Many years ago (just before I had acquired important industry textile knowledge ), my mother-in-law decided to reupholster her corner sofa with leather. She called in the professionals and the sales guy gave her an option of a few colours. After much deliberation, she chose a colour, and within two weeks the sofa was returned, looking great. Not six months had passed when the couch started peeling. Its not like it had rowdy toddlers jumping on it – just your general everyday use. Angry and annoyed, she called the sales guy back only for him to explain that the product she had chosen wasn’t a genuine leather, but was rather a PU leather. Unfortunately her only options were to either reupholster or replace the sofa, as it could not have been repaired!
Sometimes when we shop for furniture, we have a preference for leather over a fabric. This may be for various reasons, such as durability and cost. Despite the fact that many consumers nowadays prefer to save money on household furniture, there are still people who prefer spending a bit more on quality. The perception is that upholstering furniture with leather is of a higher quality than a woven fabric. The problem arises when one can’t tell the difference between leather and artificial leather. There is a huge difference between the two, with variant products in between. Making the incorrect decision will cost you financially and leave a bitter taste post-purchase. Keep reading to find out what the difference is between genuine and artificial leather, and which option is best suited to your needs.
What is leather?
Basically, (because you get different types), leather is an actual hide from an animal (usually a cow). It is always sold as a whole skin and generally has about 5 square meters of usable upholstery in it. The process of making leather, or tanning, is quite complex. It really means that it undergoes a technical process whereby the hide is preserved and is made to be soft and durable.
Because leather is a natural, porous product, it needs to be moisturized with a leather moisturizer (not so different that caring for your own skin). Failure to do so will result in the leather cracking and discolouring.
What is pleather?
There are so many different terms used for pleather: PU leather, vinyl, bonded leather… the list goes on. The one thing that all of these products have in common is that they have (I’m putting it as bluntly as I can here at the risk of rambling) a plastic coating made to look like leather.
Unlike leather, there is no amount of moisturizing one can do to lengthen its life span. At the end of the day, plastic doesn’t respond to cream.
Because pleather is man-made, is sold by the meter with a fixed width (usually about 140cm).
How to tell the difference between leather and pleather.
If you aren’t sure if what you are looking at is leather or pleather, you’ll be able to tell by seeing any (or no) joins on a long piece of furniture. Should there be no joins on a sofa or headboard, you can bet your head that what you are looking at is not the real deal. If the item is small, and no joins would be required, you can smell the piece. Pleather has a distinct plastic aroma, while leather smells much more wholesome!
That being said, not all pieces that are made from leather, warrant its use. In my career as an interior designer, never have I (nor would I) upholster a sofa or bar chair with pleather. Anything that gets used once a day, I always prefer to use leather, because it lasts! Things like headboards, ornamental ottomans and maybe scatter cushions, I would consider pleather because the amount of wear and tear is significantly less and the product ends up not only costing less, but also lasts just as long, simply because there is no wear and tear.
At the end of the day, the cost of leather vs pleather is higher and there is more wastage. The biggest myth when it comes to upholstering is that leather is more durable than woven fabrics. This may have been truer 50 years ago, but the longevity of furniture’s upholstery is entirely dependent on the care it is given. If you ever have any doubts about which is which, always speak to a qualified professional in the industry to provide some peace of mind.