Leather upholstery is extremely comfortable and exceptionally beautiful. Leather upholstery wears well, is usually easy to clean, and even smells wonderful.
Leather upholstery is also quite expensive.
There are many people who would love to furnish a room – or their entire home – in leather, but simply can’t afford to do it. Most of them take a realistic look at their budget and put aside their dream for another day. Some, though, look for a less-expensive “substitute” for leather furniture. One possible alternative is known as leather-match.
Is Leather-Match Upholstery Real Leather?
So, what exactly is leather-match? Leather-match furniture upholstery (sometimes referred to as L/M or Leather/Vinyl) is a combination of leather and an artificial or synthetic material, manufactured to look like it is all leather. Polyurethane (vinyl) is the material that’s usually “matched” to real leather in these products, but fabric chemically treated to resemble leather, varieties of synthetic microfiber products, and even lesser qualities of cowhide like suede are sometimes used in producing leather-match, but in most cases vinyl is used.
Naturally, an artificial upholstery material will be significantly less expensive than real leather, so substituting vinyl for some of the leather that would normally be used to make a piece of furniture cuts the manufacturing cost and final price dramatically.
Any type of furniture which can be upholstered is a candidate for this type of hybrid covering. It’s most often seen on motion living room pieces like recliners motorized sofas and loveseats which have become quite popular, but it is also used to upholster stationary sofas, recliners, and sectionals.
The goal of manufacturers that use leather-match is to create a product which appears to be fully upholstered in leather but at an inexpensive price. For that reason, actual leather is used to cover the tops of the seat cushions, seat backs, and tops of the arm rests. The artificial material is used to upholster the areas which aren’t normally touched or carefully inspected like the back and sides of the furniture, the sides of the seat cushions, and so on.
The quality of the match between the leather and the vinyl determines whether leather-match furniture fully resembles authentic leather, looks more like a high-school sewing project gone horribly wrong, or falls somewhere in between. For an ideal match both the color and the visual texture of the materials should be nearly identical, not an easy task given the natural grain and color variations that differentiate high-quality leather from every other material. However, leather-match furniture has been manufactured and sold for many years, so successfully matching the materials is simply a difficult task and not an impossible one.
It should be mentioned that even with high-quality leather-match furniture, the upholstery won’t match forever because leather and vinyl age differently over time. That subject will be discussed in more detail shortly.
Advantages of Leather-Match Furniture
To explain the primary advantage of leather-match furniture, you simply have to paraphrase a saying that’s popular in the real estate world: “Price, price, price.”
Vinyl is mass-produced in factories. Leather comes from animal hides which undergo a lengthy and painstaking tanning and production process. So it’s not surprising that using vinyl upholstery instead of leather may save manufacturers anywhere from 60% to 80% in material costs – or even more – for every yard of leather they replace with inexpensive vinyl.
Not all of those savings will be passed on to the consumer, of course. But the price tags on leather-match pieces will usually be at least 50% lower than the price of similar all-leather furniture. That’s more than enough of a savings to convince many who’ve fantasized about leather furniture to abandon their dream and opt for a leather-match substitute. A well-made piece will look and “sit” very much like the real thing, for a much lower cost.
Those who’ve never seen leather-match furniture may find it difficult to believe that upholstery made from two very different types of material can look like real leather. The best way to overcome that understandable disbelief is to visit a leather furniture showroom where high-quality leather-match upholstered furniture is sold. You’ll discover that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between all-leather and leather-match by simply looking at it – at least, when the pieces are new. When you sit on the two types of upholstery you also won’t notice any difference, because you’ll actually be sitting on leather, not vinyl. You’ll only realize that the furniture is leather-match when you touch the upholstery on the side of the furniture or the side of the cushions with your fingers, because the tactile feel of the two materials is quite different.
The other major advantage of leather-match applies when comparing it to other types of “leather products.” Bonded leather and bicast leather, for example, are often considered acceptable, less-expensive alternatives to full-grain or top-grain leather. Respectively, they are made from a mix of shredded leather fibers and scraps, or pieces of low-quality split leather, which are then covered by polyurethane. These faux leathers are likely to rip, tear, crumble, or otherwise degrade relatively quickly. However, these types of quality issues are not encountered as much with leather-match upholstery. Leather-match, while certainly not as desirable as leather, is far superior to bicast or bonded products.
Disadvantages of Leather-Match Furniture
For starters, since leather-match upholstery isn’t what most people consider leather, visitors may not be quite as impressed by your new furniture once they relax on a couch or recliner and discover that it’s not “the real thing.” Aside from the status symbol problem, however, there are structural incompatibilities between leather and vinyl which lead to problematic effects that become apparent over time.
Leather is an organic material while vinyl is synthetic, making them less than ideal partners when joined together at a seam. The difference in materials is often visible, for example, when looking at areas like a seat cushion’s box panel where the leather top is sewn to the vinyl side.
This becomes a major issue as the upholstery ages. Because leather is a porous material, it regularly loses some of its moisture through the process of evaporation. The leather needs to replace that moisture to remain healthy and supple so it absorbs oil from the vinyl through the seam the two materials share – and that’s the problem. Once the vinyl loses enough moisture to the leather it is unable to flex. That means it becomes harder, and it eventually develops cracks. They’re small at first, starting at the stitch holes along the seam that joins the materials together. But they continue to spread out into the vinyl over months or years, and the cracks can’t be repaired. Regular conditioning of the leather (which adds oil and therefore moisture) may slow this process down, but it can’t be stopped.
There are other disadvantages to leather-match upholstery also caused by the inherent properties of vinyl. First, you won’t get the same “warm in the winter, cool in the summer” feeling that you experience when sitting or reclining on leather. Vinyl doesn’t breathe because it is non-porous and doesn’t wick away moisture, so it tends to retain heat throughout the year instead of adjusting to body or room temperatures. A leather-match piece will feel hotter and may cause people sitting on it to perspire, because of its vinyl material.
As leather ages it develops its telltale patina and creases and some discoloration and mottling is natural. Those changes are all part of leather’s natural beauty. None of those things happen to vinyl, however, so it will become increasingly evident that two different materials have been used to upholster leather-match furniture. The different appearances of leather and vinyl are even more striking if a piece has been exposed to direct sunlight, which speeds the discoloration of leather. For that reason, it’s best to place leather-match furniture in corners or against walls, instead of in the middle of a room where the “two-toned” effect will be more obvious.
Finally, leather becomes softer and suppler over time. Vinyl doesn’t, and as previously mentioned, the wicking away of its oils by the leather attached to it will make it even less flexible when used in leather-match upholstery. That means that leather-match furniture won’t become much more comfortable as it ages, another disadvantage when compared to its leather counterparts.
Not All Leather-Match Is the Same
One important note: not all leather-match furniture is the same. Manufacturers use different materials and different stitching procedures, so the quality of leather-match pieces can vary widely. A bad experience with one piece of leather-match furniture does not mean that all leather-match upholstery will age, discolor, or crack in the same way; some will stand up to time better than others. Researching various manufacturer’s products or buyers’ reviews can give you some insight into the makes and models to consider or avoid.
How to Find Out If It’s Leather-Match
When you set out to buy faux leather furniture, you don’t have to worry about being fooled into thinking that you’re purchasing an all-leather piece. You can confidently discuss the pros and cons of leather-match furniture with store personnel in order to make the right buying decision for your needs and budget.
On the other hand, those who are shopping for high-quality leather furniture have to be on their guard when stepping into the store. Manufacturing techniques have become quite sophisticated, and as mentioned earlier, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between all-leather and leather-match pieces with the naked eye. That task becomes even harder in many stores. Here’s why.
It’s common for many retailers to display leather-match reclining sofas, recliners, and other furniture side-by-side with top-grain or full-grain leather pieces, labeling the leather-match pieces as “genuine leather”, or attaching another similar description like “leatherette,” “half-leather”, or “leather-like.” They may even advertise leather-match furniture as being genuine leather. Even if a customer discovers the truth once they’re in the store, the goal of the ads has been achieved: the customer is in the store. These are the same techniques often used to market lower-quality or faux leather and they should immediately raise red flags. You can simply ask a salesperson whether a piece is all-leather, of course, but disreputable salespeople have been known to lie – even though stores have been successfully sued for deceptive sales practices when describing faux leather upholstery as “leather” without a more complete description.
The first thing to do when inspecting furniture to determine whether it’s leather-match or faux leather is to check the manufacturer’s labels that should be attached, usually in a hard-to-find spot. The materials used to make the piece should be clearly identified so you’ll be able to tell if vinyl or another type of artificial upholstery was used in addition to leather.
If you can’t find the tag or you don’t understand what it says, here’s a good way to check for yourself. Take one of the cushions and open the zipper that’s in the back. If the cushion box is attached and not loose, simply look for the zipper on the back of the seat box. Open the zipper. Comparing the backing of the leather on the top with the backing of the material on the sides should give you an answer; if the look, feel and texture of the two pieces are the same, the materials are the same. If they’re different, the furniture is leather-match.
Should You Buy Leather-Match Furniture?
The decision whether to buy leather-match furniture is a personal one. Leather-Match upholstery may look just like leather at first, but over time it will start to develop the characteristic cracking and uneven discoloration issues inherent in the nature of the hybrid product.
However, if you make the purchase fully aware of exactly what you’re buying, and you can’t afford or don’t want to pay the much-higher price you’ll be charged for all-leather upholstered furniture, leather-match can be a terrific bargain and a smart buy. Just don’t let some of your snobby friends touch it.
Where Can I Buy All-Leather Furniture?
We invite you to experience our leather collections either by browsing on our website or by visiting us in person in our showroom in New Jersey. Our leather living room collections are offered in 100+ leather options that vary in color, style, and feel.