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When is Leather Really Leather?

So many terms exist today that refer to "leather" furniture - bicast, aniline, full-grain, for example - and it's not always easy to tell "real" from "faux"

Leather furniture can present an imposing presence in any room. At the very least, it's a luxurious, yet understated focal point for smaller pieces. From sofas and recliners to ottomans and mixed media furnishings, there's a wide world of confusing terms for identifying leather. In addition to things such as nubuck and split, there are also grades ranging from standard to premium. While price will often give you an idea of quality and type, it's still easy to be misled.

A portion of the cost of leather furniture is in the underpinnings and frame, of course. Because of leather's longevity, you want the best possible interior construction you can afford. Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of ownership is knowing that each piece is crafted with individual characteristics. Leather, as a living resource, has personality that depends on the animal's heritage and how the material was handled after harvesting.

Genuine leather in all its forms has many advantages.

-It's breathable, so it adapts to temperatures.
-It becomes more supple with age and handling.
-Leather can withstand much abuse.
-Highest quality leathers don't require much maintenance, but may include the use of specialty cleaning products.
-Softest leather is just as strong as the firmer leathers.

The "Not" Leathers

While you'll find many leather-like vinyls marketed in furnishings today, they also are quite clear they're not genuine leather. However, one such term, "bicast," is often misleading. In fact, if it is bicast leather, manufacturers can still claim its leather (except in New Zealand and the UK).

Also called PU (polyurethane) leather, bicast is not classified as leather at all. It does use the split part of the hide, considered inferior by most quality standards. It can also be comprised of "bits and pieces" of split and that can lead to a very quickly deteriorating piece of furniture. The PU part refers to the coating that is applied to the split. This gives it a leathery feel that's firm and shiny. The supple plastic coating is easy to clean and some folks prefer it for that reason. However, as that surface application wears down - and it will rather quickly by comparison - repairs become ineffective. In other words, genuine leather wears better with age while bicast leather simply wears down.

The price is right for many budget-minded individuals who want the beauty of leather initially. That's fine as long as you know what you're getting and not making the assumption these are quality leather goods.

Even when you know it's leather on the seats and backs, be sure you're not getting vinyl insets at the sides and backs. This is also a way to cut costs at points that don't receive as much wear.

Taking Care of Leather

In time, genuine leather will begin to reflect a few signs of habitation. These include body oils (that also contribute to the softening process). Sometimes, "greasy" spots will begin to turn dark and look unsightly. Wiping down your leather furniture on a regular basis will help reduce or eliminate this spotting. Use a damp cloth and always ask your dealer which specialty cleaners are appropriate for your particular piece of furniture.

Remove stains immediately. You can remove many stains on sealed leathers with a damp cloth. Rub gently to avoid burying the discoloration further into the leather. Aniline and semi-aniline leathers are more difficult to clean.

Do not use products meant for vehicle upholstery on furniture. The leathers are probably two very different types of grades and the dying process is not the same.

When using water and a damp cloth, clean the areas where arms and heads touch the furniture more frequently to reduce grease and oil transfer.

Dust with a dry cloth frequently. Grit, even the smallest dust particles, are ground into the surface every time you sit down.

If you find a stain and are not sure how to handle it, consult a professional.

Before treating, cleaning or conditioning any piece of furniture, it's important to know exactly which type of leather you own. Care is very different and, in some cases, the method in which products should be applied will vary.

See Part Two - Types of Leather





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