How can a consumer, determine the difference between real leather and imitation?
What are the obvious clues?
Here is my advice when shopping for leather furniture to determine if its the real deal or synthetic.
1. The best test is the inside of the material. The inside of leather will appear as suede whereas the inside of synthetic has a woven typically fuzzy, often white material.
2. Look at the cross section. Leather is one material (a skin) whereas synthetic is a bonding of plastic surface to a fabric substrate.
3. Pinch it. Leather is thicker, vinyl is thinner. To become familiar, find something you know is leather and pinch it to get a benchmark sense of the thickness.
4. Look for imperfections (hide scars, bug bites, etc.) Leather hides are not perfect across the surface (like knots in wood). Vinyl has no surface characteristics as it’s man made.
5. Look for a repeating pattern. Like wall paper, vinyl is manufactured with a specific pattern that repeats itself.
6. Large versus small panels – Leather is from an animal that has limitations dimensionally (ever see a 20 foot cow?), vinyl is produced on a roll with no limits to size.
7. Grain Pattern – If the grain pattern is totally uniform its probably vinyl. Nature does not produce complete uniformity.
What is NOT the real deal – Vinyl, Bonded leather, Bicast leather, ultra suede PU leather. Bonded, PU leather and bicast are equivalent to pressed wood or fiberboard. They are made from what used to be leather waste material that then has a heavy urethane coating on the surface. The typical color is a glossy brown. Bonded PU and bicast lack durability and present all kinds of problems.
What is real, but lacks durability – Split-hide. This is the remnant of a leather hide after the epidermis or top-grain has been split away.
Ask the following questions:
1. Is it top grain leather? Top grain means the epidermis of the skin is intact. This is important as the epidermis is where the durability of leather comes from.
2. Is it all leather? Many manufacturers cut costs by building leather furniture with part leather and part vinyl. This is not death mind you, but a potential problem along the seam where the leather and vinyl meet.
3. Can I see a swatch of the material used? Look at it front and back. Is it the same color on top and on the inside? Is it suede on the inside? Most leather manufacturers give the retailers samples of the leather they use for exactly this reason. Be wary if they can’t produce a swatch for your examination.
4. Who is the manufacturer? Do your research and look up who built the piece. There are several quality manufacturers – American Leather, Hancock and Moore, Drexel Heritage, The Sherrill Collection, Leather Craft, Ekornes as examples. And then there is the very high end European manufacturers – Roche Bobois, B & B Italia, Cassina, Gamma, de Sede.
Beware of claims like “it’s Italian leather.” It means nothing. Natuzzi, an Italian manufacturer of leather furniture has three plants: Italy, Brazil and China. Just because it has an Italian name doesn’t mean its made in Italy.
Ask penetrating questions. If you aren’t comfortable with an answer, run.
Some manufacturers had an impeccable reputation 10 years ago. Their products today simply don’t measure up. So don’t rely on historical performance alone. The industry is being decimated by cheap foreign imports. To combat the onslaught some companies have capitulated and moved their plants to cheap labor countries and are now producing junk.
The unfortunate fact is there’s a ton of misinformation on the web, and in the leather furniture retail channel. After reading this article, the probability is pretty high that you’ll know more about leather now than the sales person who is selling the furniture.