WHY LEATHER IS SO UNIQUE
from "San Antonio Parade of Homes Magazine" 2009
Hold your hand up if you remember the old advertising slogan,
“If Unique Is What You Seek”. It was used in TV and radio commercials
promoting a certain brand malt liquor - about 40 years ago! But for
today, If Unique Is What You Seek – let’s talk about how leather
furniture fit’s that request to a “T”.
Over the last half dozen years or so I’ve written articles each year for
the GSABA’s Parade of Homes Magazine covering many facets of
leather, leather furniture and furniture in general. We’ve covered
eather grading, leather characteristics, furniture construction
and other topics (all these previous articles can be found on
our website at www.choiceleatherfurniture.com.
This year let’s explore why the leather on your sofa may not
match exactly the sample you saw at the store and why this
is actually a good thing!?!
This is a very common concern with better quality leather (called “full top grain”) - but the fact is, it’s one of the true beauties of leather furniture. Why, because the inherent beauty of leather is that each hide has its own uniqueness. They are as unique as a thumbprint or a snowflake. So, no one else will have a sofa (or chair, or sectional, etc.) exactly like yours – think about that a minute, how many other things can make that claim?
There are three major areas in leather where you can expect unique variations – one is completely natural and the other two are a combination of natural and chemical processes.
First the surface grain will vary. Unless the original cell structure has been altered (like in lesser quality leather which has had artificial graining embossed into the hide), there will be areas of tight, smooth grain and areas of looser, ore pebbled grain. Each hide carries unique range marking, like healed scars, sores, bug and tick bites; hides are also affected by their surrounding climate and their own size and body structure. The finest hides come from Scandinavian countries where, due to the cold climate, they are kept in a barn for a large part of their lives; they also are generally larger animals than we normally see in our South Texas pastures.
The leather sample swatches shown to you by a furniture retailer are a “snapshot” of just one portion of one cow’s hide. So, it’s always wise to know that variations are pretty much assured when choosing full, top grain leather. These variations assure you of the hide’s authenticity. This is a desirable characteristic; it separates high quality natural hides from the lesser quality hides. These lesser quality hides must have artificial corrections made to them – like buffing and sanding before embossing in a grain pattern - in order for these hides to be acceptable on furniture. Natural is better and natural means unique.
The same is true of the coloring of the hide. Leather is dyed by either using topcoating pigment dyes (paint) or penetrating aniline dyes (vegetable oils). Individual pigment dyes can vary as they are mixed, but tanners and leather finishers also try to achieve more natural effects by combining and/or layering two to three contrasting colorations. Similar to a faux painting treatment, the artisan rubbing the color will get a slightly different color each time. With the penetrating aniline dyes, the color absorptions will be affected by each hide’s cell structure. Creating a unique finish that will never be duplicated exactly – like a snowflake.
The center of the hide is its backbone; it has been subjected to the most sun, wind and temperature changes which make it thicker and tougher – it will not absorb as much color. The outer perimeter comes from the underside (belly) of the cow which tends to be thinner, softer and stretchier which allows it to absorb more color. The craftsmen working for quality makers of leather furniture will balance the color variations throughout your furniture for the most visually pleasing final product.
The final variation is the amount of “sheen” on your leather’s surface. Sheen levels can vary due to the many processes that hides undergo to achieve the final intended fashion look. A small viscosity variation from the chemical supplier can be greatly magnified by a heavier application. And each hide’s individual cell structure will always create some variation – because they are as unique as your fingerprint. Further a heavier surface grain will allow more of the lacquer to adhere to the surface and reflect back the shine. You will also notice that a leather’s sheen changes (the shine usually dulls out) when you pull a leather swatch taut. This change is greatly pronounced when the leather is upholstered. If a leather swatch has been handled a lot at the retail store, then new leather furniture will appear more shiny and pristine. Keep in mind that over the years your leather furniture will soften and change, building up a rich patina that can only be created over time and with use.
The sample leather swatches you see in your furniture store are the best representation of how your furniture will look – but they are never to be considered a “dead on” match for what will be produced at the factory. And that’s good, “If Unique Is What You Seek”!
By Pat Sullivan, Owner of Choice Leather Furniture