How to Tell Real Leather vs. Fake Leather

Beautiful, natural things, like leather, pearls and granite, are often imitated. And sometimes the less expensive faux version is the better choice.

Minneapolis upholsterer Nate Van Hofwegen orders more fake leather than real leather for his projects. Fake is cheaper, he says, and less fussy to work with. Plus, he says, fake fares better when moisture is a factor, as with boats and motorcycle seats. And yet, real leather has always been in demand because it means quality.

“There is nothing like the feel and smell of real leather,” says Van Hofwegen, owner of Nate’s Custom Sewing. “A customer who had me install fake leather for his truck seats asked me to throw scraps of real leather under the seats so the truck smelled of real leather.”

What Is Real Upholstery Leather?

Real leather is animal skin that’s been tanned, or chemically treated, to prevent decay. The most common leather comes from cattle, sheep, goats, horses, buffalo, pigs, seals and alligators. Leather is strong, flexible and durable.

“Leather gets better looking over time,” says Van Hofwegen. “It gets polished, like an old saddle or couch or purse. If people have the money and it fits the project, real leather is the choice.”

Because leather is more breathable and cooler than fake leather, you’ll find it on armrests and seats in automobiles. But to reduce costs, car manufacturers install fake leather where the human body doesn’t come in contact with the seat or interior.

China is the largest leather-producing country, generating more than 25 percent of the annual global production. American leather often has scratches or holes from barbed wire, says Van Hofwegen, while Italian leather doesn’t because barbed wire isn’t used in Italy.

Is real leather considered sustainable? Yes. Leather has been made for centuries. It’s long-lasting, repairable, recyclable, biodegradable, and a by-product of the food industry. But manufacturers tan leather with environmentally iffy chemicals. And animal rights advocates say leather results from the abuse and killing of animals for their skins.

“Well, vegetarians say no animals have to die for fake leather,” Van Hofwegen says. “Fake leather proponents question how much land and how many resources are used to grow a cow and get real leather. Not to mention the methane that cows produce, which contributes to the amount of global greenhouse gas.

“Fake leather is petroleum based usually, and the process for making it is not eco-friendly. When I open a new box of fake leather, it’s like, ‘Holy crap, this stuff stinks.’ It smells like burned nail polish. I have to open windows so I won’t get gassed out.”

What Is Fake Upholstery Leather?

The two primary types of fake leather are polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane, both plastic based. Another term for fake leather is “pleather,” short for plastic leather. China produces more fake leather than anyone in the world.

There’s also leatherette, which has a fabric base and plastic covering, and vegetable oil leather, which is more environmentally friendly than polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane and perhaps more durable. However, vegetable oil leather is also more expensive than other types of synthetic leather. It’s primarily for those adamant about not polluting the environment.

Van Hofwegen says one benefit of fake leather is less waste. It’s sold by the yard in 54-inch-wide rolls. This straight-edged form means the material can be used more efficiently than real leather hides, which are circular with irregular edges. “You never use the whole hide, and so it is less cost-effective than working with fake leather,” he says.

Another benefit is uniformity. Real leather has natural blemishes, wrinkles and color variations from hide to hide, presenting challenges to upholsterers. Fake leather does not have these variations.

Fake leather costs less than real. Van Hofwegen says a real leather hide of 50 to 60 square feet is about $600. “A real leather hide equals about five or six yards of fake leather, which costs me $25 per yard,” he says. This lower cost makes fake leather the choice for municipal, school and hospital furniture.

Real Upholstery Leather vs. Fake Upholstery Leather

When comparing real upholstery leather to fake, here is what to look for, according to Van Hofwegen:

Characteristics of real upholstery leather

  • Label says real or genuine leather.
  • Real leather is soft, warm, flexible and stretchable, with a grainy feel.
  • Leather has a distinct smell, like a wood, sweet and floral.
  • The back of leather is the same color as the top.
  • Leather does not shine like fake leather but has a matte finish.

Characteristics of fake upholstery leather

  • Label says synthetic or polyester.
  • Fake leather feels smooth, plastic-like and cool. It doesn’t stretch.
  • Fake leather has a strong chemical odor that fades as the product airs out.
  • The back of fake leather is not the same color as the top. It’s often a white fabric backing.
  • Fake leather shines more than real, but fake leather manufacturers try to make their products less shiny.

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