It is easy to identify the vast differences in skin quality that exist from one species to another. Leather is not always equal in quality. Gender, age, nutrition, feeding and general care all affect an animal's skin. Also there may be differences within a skin of one animal. Below we explain how some of these factors can affect skin quality.
- Age: The quality of hides from older animals is generally poorer than that of younger animals.
- Gender: Female hides have a denser fibre structure and a finer grain structure.
- Gender specific activities: The stability of the skin's fibre structure deteriorates the more often a male animal mates and, for a female, the number of times she gives birth. Castrated oxen tend to have a finer skin structure.
- Nutrition: Fresh forage promotes better quality skin.
- Animal husbandry: The skin of animals kept on open pastures has a superior texture.
- Climate: A harsh and cold climate promotes a good skin quality. A rule of thumb is that hides from above the 37th parallel are of better quality.
Leather is used for many different applications. As car leather, for shoes, for leather straps and belts, for leather suits or buttery soft leather gloves. Diverse demands are placed on leather, depending on its use. Furniture leather should be easy to maintain, while being soft and warm. Shoe leather should be robust, waterproofed, soft, heat-retaining and breathable. Car leather should be easy to maintain and should be impervious to heat, cold and wear.
However it's used, leather should be durable and easy to clean. It should not tear, bleach, smell unpleasant or contain pollutants. These are the essential "leather qualities" or "leather properties".
In particular, the sensitivity of especially high quality leather, such as the soft aniline leather of a luxury leather jacket, of exotic leather or of an expensive set of furniture is often misjudged. Because the object was so expensive customers therefore expect that it would be very easy to clean and maintain the leather. But quite the opposite is true. Valuable leathers are as sensitive as silk. With regular use the beauty diminishes rapidly, while incorrect cleaning can even ruin the material.
A good leather feels warm and soft, but is also more sensitive.
Car leather is considered to be particularly robust. Most of the vehicle manufacturers require more than 40 quality criteria that must be fulfilled. Stringent wear tests must be passed. It must be resistant to suntan lotion and bug spray. Many chemicals are not allowed to be used and the leather emission level is tested. As a result, the leather is extremely durable, but no longer soft and warm to the touch.
The tanner and the producer of a leather object therefore should establish their own, verifiable quality parameters, depending on the desired properties of leather. These parameters should take into account the animal species and the rawhide. Differences in the quality of the individual sections of a skin, including the possibility of skin damage when cutting, must also be considered. Only a limited quantity of skins can be worked upon at any given time during the manufacturing process of leather and all of them do not behave the same in each run. Often the tanner will need to make minor changes during the process, which can lead to deviations from one batch to another. Differences can be detected depending on the quality control limits set.
Apart from the production quality, the longevity of leather depends on certain other factors too. An important element for long-lasting pleasure of a a leather object is the handling of it. If leather is regularly cleaned and maintained and not excessively overused and if the basic rules in dealing with leather are respected, you will prolong the enjoyment of this durable and robust material.
Leather testing - leather properties
There are many different methods for testing and evaluating leather properties. For a layman, only rough and basic testing options are available when purchasing a good and beautiful leather item. Some of the criteria can be checked directly as an end customer, but when certain criteria cannot be tested, don't be afraid to ask the vendor the right questions. Below we list some basic checks that can be carried out.
- Look of the leather: A beautiful top quality leather looks very natural and does not contain markings on the surface.
- Leather grain texture: The grain texture should look good and be as natural as possible. An embossed grain pattern is very uniform, which does not correspond to the natural grain of a skin and embossed leather often feels less natural.
- Softness of the leather: Generally, leather should be soft to the touch and have a natural feel. But leather shoes or leather belts require a certain strength.
- Haptic evaluation of leather surfaces: Leather should feel good, whether it's soft, blunt or smooth. The more beautiful leather feels, the better its quality.
- The leather finish: To protect the leather, it is often useful to apply a binder-based finish to the surface. The more layers of leather paint are applied, the more unnatural it feels. If the grain texture issanded before the finish, the leather feels even more unnatural. So too does film-coated leather, usually considered to be inferior to natural leather and therefore relatively inexpensive. On the other hand, the effect is an accepted feature of patent leather.
- Breathability of leather: An advantage of leather over alternative materials is its breathability. But the more a leather is coated with leather colour or a film, the lower the breathability.
- Tear strength and stability of the leather: Good leather is stable and resistant to tearing, wheareas suede, nubuck or extremely soft lambskin will not have the same stability as, for example, a belt leather. But within the types of leather very different qualities exist. So, an inferior quality leather within the same type of leather will always tear more easily than that of a higher quality. Also sanded leather is usually less stable than full-grain leather.
The causes of damages of a leather couch.
Criteria of quality leather
To determine whether a leather corresponds to the desired quality requirements, it passes through a series of testing processes. Extremely high and strict standards are set, particularly in the automotive industry. Minimum qualities are set and controlled also for furniture, shoes and garment leather. In addition, there are statutory testing regulations for harmful substances, which is also a sign of quality.
In the manufacturing of leather, the leather quality is constantly checked using all senses and with test equipment.
Although the specific test standards vary by manufacturer and are chosen according to the intended use of the leather, the tested properties are quite uniform.
Further rules on permitted ingredients in leather are regulated by national laws.
Test criteria for the leather quality include (and is regulated in many national and international standards):
- Breathability: The ability to absorb sweat through to the opposite side.
- Weight: Important e.g. for aircraft leather, because it should weigh as little as possible to reduce fuel costs.
- Thickness of leather: The thickness has an influence on the stability of leather.
- Tensile strength - Tear strength: If the leather is drawn (for example, more than 200 N per 5 cm).
- Tear force: Leather should not easily tear further (for example, desirable: more than 20 N).
- Adhesiveness of the finish: The colour layers on the surface should not come off (for example, desirable: more than 25 N per 5 cm).
Test of the adhesiveness of the finish.
- Flammability and fire retardancy of leather: Important for aircraft, nursing homes, public buildings etc.
Devices for testing the fire protection properties.
- Rub fastness: Dry, wet, alkaline. The surface should not change in friction or wear zones.
- Light fastness: Leather should not fade.
- Flexibility: Desirable: robustness in more than 100,000 cycles. Leather should be extensible, but not baggy.
- Buckling behaviour: Leather should not break in folds. Desirable: 30,000 folds without damage.
- Water permeability: Leather should be waterproof.
Laboratory test of the water-repellent properties of a nubuck leather.
- Acid and alkali resistance: The leather surface should be resistant to chemicals as much as possible.
- Hydrolysis resistance: Leather should not decay as a result of humidity.
- Haptic: Leather should have the desired feel.
- Climate Alternating Test: Leather should be weather-resistant.
- Degree of gloss: Leather should have the desired degree of gloss.
- Back polishing: Leather should not lose the desired gloss level during use.
- Soiling behaviour: Leather should not easily get dirty.
- Creaking noise: Leather should not make undesired friction noise when moved.
- Smell: Leather should not smell or it should have a pleasant odour.
- Leather emission: Leather should not evaporate any substances.
- Alcohol resistance: Drop Test. Resistance to e.g. disinfectants.
- Sea water resistance: Resistance of boat leather to sea water.
Usually material-destructive tests are necessary to check the leather quality. - Samples are punched out of the leather.
Standards of quality leather
There are countless national and international standards to determine the quality of leather. Also, the labelling of leather products is regulated by national and international standards. Additionally, many leather manufacturing and processing companies have extra internal standards and requirements.
Overall, the standards set for the quality of leather are correct and necessary. But they are also filled with a lot of grey areas, loopholes and weaknesses.
In Europe, confusing rules exist on labelling of split leather. In some cases, the type of leather must be declared and in some cases not. In Germany for instance, coated split leather is used in vehicles, without the obligation to inform the customer. An end user cannot differentiate between the two. When the surface of split leather is embossed with a grain structure it is virtually impossible to tell the difference. In such cases, the standards must do more to ensure transparency, so the customer knows exactly what type of leather they are getting.
Standards are often referred to when seeking a verifiable solution or to reach verdicts in legal disputes. However, they are inconsistent, ambiguous and open to interpretation. They do not mention when one particular rule or standard should take priority over the other. An end consumer must be able to find out the quality of the material and be able to compare prices and qualities. The leather standards and norms must do more to protect the end consumer by ensuring dealers and manufacturers provide clear, transparent information.
To test the various requirements for leather, there is a wide variety of devices.
- VESLIC rubbing test: The rubbing test checks the dry abrasion and wet abrasion qualities of leather. Wool felts are rubbed dry and wet in a specified number of times over the leather. The wear in daily use and the tendency to discolouration is examined.
- Leather flexometer test: This test examines the leather's wrinkle resistance by folding the leather multiple times in all directions.
In particular, shoe upper leather gets buckled during walking and needs a special resistance to breakage. The "Bally Flexometer" named after its inventor is a commonly used instrument and method to test resistance. It is also used for car leather, furniture leather, clothing leather and other leather applications.
- Taber abrasion tester: The Taber abrasion tester checks resistance of various materials. The Taber Abrasion test is an internationally recognised test method. Abrasion resistance is tested using two friction rollers that are pressed with a predetermined force to the test material, which rotates below the friction rollers. This simulates a combination of scraping, sliding, squeezing, thwarting and abrasion.
Taber abrasion tester.
- Martindale method: The Martindale rub test examining the abrasion resistance of upholstery leather.
Martindale rub test - Martindale method
The ball plate test simulates selective frictional stress.
- Light fastness - Xenon tester: The xenon tester validates the effect of light on surfaces. Sunlight causes rapid ageing of materials. In the test, a xenon arc lamp is used as a radiation source, wherein the filtered spectrum has similarity to the sunlight. The xenon test is suitable for all paints, textiles, plastics etc.
The change in colour can be checked with measuring devices. The scale of difference is measured in delta value. Delta DEcmc is a number that represents the distance between colours. The difference in colour depends mainly on two factors: 1) the variation in brightness and 2) the tone of the colour itself. For example, a leather can turn from blue into green, without noticeable change in the measured brightness. A variation tolerance of delta value of 1 is usually considered acceptable. However, the automotive industry requires a maximum delta of 0.5, which is difficult to achieve. Surface irregularities of the grain texture or different degrees of gloss can also change the delta value. Even within an area, the delta value can vary up to 0.5 due to differences in the grain texture.
Photos below show a deviation in Delta DEcmc of 6.6 because of fading following a Xenon test
It is difficult for the inexperienced consumer to judge the quality of leather. Even an expert will not be able to identify and recognise every defect with their naked eye. Experience is needed to discover differences in quality and the majority of quality criteria can only be tested in the laboratory.
The aim and purpose of this dictionary is to help people understand leather. For buying furniture, we have additional guidelines.
Price and quality go hand-in-hand. If a leather object is particularly inexpensive, in most cases it's not valuable. Branded products have usually undergone extensive tests to ensure their quality. Manufacturers who evidently endeavour to improve the quality of their products and to describe the origin and quality of the leather, usually have a good quality end product. This also applies to established dealers.
Leather in vehicles has quite rugged qualities due to the purchasing power and strict quality controls performed by manufacturers. The leather is not particularly soft and natural, but highly durable. Furniture leathers have greater variation in quality due to the large number of vendors.
Even if the leather is of good quality, over time and due mainly due to wear, the top layer of colouration rubs off. The leather itself remains undamaged. However, if the leather itself is unstable, it deteriorates under the colour layer and the colour binder alone cannot compensate for this lack of stability in the fibre structure.
Typical breakage in leather with poorer quality leather. The leather under the finish breaks or is more stretchable than the finish.
In order to be able to assess whether a leather damage is a quality deficiency or typical ageing behavior, many aspects have to be considered. No leather is immortal and, depending on the leather type, type of usage and load, intensity of maintenance and age of the leather, a leather damage can be typical ageing behavior or a quality deficiency.
Variations in quality
We have already identified how the quality of leather can vary drastically, depending on the section of the hide. Therefore, it may happen that different leather qualities appear within a leather item. This is often seen in furniture and clothing.
Furniture leather where adjacent areas have different qualities and therefore aged differently.
Car headrest - even when equal pressure is applied within different areas of the same leather, a varying number of wrinkles appears. In the border region loose grain leather becomes visible.
Types of leather - Leather quality - Ease of maintenance
Most assume that the best quality leather would be the least sensitive and easiest to maintain. But as with textiles or precious metals (silk is very sensitive and gold is not scratch resistant), the sensitivity in the highest price bracket and quality segment is much higher. Valuable objects often require more and better care than cheaper items. This also applies to the different types of leather.
Comparison of leather quality and ease of maintenance.
Frequently asked questions:
- Why is Aniline leather, nubuck and suede less easy to maintain? They are porous leather and therefore more sensitive to stains.
- Why is Aniline leather evaluated with best quality? Because aniline leather is especially natural and warm.
- Why is coated split leather less easy to maintain? It is more unstable, what cannot be improved by care and classic leather care products harms some types of split leather coatings.
- Are there exceptions to the rules?
LEATHER QUALITY: An aniline leather could theoretically tear unexpectedly or have an undue smell or the leather colour might rub off. Then it is of poor quality. A smooth leather can be fine sanded and carefully embossed and feel like a semi-aniline leather. Then it may be better than a normal, pigmented smooth leather.
But, in most cases, the leather corresponds to the expectations. Aniline leather is more expensive because hides without skin damages are rare. Therefore, more effort is applied in manufacturing of such leather.
EASY-CARE: Every type of leather has its own qualities. As long as the information provided by manufacturers and dealers at the outset is accurate, the leather should adhere to its usual qualities. Problems may occur when cleaning and maintenance if the leather is genuinely of a poor quality. But this is seldom.
Conclusion: Semi-aniline and pigmented smooth leather are the gold standard for leathers in constant use. They are comfortable, natural and easier to maintain as the remaining types of leather, but also cost a bit more. For price-conscious buyers corrected grain leather is a good choice.
Seal of approval for leather
In addition to the relevant standards and laws for leather, organizations issue seals of quality and certificates or companies undertake on their own initiative to meet minimum requirements for their leather quality that exceed the requirements of the laws and standards. It is often about the environment, social aspects and animal welfare. These voluntary requirements go in different directions and there are various variants of self-commitments.
The Blue Angel is issued by RAL GmbH and focuses on furniture leather and, among other aspects, attaches great importance to environmentally friendly production, a final product that is not harmful to health and harmless disposal. The "NATURLEDER IVN certified" certification places value on social and environmental aspects and dispenses with chrome tanning and surface pigmentation of the leather. The Identity Leather from the Meindl company ensures the traceability of leather back to the farm in order to ensure species-appropriate animal husbandry.
- Environmental protection
- Leather sustainability and traceability
- The Blue Angel
- NATURLEDER IVN certified
- Typical age-appropriate leather damages and atypical due to quality problems occurring leather damage
- Chrome VI - Chromium VI
- Basic rules when dealing with leather