Textiles: Focus On: Leather

It's not just your grandmother's leather anymore.

This upholstery option has jumped from the chair to the floor to the wall and beyond over the past decade, and it's not stopping. But not only is it versatile, it's more durable than fabric, outlasting it consistently by 4-1. As it ages, it becomes more beautiful with time, developing a patina that gives it character and a story to tell. This makes a material typically associated with luxury a cost effective and practical one in reality. But sometimes, unfortunately, the perception of leather as an initially expensive product can overshadow the benefits of its long-term advantages.

The durability of leather has been stretched even further thanks to improvements in finishing processes, technology and cleanability. For instance, 3M Scotchgard can now be added to help it further resist stains, as well as Crypton. Leather is also innately sustainable as a by-product of the meat industry that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Water-based finishing materials have become prevalent as well as low-VOC emission leather products and post-consumer recyclability.

Not only has the durability of leather progressed, but fashion has overtaken this material. Gone are the days of simply "black or brown," and in has stepped a myriad of color options, as well as a boom of new textures, embossing techniques and patterns that have run rampant through the industry. These include alterations in sheen, feel, or finish, such as with laser cutting and embossing, foil embossing, metallics, woven leathers, haired steerhides and hand-tipped or hand-rubbed products that offer a depth of color. Manufacturers are doing more product engineering than ever in order to help meet customers' ever tightening budgets. High expectations for quality and yield mean customers are looking for more in-stock options and shorter lead times, with more customization available in smaller runs. A variety of products are now available besides upholstery, such as wall, floor and ceiling tiles, surfacing for desks and tabletops, casegoods, railings, trays and other surfaces and details.

But when it comes to leather, an educated customer is key as the industry has also been overtaken by the "leather is leather" concept, thanks to an increase in those companies that are buying inexpensive leather off the shelf, putting their name on it and selling it at a large markup. This is forcing many to go with less expensive, poor quality leather products, leaving the true quality manufacturers out in the cold. A designer should be aware if the leather is full grain or top grain, protected semi-aniline or a pure aniline naked leather. A pure aniline leather is best as it fades and scratches over time. But an uneducated client could react negatively to this leather's natural wear. Proper applications and usage should be clearly conveyed between manufacturer and designer in order to achieve the longest-lasting product possible.

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