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Lets Talk Leather

by: Kent Schneider 1/22/09


In the home furnishing’s industry, there are thousands of fabrics and textiles to choose from when selecting upholstery.  From organic cottons to engineered fabrics, like Ultra-suede, it seems that every day we have a new option that is better than the status quo.  But where does leather fit into today’s discussion with regard to sustainability and green interiors?  Below we will take a look at the history of leather, review the different types and weigh the pros and cons of using it in your home.


    History:

    Proof of leathers usage can be traced back as far as 2.6 million years ago from cave depictions in Spain.  Early humans discovered that the smoke from wood fires could preserve the leftover skins that remained after a hunt.  The remaining durable hide could then be used to create crude shelters, clothing and footwear.  At some point, human beings discovered that natural tannins found in some barks, leaves, twigs and fruits could act as a preservative.  It was from these origins that modern leather production and the term “Tanning Leather” originated.


    How:

    Tanning is the process in which raw leather hides are stabilized and made suitable for everyday use.  Early attempts at tanning used smoke and subsequently vegetables or animal proteins.  Today there are two general tanning methods, each producing unique qualities in the leather.

    • Vegetable Tanned – Vegetable Tanned Leather is stabilized using tannin that is derived from vegetable matter in tree bark.  Chestnut, oak, tanoak, mangrove, and hemlock barks are primarily used.  Vegetable tanning is a longer process than mineral tanning and produces supple, flexible leather often used in luggage and furniture.
    • Mineral Tanned –Mineral Tanned Leather is generally stabilized using chromium.  Chrome tanning is a quicker process than vegetable tanning and often produces slightly softer and more malleable leather that may be used in garments.  Several other mineral tanning methods exist (such as Aldehyde tanning) and may be used to produce other variants and leather effects.

    Types:

    Leather comes in one of three forms.  Full Grain leather (also called Top Grain) is generally regarded as the best.  It is the top grain of the hide that has not been sanded, buffed or otherwise altered to remove any imperfections.  Because it has not been altered it has the greatest durability and natural breathability.  Over time, full grain leathers will develop a soft patina. The finest of leather furniture will generally use Full Grain leather.  After Full Grain leather the next grade is Corrected Grain.  Corrected Grain leather is top grain leather that has been sanded or buffed to improve its appearance.  Once Top Grain leather has been altered in any way it should no longer be referred to as Full Grain (or Top Grain).  The third type, often found in lower grade leather goods, is Split Leather and is created by separating the top grain from the rest of the hide.  The resulting “drop slit” is often spilt again and then mated with an artificial surface, which can be embossed with a leather grain pattern.  Suede is considered a type of split leather.
    Leathers are usually given their color in one of three methods: Aniline dyes, Semi Aniline Dyes, or Pigments.  Aniline dyes are reserved for the best grades of leather as they penetrate the surface and have no cover up characteristics.  Aniline dyed leathers will generally have the most natural appearance but may also require the most care.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are pigmented leathers.  Pigments are generally applied as a coating to the top of the leather and can act as a masking agent for surface flaws.  Pigments may also be embedded with polymers that ease in the care and maintenance of the leather.   A hybrid of these two types is Semi Aniline dyes, which are used on some top grain and corrected grain leathers.   Semi Aniline dyes have a thin pigment applied to attain color consistency and ease in leather care; however, they still retain much of the natural appearance of pure aniline dyed leather. 


rubber tree

    Green Considerations:

    Let’s start by acknowledging that Leather is not for everyone.  Leather is a by-product of the meat industry so if you are vegetarian, leather is probably not for you.  The process of making leather may also involve the use of chemicals (see mineral tanning) in order to stabilize the leather, make it more durable, and, therefore longer lasting.  The amounts of chemicals used are generally regarded as safe, however if you have chemical sensitivity or strong allergies you may wish to avoid mineral tanned leather. 


    Tanneries have historically been known for polluting.  This was primarily the result of dumping excess tanning chemicals on or around the tanning property.  Stronger environmental policies and increased consumer awareness have largely dissipated this issue.  Most modern tanneries now employ the use of closed loop water filtration systems to prevent any environmental contamination. 
    On the plus side, leather is a long lasting, durable upholstery covering.  Leather has a life span nearly 4 times as long as a typical woven fabric (with a typical fabric lasting 3 to 5 years and leather lasting up to 20).  The longer the life span the less often we dispose of an item, which reduces our consumer waste stream.  Leather is also more resistant to dust and dirt which makes it easier to clean and maintain.   

We have participated in many discussions regarding leathers place in a “green” home.  At Verde Home we recognize that this debate is ongoing while also acknowledging that people are entitled to make informed choices.  With that in mind, we have researched and partnered with American Leather to give our customers a sound choice, if leather is desired.  American Leather offers a wide range of both vegetable and mineral tanned premium leathers.  All American Leather upholstery is handcrafted in the United States in a state of the art facility that minimizes wood and leather waste.  All frames are hand assembled using water based (low VOC) glues and padded to remove any sharp edges that may harm a piece from the inside out.  The result is a piece that is made to be with you for a lifetime rather than end up in a landfill.


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