Is ‘Leather’ Really Leather? Organic Leather vs. the Imposters

Leatherworks is committed to using 100% natural, organic leather in everything we do – nothing plastic; nothing synthetic; nothing artificial. We get our leather from as close to our Auckland workshop as possible to reduce our carbon emissions.

The Real Deal
Real, organic leather is animal hide (skin) that’s been tanned and cured into a durable, stable material suitable for all sorts of uses, including clothing, bags, furniture, and design elements. Cow hide is very thick, which isn’t practical for most situations. To make a thinner, more flexible product, the leather is split into two pieces. ‘Top grain’ or ‘full grain’ leather is the top layer, while the ‘split’ is the bottom layer. Full grain and top grain leather are strong and flexible, but split leather is weaker, more fibrous, and may pull apart over time.
Full-grain leather is the thickest, strongest, most durable, type of leather available. It’s the top layer of a split hide with the bottom layers removed. Each piece of full-grain leather is unique, reflecting the life story of the animal it comes from. Full-grain leather from countries that use barbed wire on their farms often bear scars from those barbs. Kiwi cows generally don’t deal with barbed wire these days, so New Zealand full-grain leather tends to be cleaner, with less deep scarring and virtually no filled holes from tick burrowing. But all full-grain leather will always have natural quirks and irregularities that, in this humble leatherworker’s opinion, adds to the beauty of the material.

“Leather without irregularities is like a night sky without stars,” as they say. Well, it’s really “a face without freckles is like a night sky without stars,” but close enough sentiment.

Corrected-grain leather is also ‘top grain’ – the top layer of the split leather – but the uppermost surface of the leather has been ‘printed’ to create a more consistent finish and pattern. The result is a leather that’s still strong, but is more symmetrical and even than full-grain leather.

The Imposters
Some types of so-called ‘leather’ might have only a minor component of real organic leather, or in some cases, they may contain no leather at all.
1. Remember the ‘split’ we mentioned earlier? It’s the bottom layer of the leather – weaker, more fibrous, and less durable than the top leather layer.  PU leather is made by covering a split leather backing with a layer of polyurethane (PU). The polyurethane is then usually embossed with a leather print to resemble the real thing. The resulting ‘PU leather’ lacks the durability and strength of organic leather, and will always have that ‘plastic’ feel to it.

2. Recently, we had some visitors to our workshop (we’re in Penrose; come check us out) asking if we deal with vegan leather. Our first reaction: ‘what the f#$% is vegan leather?’ Real leather is a by-product of the meat industry, of course, so by definition not vegan friendly. (As an aside, this doesn’t mean we’re not friendly to vegans. We didn’t actually swear at the vegans who visited our factory, but had a very polite conversation.)

‘Vegan leather’ or ‘pleather’ is really just a synthetic/vinyl layer adhered to a synthetic backing layer. It’s possible to emboss the top layer with a grain pattern to make it resemble real leather, but it is still essentially just a synthetic trying very hard to look like a natural material. When we understood that ‘vegan leather’ is just a byword for ‘substandard synthetic crap’, we could reply categorically to our vegan friends that no, we at Leatherworks don’t like to work with vegan leather.
Why Choose Real Leather?
Full-grain leather that’s well-maintained will last a very long time, and can even improve with age. Its surface is usually finished with waxes and oils to give it more functional characteristics like being water resistant, or super smooth to the touch.

Fake leather is either wholly or partly plastic, so as it ages, it becomes brittle and flaky. You generally can’t recycle or reuse degraded synthetic leather, so all those factory-made, non-biodegradable plastics eventually end their life in the landfill. A ‘vegan leather’ or ‘pleather’ jacket will trap sweat in, leading to that uncomfortable situation where you have to keep your arms locked by your sides at all times.
Imposter leathers can look sleek, and of course they’re less expensive than the real, organic thing. But a good-quality leather product can last lifetimes, while fake leather might last just a few seasons before it – quite literally – flakes on you.


Future blogs
How can you tell real leather from fake?
Leathermaking  – a short history

1 comment

  • Amelia

    So the thing that makes PU leather shiny is really just a plastic layer? Suddenly the PU ‘leather’ jacket in my wardrobe looks a lot less appealing after reading this.

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