leather is a tough beast that should outlive three equivalent fabric furnishings. Well chosen it should last your lifetime, however, it’s not indestructible

Zip-off covers are an important feature in an investment buy, as the leather will survive, but the interior cushions, even in high-resilient foam, will fail over a decade or so and will require replacing.

First of all, if you have any sort of natural, matt, lightly brushed finish, it should be kept dry. Give suede or nubuck types a gentle groom with a rolled, dry soft cotton cloth using the soft brush attachment of the vacuum where needed for crevices.

Leather is a classic ingredient in a contemporary or period led interior

Soaps, including equestrian saddle soap have detergents and grease that will stain the surface and lift surviving natural oils out of the hide. These animals oils cannot be replaced. 

Solvents and steam cleaning are a complete no-no. Even with a dedicated cleaning product, a spot test in an out-of-the-way area on the piece, is generally recommended for any leather.

Painted leather furniture eventually wears rather nicely, with gentle fading to the colour of the seat and arms, but attack it with a concentrated or abrasive detergent and the results can be horrendous. 

Blot spills immediately with paper towel and use something gentle such as baby powder to pull out any remaining damp from the pores of the hide.

Move your furniture out of scorching, direct light which can leave the surfaces of the leather brittle, crazing the top coat where it is present. Keep chairs and sofas at least 30cm from radiators. Small scratches should only be coaxed out with a soft micro-fibre cloth. 

Use a recommended deeply penetrating leather condition designed for use on furniture every 6-12 months. Expect some dings over the years and a little stretching to seats, as leather off the animal, has limited elasticity.


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