Explanation of Leather Types

Explanation of Leather Types

           There are few upholstery covers that generate more questions and confusion than leather.  Understanding leather requires vocabulary not generally used outside of the furniture or tanning world.  Lucky for me, my job requires me to know.  Unluckily for me, even I need constant refreshing in order to keep it all straight.  Writing a blog post on the topic proverbially “kills two birds with stone.”  I am going to explain some of the common forms of leather seen on furniture and related terms.  With this knowledge, shopping for your next leather sofa or chair will be less daunting and more enjoyable.  Without further ado, here we go.

Top Grain Leather

            When leather is processed, the leather is separated into different layers with the top layer being referred to as “top grain leather.” Thankfully this one is easy.  “Top grain” literally refers to the top grain of the hide.  Not only is the top portion of the leather more durable and softer, is also contains the natural grain.  Because of this, top grain leather is commonly used on upholstery.  The only down side is the price.  Top grain leathers are generally more expensive, but they last longer and age better.  

Split Grain Leather

“Splits” are the layers under the top grain.  Think of splits as the cheaper version of its classier brother.  Often Splits are often embossed with a pattern in order to give it a grain. These are primarily used on the backs and sides of upholstery to save a little money.  The vast majority of the leather on upholstery is top grain, but I would always advise on asking.  Do not fear a sofa or recliner with a split back and side!  It will wear just fine and save you some money.  On a side note technically suede is made from split grain leathers and a unique abrasion process.  It feels amazingly soft; however, it is far from durable.

Corrected Grain, and Pigmenting

            Okay so now the we know the difference between leather types.  Let’s get into the finishing and dying process.  One of the common production processes is correcting the leather’s grain pattern.  Machines are used to buff and remove natural imperfections.  When this is complete an embossing machine applies a simulated grain to the leather in order to give a uniform pattern.  This provides a much cleaner looking leather that some people prefer.  The leather is then pigmented or colored in a manner to further hide the imperfection but also gives a nice protective coating for some of the most wear friendly leather available.

Full Aniline

            Aniline is a word often seen accompanying leather.  It refers to the dye used to color the hide.  Aniline dyes are transparent in order to bring out the natural characteristics and beauty of the leather.  You will typically see strong grain patterns, scars, and other distinctive marks.  Coloration will vary throughout the pieces adding to the luxury look.  In addition to luxury looks aniline dyes also provide a supple and luxurious hand or feel to the piece.  Customers who want as natural and soft a look as possible should look for aniline leather.  As time progresses, the leather will age more naturally and develop a patina enhancing the look.  Because the dye is transparent, it generally lacks a protective coating. This means it is more sensitive to excessive light and heat which can lead to fading.  Additionally, specialized cleaners should be used when dealing with aniline.  Aniline is a great choice for the softest and richest looking leathers but requires a little more special care.


            You may see this type go by several names including, aniline plus, pigmented or protected.  Almost exactly like fully aniline leathers with a slight difference.  The aniline dye is the same, however a protective layer or coating is then applied.  This makes the leather more resistant to life accidents and general wear and tear.  This is a much better option for families with indoor animals such as cats, dogs, or children.  Just kidding on that last one.  These leathers are still supple but not quite as soft as their full aniline cousins.  Protective build ups can also hide some of the grain pattern and natural characteristics as result.  Think of semi-aniline as high-performance leather that looks and feels great and will better maintain a consistent look for many years.  This is a great middle ground between the Full Aniline and corrected leathers.

Bonded Leather

            I hate to even bring this up, but I feel it is necessary.  It is basically all the scraps left over from leather production that is shredded up and has a coating sprayed on to hold it together.  Because it is derived from the cast offs and synthetic material, it is cheap.  When I say cheap, I do not mean inexpensive, I mean cheap. The backing of the cover is the only leather on the item.  If you are seeing a leather looking sofa and the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.  Everyone has a different budget which is completely understandable.  Just be forewarned, bonded leather does not hold up very long.  There are better options including heavy duty polyesters engineered to look like leather and polyester with polyurethane blends that feel more like leather.  The reason I bring this up is that customers frequently tell me about the “leather” sofa they purchased that was horrible and fell apart.  More than likely they purchased bonded leather.  There is nothing wrong with purchasing a bonded leather sofa if that is what you want but buying one, and thinking it is real leather is not okay.


            This is a fairly cursory explanation; however, it should allow you to ask informed questions when purchasing leather upholstery.  Whether you are looking for the exquisite beauty of full aniline leather, or heartier and less expensive corrected grain leathers, do some research.  Knowing the characteristics of the of the leather types will help you make an informed decision based on your unique needs.  Ask your sales representative questions.  If she or he does not know, they can probably find out relatively easily as most samples of leather are labeled accordingly.  Stop in and see us and some gorgeous leather in person!


Benjamin Winn,

Leather Guru

Blackstone Emporium