The History of Leather and Upholstery

Like stone, wood and wool, leather is a natural product, which has been a prized commodity throughout history. Leather upholstery can be traced to the Renaissance period. In that period, particularly the Spanish and English favored it. Spanish craftsmen enhanced techniques for embossing, tooling, painting, and gliding leather during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Throughout these periods, all types of furniture were covered with leather and studded with decorative nail head patterns. By the eighteenth century, the art of preserving hides and tanning them into fine leather upholstery was an old and respected trade. Back then the tanning process took almost one year to complete. Hides were coated with oil and grease, scraped, then softened by human foot power. Ox-hides and calfskins were preferred for applications to late Louis XIV styles, while fine goat leather was often the choice of Chippendale and later designers. Cattle leather was the major leather source because of its availability, strength, and hide size.

Leather, Then & Now

As you become more educated about leather you'll understand benefits of leather upholstered furniture. Leather is durable, comfortable and a powerful status symbol. Ownership of fine leather upholstery was once an exclusive privilege of the rich. Years ago, the leather furniture category was denoted by oversized furniture and traditional styling. The most popular leathers were the strong colors; such as burgundy, oxblood, burnt orange, rust, walnut, turquoise, navy and blackberry. These leathers typically had heavily glazed shiny finishes. Bulky traditional chesterfields, tufted wingback chairs, traditional saddle-arm and double bustle pub sofas characterized the majority of the leather furniture styling. In the past 10 years, leathers have emerged in many grade varieties and in designer colors. The "feel" of the modern tanned leather is generally soft, pliable and comfortable, sophisticated yet relaxed. The way leather is applied to frames has also changed. Leather can now be gathered, pleated and draped in much the same way as fabric covers. All furniture styles are now upholstered in leather.

Three Main Categories of Leather

Following are some general properties, which are common to all leather.

Aniline Dyed Leathers: Lovers of truly natural products are particularly fond of these leathers: their unequaled, glove-soft texture adds an extra dimension of comfort to your sofa or chair. To create this luxurious softness and the rich gem-like color, aniline dyed leathers are tumbled for up to 12 hours in drums containing clear, transparent dyes. These dyes enhance the subtle variations of each hide. All leathers get better over time, but aniline dyed leathers develop a truly beautiful, distinctive patina which adds to its value as a focal point in your home. Only premium hides with the most pleasing color and texture are selected for this category, less than 5% of all upholstery hides in the world. Many grades of leather, from all tanneries, are aniline dyed and natural.

Semi-Aniline Leathers: Also referred to as "Aniline Plus", these leathers are first dyed in the penetrating aniline dyes. Then a topcoat is applied to even out the color of the hide surface. The topcoat also serves to create fading- and soil-resistant pieces. Semi-aniline leathers are available in hundreds of colors. They retain a great amount of the softness of aniline dyed hides because the natural top grain is left intact. A much larger proportion of the worldwide hide supply is suitable for this class of leather and as a result they are more moderately priced than pure aniline dyed hides.

Corrected Grain Leathers: Many hides are marred by naturally occurring imperfections or "thumbprints" such as insect bites, barbed wire scars, scrapes and other defects. To remove these imperfections, Corrected Grain leathers are first sanded or buffed, then usually embossed to restore a natural-looking grain pattern. Finally, additional color and a protective coating are applied. Some natural softness is sacrificed in the process, but the great number of hides that fit this category make this the most economical grade of top grain leather furniture, and extremely resistant to stains and fading.

Leather Glossary

  • Tanning: The Process used to preserve (tan) the hide for a lifetime.
  • Buffing: A process to remove scarring from the surface of the hide.
  • Embossing: Stamping the hide with a grain.
  • Full, Top-Grain: The strong, supple top surface of the hide, left in its natural state, with all grain and markings intact.
  • Top-Grain: The string top surface of the hide, often buffed to remove markings.
  • Pure Aniline Leather or otherwise know in the industry as Nubuck: tanned and aniline dyed with no finished coat.
  • Full Aniline Leather: tanned, aniline dyed and finished with a transparent seal coat.
  • Aniline Plus Leather: tanned, aniline dyed and finished with a seal coat, colored base and topcoat.
  • Spray-Finished/Pigmented Leather: sprayed with a seal coat, colored base and top coat for a uniform finish. (May also be buffed or embossed.).
  • Pull-Up or Wax Pull-Up: full, top grain leathers, aniline dyed and finished with special oils or waxes to add unique softness and color inconsistency with age.