Types and uses
Modern high-quality leather is soft and comfortable, and still being very durable. It is made from treated and tanned animal skins, usually cowhide, and is sold in different forms, rising in price and quality, including: bonded leather (the cheapest), split leather, corrected-grain leather, top-grain leather and full-grain leather (the highest quality and most expensive).
Synthetic leather was first produced in the early 20th century and has gone through several waves of popularity and ridicule. The term ‘artificial leather’ is one of many names for synthetic leather (others are faux leather, pleated leather, PU leather), but ‘artificial leather’ is most commonly used in the automotive and furniture industries. Artificial leather upholstery is an alternative to leather and fabric. It was once very popular in the automotive industry, when it was known only as vinyl, but was unpopular because it became hot in the sun, cold in winter and caused sweating. Today, well-designed faux leather is once again a popular choice, some car manufacturers have been selling it as a premium feature and it seems to be a legitimate material in designer fashion.
How to distinguish
High-quality artificial leather is now difficult to distinguish from genuine leather, at least at first glance. However, closer inspection reveals that real leather has inconsistently spaced pores, whereas fake leather has perfectly even or repeated pores. Genuine leather has a more buttery and soft feel, whereas faux leather will have a slightly plastic feel. Genuine leather also has a very distinctive smell that can often distinguish it from faux leather imitations.
How they are made
The production process of genuine leather consists of three stages: preparation, tanning and crusting. The preparation stage is one of dehairing, fleshing, degreasing, bleaching and other treatments. The tanning process turns the leather into a useful material which is soft and does not rot if it gets wet (as opposed to dry raw hides, which are hard and will rot). The most common tanning material is chromium, which stabilises the proteins. The hide is then placed in a rotating float containing the tanning solution until it is saturated. The crusting stage prepares the leather for use and can include softening, lubrication, colouring, polishing and many other treatments.
The process of making synthetic leather begins with the fabric material, which can be a synthetic polyester or a natural material such as cotton or leftover split hides from the production of leather. This base is attached to a polyurethane layer that has been textured to simulate genuine leather. PVC-based synthetic leather can be a single layer of PVC treated with a plasticiser and then dyed to look like leather.
The advantages of genuine leather include creating a higher resale value for cars, furniture and other products that use it, as it is seen as a luxury item and carries prestige. It also ‘breathes’ better than fake leather, making it more comfortable to use in products than in direct contact with the skin. High quality leather becomes softer with age and has a distinctive smell that many people enjoy. Genuine leather is very durable and does not tear or puncture easily, so it has a long history of use in harsh working environments.
The great advantage of faux leather is that it is cheaper than real leather. It can also be made in almost any colour or texture, which is appealing to fashion designers looking to try out new ideas. Faux leather is also easy to clean and maintain, requiring only an occasional wipe down, and is less likely to fade under UV light. It also does not require the death of any animals or the use of animal products.
Genuine leather is often very expensive. Furniture or clothing made from genuine leather usually costs twice as much as the equivalent faux leather. Genuine leather can fade and lose its colour if exposed to direct sunlight for long periods of time, for example in a car. Because leather is made from animal products, it is not an option for vegetarians and those who wish to avoid luxury animal products.
Artificial leather has traditionally been seen as a cheap imitation of leather (although this seems to be changing) and does not bring the same prestige. It also does not breathe and is uncomfortable directly on the skin. As synthetic leather ages, its topmost PU layer often cracks along stress points, exposing the fabric underneath, as most people see on old car seats.
Ethical and environmental issues
The most common argument against genuine leather is the use of animal products for non-essential luxury items. Vegetarians and animal rights groups usually oppose the use of genuine leather in products. The counter-argument to this complaint is that most leather comes from cattle that would have been slaughtered anyway. Although the production process of leather involves the use of several chemicals, it is mostly a natural and renewable product.
Apart from the use of leftover split leather as a base, faux leather contains no animal products and is therefore seen as an ethical alternative to leather by vegans and animal rights enthusiasts. However, from an environmental point of view, artificial leather is a non-renewable product based on plastic, and PVC in particular is a non-biodegradable and environmentally harmful material.