Like most products, leather upholstery is available at many price points: however, the variation in price is a reflection of the quality of the product. Corners can be cut in construction such as no-sag springs instead of eight-way hand-tied springs, yet these construction differences do not significantly contribute to the price variations. The price variations lie more in the price of the leather itself than in the construction of the upholstered piece.
The most important factor in determining quality leather upholstery is determining the quality of the leather itself. You will often find that retailers advertise "All Leather" upholstery: however, this is a misleading statement. Leather is a generic term that refers to a tanned animal skin. The actual animal skin can be cow, buffalo, pig, etc., so it is not sufficient to assume all leathers are equal. Likewise, there are many methods of tanning and finishing available, so leathers can be remarkably different even if they are from the same animal species.
You will find that there is a tremendous difference in the appearance and texture of leathers from different animals. Cowhide is preferable for upholstery leather because it has the most desirable appearance and texture or "hand", which is a term often used to describe the feel of the leather. The grain of cowhide tends to be smooth, lending itself to a soft hand. Other animal hides are stiffer and coarser grained and, therefore, are not a desirable upholstery material. Often, inferior leather upholstery will be made of stiffer leathers such as a pig or water buffalo.
Now that you understand differences in leather obtained from different animals, the rest of this article will talk about differences in leather obtained from cows. The term cowhide refers to leather made from cow skins; however, there are variations in the quality of cowhides as well.
When a cowhide is processed, the skin is removed in one layer. Later at the tannery, the outer layer of skin is separated from the layers of skin. It is shaved off and is usually 3/64" thick, about the thickness of a coin. This outer layer of skin is referred to as the "top grain" and the other layers of skin are referred to as "split hides".
The top grain is best suited to upholstery because it is the strongest and most durable part of the hide, yet it is soft and supple. In fact, top grain becomes more supple over the years and obtains a soft patina. If properly cared for, top grain leather upholstery should last indefinitely.
The split hides are coarser and stiffer and tend to crack more easily. The average wearing time of split hides is 5 years. Split hides are better suited to the garment industry to make shoes, handbags, belts, etc., which are not expected to last more than a season or two.
Cheaper leather upholstery is often made of split hides instead of top grain leather. The advantages to a manufacturer to use split hides are the cheaper price of split hides per square foot and the greater yield obtained from a split hide. Top grain leather tends to have more scars and surface blemishes than split hides since it is the outside layer of skin. Since split hides have fewer flaws, there is less waste per hide, thus a greater yield per square foot. An average cowhide is approximately 50 to 55 square feet, but only 70% of this area can be used from a top grain hide. In split hides, 90% or more is suitable for use; thus there is only a 10% or less waste factor.
Obviously, the advantage of using split hides is the substantial savings in the cost of the leather; however, that savings is directly responsible for the poor quality and wearability of the leather.
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