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July 03, 2021 6 min read
So you want to know how to tell fake leather from real leather? It’s easy to be duped and buy a leather purse or wallet that claims to be “genuine” when, in fact, “genuine” leather is hardly an honest term. Some leather is just fake, plastic-looking leather that doesn’t look or smell like real full grain leather.
On the other hand, “genuine” leather may be a type of leather sourced from cattle hide and processed accordingly, unlike its vinyl counterparts, but it doesn’t pass the standard for full grain leather.
Let’s take a deeper look at how leather is faked and what you can do to make sure that you’re buying only the real deal.
Like any major industry, the wonderful world of leather provides a great variety of different leathers to choose from. First, as previously mentioned, there is genuine leather, which is made from the hides of animals, such as cattle, goats, sheep, or pigs. Genuine leather, however, is typically a mix or hodgepodge of different leathers stitched together and painted over to give it an authentic look.
On the other hand, full grain leather is taken from the top of the hide and is cut from one complete hide rather than an assorted collection of different hides blended together. At Andar, we only use full grain leather for our products. But let’s take a brief look at a few of the different types of genuine leathers before moving on to faux leathers.
First, there is aniline leather, a form of top grain leather (not as high quality as full grain) that is a natural-looking leather that ages and shows wear accordingly. It is known for scratching rather easily and fading in the sun if left out for long enough. But at least it is still a genuine cowhide, even if “genuine” isn’t quite the flattering description that it seems to be.
Semi-aniline leather is very similar to its sister. While it is still a natural leather, semi-aniline leather is coated with a light pigment or clear finish that fortifies its durability, patina, and stain resistance. The coating prevents liquid stains and acts as a water resistance while preserving the leather’s color.
Out of these genuine leathers, pigmented leather is the most “artificial.” It's still a type of real leather, but it undergoes a process wherein a heavier coating has been applied to the leather. This makes the product look significantly shinier than normal.
This coating gives the leather a less natural look because it intentionally covers the natural blemishes and wear that occur during the use of an aging leather product. This destroys a lot of the natural charm that we all love in full grain leather.
The above list is an example of different types of genuine leathers, leathers that are still made from authentic hide and tanned in a legitimate process. While they’re not full grain leather, a premium example of high-quality leather, they are still real leather.
However, the following examples all fall under the category of synthetic or artificial leathers. They are “leathers” only in that they cleverly attempt to simulate the look and feel of a normal leather product, but they’re made from completely different materials. In the end, what separates faux leathers from a piece of a legitimate, more natural article? And do these differences matter?
Let’s dive in and figure it out!
Faux leather is the general moniker given to pretend leathers or those materials which do a good job of looking and acting like leather. However, these are far from genuine leather and even farther from full grain leather products. “Faux leather” is often used to describe the fake leathers that are used to construct sofas, chairs. In a similar vein, “leatherette” is a more specific term used for the interior upholstery of vehicles, clothing, etc.
Lastly, koskin is used to indicate the artificial leather employed in consumer items, like purses, shoes, belts, and the like. But the categories are more specific than this. There are different types of faux leathers that companies use to mass-produce their product lines.
The first of these synthetic leathers is polyurethane leather. PU leather – as we will call it from now on – is an incredible invention in its similar appearance to real leather. In fact, it wrinkles just like genuine leather does.
PU leather is made by taking a material like cotton or something similar (polyester, etc.) and coating it with a polymer that holds it together in a more structured fashion. Next, this material is treated to make it look like a cowhide, with its natural hues, cracks, and whatnot. Admittedly, it looks a lot like real leather, and if not for the tests we provide below, it may fool you.
With PU leather, you get a great durability because of its coating, and it doesn’t crack or peel. However, there are always pros and cons with alternative leathers. PU leather doesn’t mature into a beautiful patina like real leather, nor does it have the naturally evocative leather smell. But PU Leather isn’t the only type of faux leather.
The other most popular artificial or faux leather option is vinyl leather. Unlike PU leather, vinyl is constructed from two different synthetic materials that are mixed together. First, polyester fibers are coated with a polyvinyl chloride and plasticizer combination, then melted onto the fibers. This procedure creates a seal that makes an almost entirely waterproof material that acts like leather in its flexibility and durability.
For businesses that are prone to messes and stains, vinyl is ideal because of how easy it is to clean. It repels all liquids, making it perfect for restaurants and similar industries. But again, it has its drawbacks. If you’ve ever sat on a vinyl surface for an extended period of time, you’ll remember that it becomes uncomfortable on the skin (especially in warm or humid environments). It can also have a tendency to look quite chintzy if not properly maintained.
Leather is insanely popular, and it’s easy to see why. However, some manufacturers create imposter leathers that, in the long run, don’t quite make the scratch.
Here’s how to find them out:
On the label, there are a couple of tell-tale signs that a leather product is made from faux leather. First, it will say “100% real leather” or full grain/top grain/genuine leather if it’s the real deal. Likewise, real leather will always be on the more expensive side. It’s great that faux leather is a cheaper alternative option, but leather’s higher price tag is worth the superior quality.
Look at the surface of the leather up close. With real leather, there will always be blemishes, natural discolorations, and imperfections. With faux leather, it will be a man-made pattern that is intended to emulate leather. Because of its symmetry and repetition, it’s usually easy to spot the uniformity of faux leather.
When you feel real leather, it wrinkles and stretches. You can feel that it isn’t smooth in every part. With synthetic leather, it istoo even and planned, never stretching or wrinkling like its natural counterpart.
We all know the leather smell. Authentic leather products always have that amazing organic scent that marks them as a genuine article. Fortunately, it’s impossible to properly fake that smell. If you smell a fake leather product, you will find that it has a chemical or plastic odor, nothing like real leather.
We have become so good at creating novel alternatives, artificial substitutes, and synthetic options for already existing things. And sometimes, these options are great inventions that propel humanity forward. But leather has proved its durability and utility throughout the ages and is not something that can easily be faked.
Now that you know about the different faux leathers like vinyl and PU leather, you can easily tell the difference with a couple of quick tests. Going forward, you will find that real leather’s smell, touch, and look immediately reveal it as both an incredibly useful product and a dedicated and masterful art form.
What is Polyurethane? | American Chemistry Council
Reasons Why Leather Is A Popular Material | Fox Magazine