Leather is a luxury material. The beauty and feel of a quality piece of leather can give any design creation a special look. It is important that when making the decision to invest in a leather product that you feel comfortable and well informed of the product. There are many things to consider when making a leather purchasing decision. It is important to assess the comparative values of leather in terms of its quality. It is also important to know the differences that distinguish different leathers from one another.
Do you really want genuine leather?
Many people who are in the market for leather come to find that what they were really after is vinyl. Genuine leather, whether it is cow, sheep or pig hide always bear the effects of the environment. Natural marks such as blood vessels, scars, insect bites and other blemishes are expected. These blemishes have little to do with quality, and are in fact hallmarks of a beautiful, genuine leather hide. If a neat, consistent appearance is what you are looking for, perhaps a quality vinyl is the best choice.
What kind of leather do you want?
There are many kinds of leathers available. Leathers can come from all kinds of animals. For upholstery purposes, cow leathers are the most highly valued, followed by goat and pig (lambskin is usually not used). For most other purposes cow hide, kid hide (baby goat) and lambskin are valued most highly, followed by goat and then pig.
Animal types are distinguishable by grain, (the markings left from hair follicles) as well as the feel of the hide itself. The younger the animal was, the finer the grain. Cow leather is the most common leather, as about 65% of leathers produced are from cattle. Cow hides have markings of uniform size and are closely packed together. Cow leathers are naturally very large and thick; as a result cow hides can be used to make numerous products.
Sheep skins are the second most common leather with about 20% of the market. The grain pattern is not uniform like on cow leather and is arranged in groups with spaces in between. The hides are smaller and the fiber network of the hide is much weaker, which results in a hide a bit weaker than that of a cow. The wrinkles on a sheep hide are the result of the sheep's natural fat deposits. The hide of a sheep is known for being glove soft and very flexible.
What kind of finish do you want?
After a hide has left the tannery where it is sanitized, dried, cleaned and made to be consistent in size, it is put through a finishing process. There are many finishing processes each designed to give the hide its own unique look. There is surface finishing, where it is buffed with an emery surface to create a nap. This kind of finishing is used in the creation of nubuk and suede. Suede is made by buffing the inner layer of leather, called the corium layer to achieve a velvet-like effect. Nubuk leather is the result of buffing the top, grain layer of the hide. The result is a leather hide with the soft feel of fine suede, and the grain visibility of other kinds of layers. Nubuk leathers are often quite expensive as they require higher quality hides, as well as the expensive dyes and skilled buffing required.
Leathers also go through various levels of surface finishing, which is used to modify the surface color, cover up blemishes, and provide protection to the hide from wear. Different finishes are used to create different looks. Higher quality hides need less finishing in order achieving outstanding results. They are also valued much more highly than other finished leathers.
Full aniline leather is dyed for color without any pigments applied. There should be no covering material used in the final coat. Aniline hides are finished in a way to enhance the natural appearance and unique characteristics of the individual hide. Colors vary as each hide absorbs the dye differently. You can also expect fading as a result of prolonged exposure to sunlight. The quality of raw aniline hide is usually that of the highest standard.
Slightly less valued than a full aniline leather is a protected, or semi aniline leather. A protected aniline hide is one which has been dyed and also receives fine amounts of pigments to ensure color consistently. It is also sometimes coated with a light top coat to protect it from fade and wear. The pigments used are used to cover up minor scratches and scars.
As the quality of hide decreases, the more finishing is required. More covering material is used to hide the natural appearance leather, this can be seen in imitation aniline, pigment finished, and corrected grain leathers.