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Question: Can you shed some light on buying leather chairs?

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

Let’s start with the basics. The strongest and most durable part of a cow hide is just below the hair. Leather made from this area is called “full-grain”. The grain pattern is handsomely tight and, over time, develops a patina which makes this leather even more beautiful. It’s the most natural and most desirable but also the least available.

“Top-grain” is the second strongest leather. It’s similar to full-grain except that a top few millimeters have been sanded and buffed to take away a certain amount of imperfections. Some may prefer this more uniform appearance but skimming away these millimeters lessens the leather’s durability. However, this can be reconciled during the finishing process.

The term “top-grain” is a little deceiving because, having scrapped away a bit of the top of the hide, it’s technically no longer the top. All cow hides are thick enough to be split once or twice. Full-grain and top-grain leathers come from the uppermost layer, and sometimes these terms are (mistakenly) interchanged by different manufacturers.

The second and/or third layers, called “split-grains”, are used for “corrected” leathers and suede. These layers have too many blemishes to be considered for higher-quality furnishings. Just to keep you on your toes, top-grains with a significant number of blemishes are also used for corrected leathers and suede.

Split-grains are not a good choice for upholstery because they are stiffer, coarser and can crack. If you’ve had a negative experience with leather upholstery, it might have been a split-grain.

Leather lingo also includes finishes such as “pure-aniline” and “semi-aniline” dyed. Pure-aniline dyes are typically applied to full-grain hides and are sometimes referred to as “aniline full-grain”, “true aniline”, “naked aniline” or “natural grain”. People who favor the natural characteristics and markings of the purest and softest quality hides generally seek out pure-aniline, full-grain hides. Approximately 5 percent of leather furnishings fall into this category.

The “semi” in semi-aniline is a misnomer that leads people to believe that the dye does not completely penetrate the leather as it does with pure-aniline. Or, one might think that only half an effort is made. In fact, it does fully penetrate the leather and there are even more steps to the semi-aniline process. After dyeing, a pigment is applied to the top of the hide to guarantee color consistency. Additional finishes may be imparted to create an antique look or some other special effect. Finally, a clear protective coating is applied to make the leather stain-repellant and sun-resistant.

A pure-aniline process may include antique finishing but it does not include the pigmenting nor protective coating steps. Therefore, pure-aniline leathers will show more variation of color (a plus for purists) but will be more susceptible to staining and fading.

One more term: Pure-aniline leathers can also be manipulated to create an open nap and another category called “nubuck.” Nubucks are soft and velvety but are also the most susceptible to fading and staining because they lack a protective coating.

You will see many of these terms as you shop for your chairs. Since they can be confusing and forgetful, I’d suggest taking this info with you as back up.

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