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By Leah A. Zeldes, Tribune Brand Publishing
“When it comes to leather, everything starts with a hide,” says Rick Marsh, a manager for Baer’s, a collection of fine furniture stores with 15 locations throughout Florida.
After beef, cowhides are the most important product of the cattle industry. From nose to tail and head to hoof, 99 percent of every steer is used for meat, leather and other products, according to the Agricultural Awareness Coalition of Nebraska.
Once the hide gets to the tanners, Marsh says, they cure it in a salt solution to stabilize it. Tanning begins with soaking the skin in water to wash out the salt and rehydrate it. Unlike leather for shoes and smaller items, which is cut in half before tanning, hides for upholstery are processed full size.
Next, Marsh says, comes a chemical tanning process that removes the hair and converts the hide into leather. Afterward, hides intended for furniture are split horizontally, so that the skin is thin and supple enough to use as upholstery.
The uppermost layer — “the side with the hairs,” Marsh says — is called “top-grain” or “full-grain” leather and is the strongest and most valuable type of leather.
The less durable lower layer, called a “split,” is often used for shoes, running shoes for example, as well as some less expensive upholstery leather. For instance, splits may cover the sides and backs of chairs and sofas, and other parts of furniture that are subjected to little wear and tear.
“It’s still 100-percent leather, but it’s a little less expensive,” Marsh says.
In tanning, the hide goes into a tumbler — something like a washing machine. This stage starts with removing dust and bacteria. The skin will be washed several times in water and other substances to clean it and open up its fiber structure.
After that, the hide tumbles in a chrome “liquor.” At this stage, it’s called a “wet blue,” because the chromium tints the skin a bluish color. A variety of other tanning agents also act on the leather to make it supple and replace natural oils.
The next step, Marsh says, is drying the leather: “Very slowly with controlled humidity. That makes sure it stays nice and soft and supple. Then there’s a finishing process. That’s also when pigment is applied.”
The leather is colored with a translucent aniline dye, dried again and conditioned. How long it’s dyed, how deeply the dye permeates the skin and what happens afterward affect the style, hue and value of the leather.
The most expensive leathers start with the best hides. Then they are naturally finished, so their color and grain may not be consistent. They have the look and feel of a natural product. Although the dyes permeate through the skin, they may set in darker in some areas than others; they don’t cover up any marks on the hide.
“You can see the original scratches and wrinkles from folds in the skin,” says Marsh. “In some cases you can even see brand marks.”
Naturally finished “full-aniline” leathers are the softest and most delicate. Their charm is in their unique appearance, glove-like texture and the patina they develop as they age. They require careful upkeep.
Most furniture leather undergoes additional processing. In “semianiline” leather, additional pigments and protective resins and lacquers are painted on the surface to even out its color and make it more resistant to scuffs and stains. Although it’s sturdier, the coatings, particularly the multiple clear topcoats of “protected” leather, may make the upholstery shiny, and it will not age in the same way natural leather does.
The upholstery may also be sanded to remove imperfections in the hide and then embossed with a pattern that resembles natural leather graining.
“That gives you more of a uniform look,” Marsh says, although the upholstery won’t be as soft as less-processed leather, and such “corrected-grain” will make it more resistant to marks from wear and tear.
The tanners’ last step will be milling in a drum to make the leather supple.
Next stop: The furniture maker! For upholsterers, the biggest difference between covering a padded frame with leather vs. fabric is the size of the material. Woven fabrics and synthetics such as vinyl for upholstery are delivered in very wide, large rolls. Leather comes shaped like a cow, and no cow is as big as a sofa. So for a leather couch, manufacturers must add more seams than on an identically shaped item covered in chintz.
The extra work in piecing together the odd-shaped leather goods, along with the higher expense of the material and a larger proportion of waste brings up the price, so leather furniture, due to its durability, is a good investment.
Baer’s designer Wendy Rossi agrees. “A good leather hide can last for 20 years,” she says.
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