You can smell it before you even see it -- that earthy, mushroomy, musky fragrance that tells you you're in the presence of something special: leather. But not all leathers give you the sensuous aroma you equate with the material. In fact, some leathers are so tanned, dipped, treated and stripped that all that's left of the leather is a thin coating. When shopping for a leather sofa, quality leather comes at a price. And while there are other leather compositions that come close to the feel and wear-ability of full-grain leather, they just don't emit that heady aroma.
Rustic and rich-looking, full grain leather is just that -- the full hide in its most natural, usable state. With the outer hairs removed -- and after a soaking in an analine vegetable dye -- the hide reveals its life in the imperfections and scars found on the surface. This leather is not polished or finished. Full grain leather sofas are the most expensive pieces of leather furniture, extremely durable and can withstand years of hard wear and tear.
Soft and supple, top grain leather is also at the high end of the cost spectrum. Occasionally referred to as nappa leather because of its softness, top-grain leather uses only the layer of the hide that's closest to the surface. The leather is tough and doesn't show any imperfections. As the purest of the leathers in construction and durability, it also has a long life span.
Once the top layer of a hide is removed for top grain, what's left is known as split grain. It's less supple than the better quality leather and damages easily. This is reflected in the lower cost.
When the grain side of a hide is sanded or buffed and feels fuzzy like suede, the name given to the leather is nubuck. It's a rawhide, top grain leather, but turned over. Less expensive than full grain, it's treated and sprayed before being cut for furniture. More fragile than top- or full-grain, nubuck requires careful maintenance and isn't recommended for active families. Waterproofing the hide is a must.
Like its name, bi-cast leather is two pieces of material glued together. The bottom piece is split-grain and on top is a fabricated piece of polyurethane. Marked to look like leather, its cost is much less. Bi-cast doesn't wear well, splits and cracks and can peel. Sometimes referred to as Corinthian leather, bi-cast is often used on the sides and backs of sofas, reducing the amount of actual leather used in a sofa. Ask before you buy.
The treatments of hides while preparing them for use includes terms such as analine, pigmented and semi-analine. Penetrating pigmented vegetable dyes are applied to the surface of the hide to add color without damaging the original markings. Once dry, the hide is stamped with a leather-like pattern. Semi-analine is just a thin coating of the dye, and analine doesn't contain any color. These leathers are less expensive than natural leather, and do not prevent staining.
Available under numerous names, fabrics that are man-made to look and feel like leather also boast some of the letters of the word "leather" in their name. While they are durable and inexpensive, they are not leather.