Leather is one of the most elegant and timeless materials for high-end furniture and luxury goods. Leather has a long history as an upholstery material, as far back as ancient Egypt.
In modern history, leather was a popular material for making dining seats in the Middle Ages as it absorbed food odors and was easy to clean.
But as the tanning processes and craftsmanship improved over the centuries, genuine leather became the top choice for the nobility and bourgeoisie.
Leather is still the favorite material for many high end handcrafted luxury sofas; soft to the touch, attractive and sophisticated to the eye, and ages well.
Types of Genuine Leathers
Processed leather comes in three categories, full-grain, top-grain, and split leather, from which various qualities, surface aesthetics, and colors emerge. Additionally, the leather is graded depending on what part of the animal they cut the hide.
For example, the top back end of the animal produces first-grade leather, while the underside, head, and legs make the lowest-grade leather.
Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather is the topmost layer of the hide once the animal hair is removed and is the highest quality of leather available. The top layer is the most resilient part of the hide and is typically thicker and harder to work with, hence its higher cost.
However, it has the most character as it is usually left unshaven, thus retaining its natural grain and imperfections like marks and scars. Full-grain leathers have a tight structure, making them moisture-resistant and soft to the touch.
They also absorb oils better to develop a rich patina that gives the leather a classy, well-worn appearance over time.
On the other hand, full-grain leather can go through a correction process to reduce most of the scarring and imperfections. It gives the material a smoother, more polished appearance while maintaining quality.
Diamond full-grain leather is corrected to create luxury sofas with a flawless, elegant aesthetic. The leather is also vacuum dried during the tanning process, creating a tight grin structure that helps to prevent moisture absorption.
Top Grain Leather
Top-grain leather is what you get when you shave full-grain leather to remove markings and imperfections. While you maintain excellent quality leather, it is not as robust and moisture-resistant as the full-grain variety.
The leather is sanded and buffed to a smooth surface, resulting in a thinner and more pliable material that is easier for tooling.
Top-grain leather has a smooth surface with consistent coloring giving it a flawless aesthetic. Additionally, its suppleness makes it ideal for embossing patterns to mimic exotic leathers like snake or alligator skin.
On the other hand, top grain leathers are more susceptible to abrasions and stains, thus the application of a protective layer during the finishing process.
While the protective layer helps prevent discoloration, it makes the leather less breathable, preventing the development of a natural patina as it ages. Our Nobile keeps a consistent color over the years while the embossed patterns give it texture and character to compensate.
Plus, the water-based pigments used to dye this leather are more subtle and ideal for soft and restrained interiors.
Nubuck leather is another form of top-grain leather where the sanding process creates a velvety finish. In contrast, finished top-grain leather has a smooth, flawless appearance with consistent color saturation.
The sanding process of creating nubuck leather leaves a slight nap of fibers on the surface that looks and feels like velvet.
While the velvet texture lends character to the materials, Colorado and Arizona nubuck leather varieties feature a vintage effect for added beauty and elegance.
Nubuck is a resilient leather as it comes from the upper layer of the animal hide, and it feels soft to the touch. On the other hand, it is vulnerable to getting abrasions and stains due to its rough surface. So, it requires regular care and maintenance to keep it looking fresh.
When the raw hides are getting prepared for tanning, they go through a splitting machine that slices them into two layers. The upper portion (papillary segment or dermis) makes the full-grain and top-grain high-quality leathers.
On the other hand, the bottom layer (reticular segment or split) makes inexpensive materials like suede, bi-cast leather, and bonded leather.
Split leather also features a velvety surface like nubuck leather that is brushed down, softened, and dyed to create suede. However, it is less robust as it absorbs moisture, causing it to crack and stain over time.
We don’t use split for our furniture for these reasons. Multiple italian made leather sofas are imported from Italy and only feature full-grain and top-grain quality leather for high-end interiors.
Leather Dyeing and Finishing
Leather typically has natural markings on its surface, like scars from the animal scratching against branches, injuries, and insect bites that make each piece of hide unique.
Hides with fewer markings, like the ones from animals living in controlled environments, are the best quality and cost more. On the other hand, dying the hide reduces the visibility of the natural markings.
Additionally, dyes come in various colors, from neutral and subtle hues to vibrant tones, which increases the range of furniture manufacturers can produce for any interior design scheme.
The classification dyed and finished leathers are aniline, semi-aniline, and pigmented leather.
Aniline leather is any high-quality leather dyed with aniline dye. Aniline helps to accentuate the natural color and markings on the hide and protect it from abrasions and stains.
Aniline is a translucent, water-soluble, synthetic dye used on full-grain and top-grain leather to make it soft and give a rich aesthetic. Therefore, aniline leather is more expensive, luxurious, and attractive for discerning clients who want a classy and timeless design theme.
Plus, aniline leather develops a patina over time, contributing to its authenticity. On the other hand, aniline-finished leather is susceptible to scratches and stains and thus requires regular cleaning and rehydrating to maintain suppleness.
Semi-aniline is aniline-treated leather with additional pigment coating to achieve a consistent color. The hides are put into dye drums and left to soak in the dye for several hours. They are then air-dried or vacuum-dried after the dying process to make aniline leather.
However, semi-aniline leathers have a thin, protective coating with light pigment applied before drying to even out the surface color as the dye is saturated unevenly. The application also covers some blemishes, resulting in a uniform color on the surface.
Semi-aniline finished leathers are versatile as additional finishes such as vintage or antique looks and embossing to create an exotic leather appearance can be included.
Finally, a translucent protective coating is applied to prevent stains and fading. Semi-aniline leathers have a more polished aesthetic and are easier to maintain. It also costs a little less than aniline, making it more readily available for fabricating luxury sofas.
Pigmented leather, also known as corrected or protected leather, features a thick pigmented coating on the surface to mask blemishes and natural imperfections of the hide. The hide goes through a sanding and buffing process to smoothen the top layer, then sprayed with a pigmented coating to even out the surface color.
The leather is embossed to create artificial grain texture. While it has no natural characteristics of leather like the aniline and semi-aniline varieties, pigmented leather offers more durability as the protective coating prevents stains, abrasions, fading, and moisture absorption.
However, it is not as soft and luxurious as the other varieties, as the embossing and coating process blocks the pores, making it unbreathable.
While full-grain leather is more desirable due to its unique and classy aesthetic, top-grain pigmented leather may be a better choice for luxury furniture when considering durability and maintenance.
The range of genuine leather luxury sofas found in Italian handmade sofa brands like Nicoline Italia gives plenty of color, texture, and aesthetic options. If you have young children and pets, durable leather options like pigmented leather may be a better option.
On the other hand, if your interiors call for class, elegance, and sophistication, the natural full-grain or aniline leathers may be ideal for your interior decor.