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How to Choose the Perfect Leather for Upholstery


Ever think of covering your sofa or favorite armchair in luxurious leather? Leather upholstery instantly transforms any space into a stylish lounge. Before you call your upholsterer, though, you need to decide on the right leather for your needs. With so many options out there, how do you choose?

We’re going to walk you through the different types of leather so you can find your perfect match. Whether you want buttery soft and supple, rugged and durable, or something in between, there’s a leather for you. By the end of this, you will know about aniline, semi-aniline, pigmented, and everything in between. You’ll be able to tell top grain from bonded, and you’ll know exactly what to ask your upholsterer for to get the look and feel you want.


Types of Leather Used for Upholstery

When it comes to leather upholstery, you have quite a few options to choose from. The two most common types are:

  • Full-grain leather is the highest quality and most durable. It’s made from the outer layer of the hide and retains the natural grain. Full-grain leather develops a beautiful patina over time and lasts the longest. However, it’s also the most expensive.
  • Top-grain leather is slightly lower quality but still very durable. The outer layer is sanded and embossed with an artificial grain pattern. It’s a bit more affordable than full-grain but won’t last quite as long. For most upholstery projects, top-grain leather is a great choice.

You’ll also want to consider the leather’s texture and softness. Leather can range from smooth and buttery soft to rough and rigid. In general, leather from cattle (cowhide) tends to be thicker and more durable while leather from calves (veal), sheep (lambskin) and goats (kid leather) is softer and more pliable.

The leather’s dyeing and finishing process also affects its appearance and feel. Aniline leather is dyed all the way through with transparent dyes to showcase the natural grain. It’s very soft and natural-looking but stains easily. Semi-aniline leather is slightly pigmented for added protection. And pigmented or painted leathers have an opaque finish for the most stain resistance.

With so many options, you can choose a high-quality leather upholstery material perfectly suited to your needs, décor and budget. Talk to an experienced upholsterer and they can guide you to make the ideal choice for your custom furniture piece.


Top Grain Leather: The Highest Quality for Leather Upholstery

If you want the finest, most luxurious leather for your upholstery, top grain leather is the way to go.

Top grain leather comes from the top layer of the hide and is the highest quality. It’s the smoothest, most durable and longest-lasting of all the leathers. Top grain leather upholstery is an investment that will last for decades and become even more beautiful over time.

Unlike split grain or bonded leather, top grain leather maintains the natural grain of the hide. Every piece has a one-of-a-kind texture and pattern. There are also different grades of top grain depending on the animal hide used. Cowhide and steerhide are most common for upholstery, with steerhide being the most durable. Pigskin and lambskin are other options if you want an exotic look.

The downside is that top grain leather furniture does come with a higher price tag. However, because it lasts so long and wears so well, it ends up being a better value in the long run. When choosing a color, keep in mind that top grain leather will naturally gain a patina over time and darker shades tend to show fewer signs of aging.

With professional upholstery, top grain leather can be fitted to almost any style furniture – from sleek modern sofas to large overstuffed recliners. For the ultimate in luxury and comfort, you really can’t beat custom upholstery using high-quality top grain leather.


Correct Grade Leather for Your Needs

Full-Grain Leather

Full-grain leather is the highest quality and most durable. It comes from the top layer of the hide and includes all the natural grain. Full-grain leather upholstery is ideal for high-traffic, high-use areas because it develops a beautiful patina over time and lasts the longest. However, it is also the most expensive type of leather.

Top-Grain Leather

Top-grain leather comes from the upper layer of the hide, with the outermost layer and imperfections sanded off. It has a consistent finish and is resistant to stains, scratches and fading. Top-grain leather is a great, mid-range choice for upholstering seating in living rooms. It offers an attractive look and solid durability at a lower cost than full-grain leather.

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather, also known as reconstituted leather, is made from leftover hide pieces, fibers and binders that are pressed together. It has an uneven, bumpy texture and lacks the durability of full-grain or top-grain leather. However, bonded leather upholstery is very affordable and suitable for low-traffic seating or as an accent. It provides the look of real leather at a fraction of the cost, as long as you go in with realistic expectations about its quality and how long it will last.

Faux Leather

Faux leather, or synthetic leather, is a man-made material made to imitate real leather. It’s soft, pliable and looks quite similar to genuine leather but is entirely artificial. Faux leather upholstery is ideal for those on a tight budget or who prefer an animal-friendly alternative. It’s easy to clean and maintain but won’t last as long as any type of real leather.

In summary, the grade of leather you choose comes down to how much use the upholstered piece will get, your budget, and how long you want it to last. Do some self-reflection on your needs and priorities to determine the most suitable option for your space. With the range of high-quality to budget-friendly choices, you can’t go wrong.


The Pros and Cons of Leather Upholstery

Leather upholstery has both upsides and downsides to consider before deciding if it’s right for your furniture.

Leather is extremely durable and long-lasting. Properly cared for, high-quality leather can last for many long years. It’s resistant to tears, punctures, and fading. Over time, leather upholstery develops a patina that many people find appealing. However, leather can be prone to scratches, stains, and cracking if not properly maintained.

Leather is supple and contours to your body, making it very comfortable. It’s also naturally breathable, which helps regulate temperature.

Leather upholstery typically costs 2 to 3 times more than fabric upholstery. High-quality, full-grain leather hides tend to cost the most. Leather also requires regular cleaning and conditioning.

Leather requires diligent care and maintenance. It needs to be conditioned every 3-6 months to keep it soft and prevent cracking. Spills and stains should be wiped up quickly before they can soak in. Direct heat and sunlight can cause leather to fade and crack over time, so it’s best to avoid placing leather furniture in front of unprotected windows.

While leather upholstery does require an initial investment, its durability, comfort, and timeless style may make it worth the added cost for you. If properly cared for, high-quality leather upholstery could last for many long years. But if minimal maintenance and lower cost are higher priorities, fabric upholstery may be a better choice.


Caring for Your Leather Upholstered Furniture

Now that you’ve chosen the perfect leather for your furniture, it’s important to properly care for it to keep it looking its best. Leather upholstery requires some basic maintenance, but with regular attention it can last for many years.

Vacuum your leather furniture regularly using the brush attachment to remove dust and dirt from the creases and seams. For stuck-on debris, use a damp, soft cloth to blot the area. Avoid using any harsh chemicals, abrasive cleaners or steam cleaning methods which can damage the leather.

Apply a high-quality leather conditioner every 3-6 months to moisturize the leather and keep it supple. Use a product specifically formulated for the type of leather, such as aniline, semi-aniline or pigmented. Wipe away any excess conditioner with a soft, dry cloth.

For stubborn stains or water marks, treat them as soon as possible. Use a specialty leather stain remover or a mixture of white vinegar and water. Blot with a damp cloth and let air dry away from direct heat. Avoid scrubbing the area which can damage the leather.

Avoid Direct Sunlight
Exposure to direct sunlight over long periods of time can cause leather to fade and become dry. If possible, avoid placing leather furniture in front of sunny windows or use curtains to shield it when not in use. Too much sun exposure is especially damaging to aniline and semi-aniline leathers.

By establishing a simple routine of regular cleaning, conditioning and protection, you can keep your leather upholstery looking and feeling soft and supple. While caring for leather furniture does require some time and effort, the end result of well-maintained, high-quality leather upholstery is well worth it. Treat your leather right and it will provide you with comfort and style for years to come.



So there you have it, a quick primer on the most popular types of leather used for upholstery and how to choose what’s right for you. Take your time exploring the options, feel the different leathers with your own hands, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. With the right leather and skilled upholsterer, your furniture will be transformed into a focal point you’ll love for years to come.

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