Leather has been a highly-desirable furniture upholstery material for centuries, prized for its durability, appearance, and comfort. The simple term “leather furniture” conjures justifiable images of beauty and luxury.
Of course, not all leather is created equal.
An inexpensive sofa upholstered in nubuck or suede leather, for example, won’t stand up to wear, feel as comfortable, or look as beautiful as one covered with a fine full-grain or top-grain leather. Even so, the prestige of owning leather furniture – of any kind – leads many consumers to purchase lesser-quality leather sofas, sectionals, chairs, ottomans and other upholstered living room pieces. Most who can afford finer grades of leather, though, find that they’re worth the extra cost.
Two of the most popular types of leathers used for upholstery are known as corrected-grain and full-grain leather. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but there are actually big differences between them. We’ll take a deeper look at the advantages and disadvantages of each, after a quick tour through the history of leather upholstery.
How Leather Became a Favored Upholstery
The use of leather dates back all the way to primitive man, with animal hides regularly used for shelter, clothing, and footwear. Many examples of Egyptian leather artifacts dating back to the 6th century B.C. have been found showing that animal hides were also used for purposes ranging from military equipment to funeral shrouds, while the Sumerians and Assyrians used leather for everything from diadems to rafts. Over time, methods of rudimentary tanning emerged, predominantly with the use of animal fats and exposure to heat.
Centuries later the Greeks developed techniques to tan leather with a solution of water, tree bark, and leaves, and the popularity of vegetable-tanned hides grew rapidly in both Greece and Ancient Rome. They were used for clothing and footwear, but also shields and saddles. The Phoenicians even made water pipes from leather.
It isn’t known for certain when leather gained favor as a covering for furniture. But historians believe it was used on dining chairs as early as the 5th century A.D., chosen because it didn’t retain odors and lasted longer than other common materials of the day. Records are sketchy, however, and very few examples survived because the leather of the day was not durable and usually wasn’t cared for in the ways that are common today.
A huge step forward came in the late Middle Ages as tanning methods were refined and often combined with various finishing and dyeing processes. These led to the creation of leather which was softer, more malleable, and more attractive than ever before. At this point, the use of leather to cover furniture became widespread and during the Renaissance leather-and-wood chairs and settees became common among the upper classes. Tanned and exquisitely-detailed leather was often combined with the period’s elaborate woodworking techniques to create masterworks of leather furnishings.
By the 17th century, many well-known styles of leather chairs had emerged. Cromwellian chairs noteworthy for their brown leather, brass nails, and spiral legs and Spanish high-backed leather chairs are among the most famous examples. In the following century, leather production soared and the era is known for outstanding furnishings like Chippendale chairs made with goat leather and Louis XIV chairs upholstered with calf or ox skin leather.
Mid-Century Modern Leather Chair and Ottoman
Demand for leather increased over the following centuries. This was due in part to the many new uses discovered for the material spurred by the Industrial Revolution as well as advancement in tanning methods such as the chrome tanning process that creates a softer and more supple finished product which made leather a more comfortable and versatile material.
Today, only 15% of the leather produced worldwide is used for upholstery and interior design. However, that’s more than enough to provide an enormous range of leather furnishings, particularly because so many different types of leather – created from just about every part of an animal’s hide – are available for use.
Types of Leather
Whether you have a huge budget or are seriously pinching pennies, there are several varieties of leather upholstery from which you may choose. The decision requires you to balance costs against benefits, and you can’t make an informed choice without an understanding of the options. Here’s a brief rundown of the types of leather used to cover furniture.
Full-grain leather: This is the most natural, most durable, and most expensive leather used for high-end upholstery. It is the full top layer of an animal’s hide with only the hair removed, so the entire grain of the skin (with all of its natural blemishes) is visible. Full-grain leather is usually treated with transparent, soluble vegetable dye (aniline) or dyed and then coated (semi-aniline dye) so its color and finish are suitable for use on luxurious furnishings. The very best leather is aniline leather and usually full-grain leather is the recipient of aniline dying.
Top-grain leather: One step down from full-grain, top-grain leather is the surface layer of an animal hide created when it is split, sometimes lightly sanded to remove some of the leather’s more obvious imperfections. Although it won’t develop the same patina (developed over time) as full-grain leather, it is still strong and extremely supple.
Corrected-grain leather: Take top-grain leather (with lots of imperfections), sand and buff it deeply to remove most or all of the blemishes and flaws, and then add a stamped or embossed “artificial” grain – and you have corrected-grain leather. It looks uniform because most of the natural grain has been removed and it is given a semi-aniline coated finish or more often, pigmented dye (protective dye).
Split leather: This is what’s left after the top grain is removed from a hide. Because it’s a fibrous leather, it’s cheaper (both in cost and feel), is damaged easily, and doesn’t stand up well to prolonged use even though it’s a 100% leather product. For those reasons split leather is usually used on the sides and backs of sofas or other upholstered furniture because those parts will not see any use like seats and backs. Depending on the thickness of the hide, a split may be further separated into several layers. Suede is an inside split that’s been buffed, softened, and dyed; nubuck is an outside split treated in a similar way. Suede is softer and more flexible (and much less durable) because it was closer to the animal’s skin, while nubuck is stronger and “looks more like leather” since it was closer to the top grain.
Bicast leather: A split that has been coated with polyurethane, bicast leather is relatively inexpensive, but looks the part. It is an example of “faux” leather. Here’s a more thorough and in-depth article on bicast leather.
Bonded leather: Whether it’s called bonded, blended or reconstituted, this is a man-made product created with shredded leather and artificial bonding substances, placed on a fiber backing. It’s then coated and stamped with a “grain.” It’s another example of “faux” leather and here’s a more in-depth article on bonded leather.
Faux leather: If you remember any of your high school French, you’ll know that “faux” means false. Polyurethane (vinyl), bicast leather, bonded leather, and others are considered “faux” leathers and are not considered 100% genuine leathers.
IMPORTANT NOTE: These two terms can be confusing. Some in the industry use the terms interchangeably; some rigorously define full-grain as having had no surface alterations whatsoever and top-grain to have had minimal sanding. Be sure to ask for clarification before buying upholstered furniture, rather than relying on what you assume “top-grain” to mean.
Full-Grain vs. Corrected-Grain Leather
Full-grain and corrected-grain (top-grain) leathers are the two most common types of leather in furniture upholstery. You should have a pretty good understanding of the differences between the two from our rundown of leather varieties. Now, let’s dig a little more deeply into what those differences mean when you’re shopping for a real leather sofa, sectional, or a recliner and have to decide between types of leather.
We’ve already mentioned that different manufacturers define top-grain in different ways. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll look at both full-grain leather (with no correction at all) and top-grain leather (a split top layer with minimal corrections made to the grain).
Leather Grain Closeup
We’ll start with appearance. Full-grain leathers are the cream of the crop, showing the natural grain and all (or most) of the distinguishing characteristics of the raw hide, including marks and insect bites. That authentic look makes full-grain leathers more aesthetically pleasing than other leathers such as corrected-grain, even if the leather layer has been lightly sanded to remove the most obvious blemishes. Full-grain aniline leather is most desirable because it’s not as coated as semi-aniline or pigmented leather, leaving it free to absorb the body oils which allow the development of the stunning patina and rich color most of us picture when we think of rich leather. Furniture made from slightly-sanded full-grain leather won’t look quite as luxurious, but a patina will still become obvious over time. With corrected-grain, no patina will ever develop.
Full-Grain Distressed Leather
It’s easy to understand why corrected-grain leather would be less attractive to some consumers. The removal of most or all of the hide’s flaws and the application of an artificial grain changes the look of this upholstery drastically while removing the features that make genuine leather “look like leather.” And while the common manufacturing process of applying pigment or dye to corrected-grain leather may make it appear more uniform and pleasing to the eye at first glance, it also makes the upholstery slightly duller, flatter, and more artificial when compared side-by-side with uncorrected leather. However, some consumers actually prefer that uniform look that corrected-grain leathers offer.
Top-grain, corrected-grain leathers are thinner than full-grain because the top section of the hide has been sanded and/or buffed. However, full-grain leather will become supple over time. Additionally, the artificial grain that’s stamped or embossed onto the material, and the artificial pigment (pigmented leathers) that’s usually applied, combine to keep the leather a bit stiffer.
Leather Recliner in Brown Leather
There’s one other factor to consider. The more “stuff” that’s used to coat leather, the less it can breathe. For that reason, full-grain, full-aniline leather will be the best at ventilating body heat, keeping you cool in the summer and comfortable in colder weather. As you progress through the added coatings applied to semi-aniline full-grain and top-grain leather, this benefit starts to disappear. Corrected-grain leather, particularly when pigmented, is substantially less breathable. For the ultimate in comfort as well as appearance, full-grain aniline leather is the winner.
Full-grain and corrected-grain leather will all be quite durable, but the sanding and buffing processes that are performed on corrected-grain upholstery means it will suffer slightly. Physically removing the blemishes also removes the tightest and strongest fibers in the leather (the horizontal ones).
Some consumers feel, however, that there are significant advantages to choosing corrected-grain leather instead of full-grain. The most obvious one is price. A lot more goes into figuring the cost of a sofa or chair than just the type of upholstery, of course, but a high-quality full-grain leather piece is pricier than comparable corrected-grain furniture. There are two reasons: one is the beauty of the higher-quality leather and the other has to do with scarcity. It’s extremely difficult to find hides which are suitable for the creation of full-grain leather; only the finest hides without brands or obvious defects can be used, so they command a much higher price.
Usability also factors into the decision between leathers. We’ve mentioned that corrected-grain leather will be a little less durable than the more expensive choices. That’s true, but with one qualification. The pigmented coating applied to corrected-grain material will provide better protection against stains and dirt and will be noticeably easier to clean. Families with young children (or pets) may be happy to trade the greater beauty and comfort of full-grain leather for the utilitarian benefits of corrected-grain pigmented leather furniture.
Corrected Grain Leather
A decorator with no spending limits, who is creating a showplace room, will undoubtedly opt for full-grain, full-aniline leather upholstery to make a luxurious statement. Parents with a growing family – but with a tighter budget – often find that corrected-grain, pigmented (a dye that contains protective properties) leather furniture is the smartest way to add the beautiful look of leather to their home while at the same time having better stain resistance properties.
How Can I Find out Which Leather I Have?
If you already have a piece of leather furniture in your living room and you’re not too sure what kind of leather it is, simply click on this leather guide which will reveal your leather with a few simple clicks.
Where Can I Buy Real Leather Furniture?
Whether you want full-grain or top-grain corrected-grain, we can satisfy your unique needs. Most of our living room collections are offered in luxurious designs crafted to quality standards in over 100 leather choices that vary in type of leather as well as color and finish options.
Genuine Leather Living Rooms