Leather inspection

How to Choose a Leather Sofa?

Leather is a popular choice for upholstery in Singapore. When taken care of, leather ages like a fine wine - it only gets better and softer over time. However, the naming for leathers can be overwhelming for people if they are unfamiliar with the different types of terms. 

What are full grain leather, top grain leather, split leather, bonded leather and faux leather? You should also have seen terms such as Aniline leather, semi aniline leather and pigmented leather.

How should you choose with so many different terms in the leather type space? In this article, we aim to equip you with the knowledge about different leather types to make an informed decision. 

Key contents within the article:

Why choose leather in the first place?

Leather is one of the strongest and most durable upholstery option. It is also easier to maintain and clean when compared to fabric.

For Singapore, with a hot and humid weather, some would also say that leather is more breathable and elastic.

Many also choose leather for the aesthetic appeal alone. It is commonly associated with luxury and can lend a polished look to any room.

Leathers are durable and elastic

What are the key factors that impact leather quality?

The quality of leather varies greatly. You have most likely seen different labels like full grain leather, top grain leather or genuine leather. So, how are they different in terms of quality?

We believe that the quality of leather depends on the following crucial factors:

  • Weather: Cows living in hot climates tend to have more insects bites and scars. Cows living in cold climates do not suffer as much.
  • Portion: Cow hide from the lower portion of the cow (such as legs, neck and head) has looser fibers and more scars. Cow hide from the back of the cow tends to have tighter fibers and less scars.
  • Layer: Outer layers of the cowhide are more durable. Full grain leather and top-grain leather represent the outermost layers. 
  • Tanning and finishing: Either an oil based coating or a water based coating can be applied to leathers. The process used for tanning and finishing can have an implication on the quality. Italian tanning widely recognized as the best

Climate, portion, layer and tanning and finishing are key factors which determine leather quality

What are the different cow breeds used for leather making?

In rare occasions, the online or offline retailer may also introduce to you which breed of the cow that the leather comes from. Key terms we see are as follow:

  • Yellow cowhide leather: It has small pores and a fine grain surface, which gives it an aesthetically pleasing appearance. It also possesses high tensile strength.
  • Water buffalo leather: It has sparse pores and a coarse texture. The grain surface is rough, and the fiber weave is loose. It has poor elasticity.
  • Yak leather: It has dense pores, and the grain surface is slightly coarser compared to yellow cowhide. The fiber weave is relatively loose.

We believe the yellow cowhide leather is the best for sofa upholstery. It is known for its softness, durability and elasticity. However, the downside is that its price is slightly higher compared to the rest.

Different breeds of cows used to make leather sofa

What are the different naming conventions for cowhide leather?

When you read the sofa leather information from the retailer, you will usually see terms such as faux leather, genuine leather or even top grain leather. For leathers made from cow hide, there are 4 general naming conventions. This is based on the layer of cowhide that the leather is made from:

  • Full grain leather: The outmost layer of the hide are kept in full grain layers. It represents the highest quality of leather but is also the most expensive. This type of leather absorbs body oils and develops a patina over time. Maintenance for full grain leather is the hardest as they often come with only a light layer of water based or oil based coating. Scratches and stains happen more easily and they must be properly conditioned consistently overtime.
  • Top grain leather: The outermost layer of hide where scars are visible is cut to get rid of imperfections. A layer of oil based coating (called pigment) is then applied. This provides the leather an attractive look. It also makes top grain leather smoother, more flexible and more durable when compared to full grain leather.
  • Split leather: Split leather is made from the lower layer of cow hide. It has much looser fiber weave compared to top grain leather and full grain leathers. As a result, its strength and durability are much lower.
  • Genuine leather: This is a rather ambiguous term. By definition, leather made from any layer of cow hide can be called genuine leather. We do that see any reason why retailers would want to call top grain leather or full grain leather as genuine leathers. As a result, we believe most genuine leathers are actually split leather. Worse still, genuine leather may not be made from pure cow hide as any leather with >60% cow hide content can be called genuine leather.
Layer of cowhide and its relationship to leather naming convention

Apart from leathers made from cow hide, there are also man-made leather options:

  • Faux leather: Made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), they are man-made leathers. They are much less durable compared to the real thing and tend to crack and peel over time.
  • Bonded leather: Made up of leftover cow hides such as the dust and shavings that are left behind from making full grain leather or top grain leather. These are bonded together using polyurethane or latex. They are the cheapest kind of leather you can find on the market.

For sofas intended for regular use, top grain leather will be an ideal choice combining both durability and affordability. If you have enough budget, you can consider full grain leather. However, do note that apart from the price tag, you would also need invest more efforts for its maintenance.

Avoid split leather, bonded leather and faux leather as they tends to be used in 2-3 years only. Always seek clarity on what genuine leather actually represents before committing to buying.

What are the different ways of leather finishing?

The purpose of leather finishing is to embellish the leather. This process gives the leather a specific colour and shine. It also helps to protect the leather. The way of finishing the leather can affect the look, feel and strength of the leather. There are 3 common finishing types:

  • Full aniline leather: Aniline dyes are translucent and water-soluble. It does not block out the natural markings, scars, and wrinkles in the hide. Full aniline leather is a type of full grain leather. An additional condition is that only cow hides with minimum scars are selected for this type of finishing. However, as water soluble coatings do not offer any form of protection from scratches or spills, full aniline leather needs regular maintenance.
  • Semi aniline leather: Semi aniline leather applies an additional thin layer of oil based coating (pigment) on top of water solution aniline dyes. As a result, semi aniline leather is more scratch and stain resistant compared to full aniline leather. The additional oil based coating is able to cover up scars and blemishes. As a result, either full grain leather or top grain leather can be used to make semi aniline leather.
  • Pigmented leather: An oil based coating, containing certain pigments, is applied to produce the desired look and properties. The coating provides the leather with scratch and stain resistance. Currently, pigmented leather is the most widely used leather finishing process in leather industry.

Different ways of leather finishing

Our recommendation

We recommend top grain leather with either pigment or semi aniline finishing. These types of leathers offer resistance to stains, fading, and scratches, They are commonly more durable and easy to maintain, making them a good choice for families with children or pets and families who value ease of maintenance.

Check out our offerings

Eager to start your shopping for leather sofas? Why not explore our selection of leather sofas made with pigmented top grain leather!

Last update: 24th July 2023

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