The leather report

The forecast for this furniture is long-lasting and spreading throughout the house

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 25, 2012 

  • Aniline: A hide that has been treated with aniline dye, either organic or inorganic. The dye is transparent and allows the grain and natural characteristics to come through. If you scratch it, it should retain the top color of the leather. It feels buttery soft to the touch.

    Bi-cast: Leather particles with a polyurethane coating.

    Leatherette: A material, most likely vinyl, that resembles leather. Other imitation leathers are ultra-suede and pleather.

    Nubuck: The top grain of leather that has been brushed or sanded. It feels like velvet to the touch.

    Pigmented: Leather whose surface has a finish containing pigment particles that create an opaque look.

    Most upholstery leather is pigmented and is recommended for busy family rooms. Also called "painted," "protected," "finished" or "semi-aniline" leather, it feels slick and smooth to the touch.

    Split: Not from the top grain. Cheaper leather is sometimes pigmented splits with embossed imitation grain.

    Suede: A leather finish is produced by running the flesh (bottom) side of leather on an emory wheel.

    Top grain: The grain side of a cattle hide from which splits have been cut.

  • Repair a tear: Starts at about $250, usually involves a panel replacement.

    Refinish a cushion: Starts about $75 per cushion, but you might want to replace all the cushions so they match.

    Refinish a sofa: Figure about $75 to $95 per linear foot.

  • Leather furniture:

    Set aside a soft cloth to use solely for leather furniture.

    Never put the furniture in direct sunlight or close to a radiator or regularly used fireplace; doing so will dry out and discolor the leather.

    Take care that shoe buckles, belts and household pets do not damage the upholstery.

    Each week or two: Dry-cloth dust and vacuum, cleaning in crevices and along the bottom.

    One or two times a year: Wipe furniture down with a barely damp sponge (use distilled water; tap water can stain). Then moisturize the furniture with a colorless conditioner made for the particular type of leather. First test the product on a part of the furniture that will not be easily noticed. Using a soft cloth, massage a few drops of the conditioning agent into the leather. Rub it off with a clean cloth.

    Remove spilled substances as quickly as possible with a clean, absorbent cloth or sponge.

    Do not use soap or heavily soak stains with water. This may cause more damage than the stain itself.

    For butter, oil or grease stains, wipe off excess with a clean, dry cloth. Leave alone, and the spot should dissipate after a short period of time.

    For other stains, call professionals for cleaning.

    Cowhide:

    Spot clean. Remove spills immediately; if liquid, blot with clean, undyed cloth by pressing firmly around the spill to absorb as much as possible.

    Vacuum regularly to prevent dust and crumbs from setting into roots of the fibers.

    Avoid direct and continuous exposure to sunlight.

    Store rugs by rolling front side out and wrapping in cloth for protection. Place in a dry, well-ventilated area.

    For hard-to-remove stains, professional cleaning is recommended.

  • Cowhide: No longer reserved for lodge looks, you're seeing more cowhide rugs in modern decor, some stamped to look like zebra. Many hides are left natural. They're also gaining popularity in chair and ottoman upholstery.

    Gray: Just like wall color and hardwood floor finishes, gray is a new neutral in leather and cowhide.

    Recliners: Sleek is the word. Many of the newer leather chairs don't even look like recliners.

Whether it resembles a well-traveled saddle or a buttery smooth burst of cherry red or lime green, leather furniture is classic and strong.

As upholstery, leather lasts four times as long as fabric, according to American Leather, which creates furniture in fabric and leather for stores including Crate & Barrel, Design Within Reach and Macy's.

"Try to tear this," said Lonnie McDonald, holding a tanned leather hide. He cleans, repairs and refinishes leather furniture and leads maintenance sessions for the Leather Pro division of the Textile Care Group. He has served as liaison between the American furniture and cleaning industries to rewrite labels on leather care.

The leather in McDonald's hands is resistant. "It has a tensile strength of more than 200 pounds per square inch," he noted. "So yes, it's durable."

Doctors also recommend leather furniture for allergy sufferers because fabric harbors dust mites. Besides swapping carpet for tile or wood flooring, the Mayo Clinic's website recommends replacing fabric-upholstered items such as sofas, chairs and headboards with leather.

The look and feel of leather are the characteristics that draw most people. For more than two decades, Steve Maturo has sold leather furniture at Museo, a store in Kansas City, Mo. He has a 20-year-old black leather sofa and Mario Bellini leather dining chairs in his own home.

"They get better and better-looking with age," Maturo said.

In Europe, leather is used in wall coverings, flooring, tables and even countertops. Maturo and his employees have toured leather furniture factories in Italy and the Netherlands. The experience has given him an appreciation for how each cowhide is unique, similar to fingerprints and wood grains. Under a magnifying glass, you can even see pores.

Leather is so comfortable and soothing because it is skin, McDonald said. Through the natural process of transpiration, leather absorbs and releases moisture through fibers and pores. Leather can absorb and release about 15 percent of its weight in water. And it becomes more supple and comfortable with use.

What you should know

However, leather furniture is not for everyone. For starters, it costs 25 percent to 50 percent more than fabric upholstery. On the plus side, leather can simply be wiped off. McDonald appreciates the positive characteristics of leather and owns a leather sofa with fabric seat cushions. Over the years he has learned the tricks of the trade and is now teaching others. For example, if a ballpoint pen leaves a tiny ink mark on nubuck leather, you can lightly sand it and feather it out to camouflage the stain. (Don't try this on aniline or pigmented leathers.)

The biggest problem McDonald sees is that people tend not to clean their leather and protect it from body oil stains on head and arm rests.

"Leather is the Mercedes of furniture," he said. "My dad was a mechanic, and he taught me that when you take care of a car, it lasts longer."

Although leather is a luxury product, sales were up 20 percent in 2011 at American Leather, spokeswoman Jennifer Green said.

Customers are looking for more environmentally friendly furniture. Modern tanneries now use closed-water systems and private water treatment plants to prevent the pollution of surrounding water supplies. At American Leather, the dying process involves water-based products that are chrome-free.

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