Leather: The Lucrative Item You May be Missing!

April 12, 2010
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In an economy where every penny counts, why not look at the high-end textiles you may be missing? For several years I have taught the IICRC Leather Cleaning Technician Course. Without fail, in every class someone tells me they “just don’t see that much leather,” when, actually, your eyes just aren’t conditioned to see it in the facilities and houses you clean:
  1. Over 30% of all the upholstered furniture currently made is leather!
  2. If you are in 1,000 homes a year, at least 30% should have some leather, right? That means you could have 300 or more homes with some leather.
  3. On average I hear from 5 to 10 students a year about how they now realize just how much leather they had been walking past without giving it a second thought.
Missing or walking past leather is easy. Ever buy a car and then notice how many of the same make, model and color you see? It’s the same with leather.

How can understanding leather help you see more leather? It will start making you cognizant that it exists. The more you understand the textile and become acquainted with it…the more you will see it. You will see it in boardrooms, hospitals, hotels, airlines, homes, offices and more. It’s everywhere!

Leather is a natural material, the hide of a mammal, bird, fish or reptile that has been made pliable and resistant to decay through a process known as tanning. Leather is one of the oldest and strongest fibers known to man that, when correctly treated, is among the most long-lived natural substances.

One of the early concerns with animal hides was the length of time they were useable. The natural decaying process would set in, and they simply did not last. Over time people found several ways to slow the decay process down, including various oils, the sun and tannin from the bark of trees.

Leather that has been correctly tanned and finished is resistant to humidity, temperature and bacteria. The major enemies of leather are sun rot and drying out.

For two centuries leather production methods did not dramatically change, but in the last 50 years or so, synthetic tanning agents and oils have become commonplace.

Transpiration

Leather has the ability to absorb and release moisture through its three-dimensional system of fibers and pores. This is known as transpiration, a process is similar to wicking except wicking is the upward follow of moisture on fibers in the drying process.

Leather has numerous fibers per square inch and these fibers work at conducting heat and moisture. Leather can absorb and release approximately 15% of its weight in water. It is transpiration that makes leather so comfortable and soothing to sit on and wear.

Pigmented

Fingerprints

Hides are similar to fingerprint in that no two hides are identical. Every hide will have marks that are related to the animal’s life. Barbwire scars, insect bites, fat wrinkles, urine burns and branding iron marks are the “fingerprint” signs that will define the differences in hides.

Almost all leather upholstery in made from a bovine of some type, most commonly cows and steers. It takes five to seven hides to make a normal 7-foot sofa!

Once the hide has gone through the tanning process, there are three classifications of leather that are agreed upon designations between the IICRC (Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification) and the AHFA (American Home Furnishings Alliance): Pigmented, Aniline and Nubuck.

Pigmented

Cleaning Code: P. Pigmented leather may also be called “Painted,” “Protected,” “Finished” or “Semi-Aniline. Some manufacturers may call leather products by company names to separate themselves from other company’s terms.

Pigmented is aniline leather that has had a finish and topcoat containing pigment applied to the top-grain side of the hide. The finish and topcoat are applied to add a protective coating that assist in water repellency and cleanability. It is also used to enhance the aesthetics of the leathers’ appearance.

Pigmented leather has a smooth or slick “hand” due to its finish system.

Pigmented leather is very easy to clean. Many times it is called kid and pet friendly; however kids like to write on things and this will not come off any type of leather. If that occurs, the finish system normally has to be removed in that area and be replaced by a specialist in leather repair.

Dogs and cats can cause damage with nails and body oils. The most common issue we see is the finish system not adhering. This can be caused by numerous reasons including bad surface prep, not enough resins in the finish, inter-coat adhesion issues and more.

When a finish system fails, it normally is a manufacturing issue. There exceptions, such as abuse or body oils degrading the finish. This should be kept in mind when choosing where to use it. Bad specification for use will equate to a poor performance and dissatisfaction both with the leather and the specifiers.

Aniline

Aniline

Cleaning Code: A. Aniline leather may also be called “Unprotected,” “Naked,” “Natural” or “Pure.” Some manufacturers may call leather products by company names to separate themselves from other company’s terms.

Aniline leather is defined as a hide that has been treated with aniline dye. Aniline dye can be both organic and inorganic material used to impart color to the hide. Aniline dying is carried on in the wet-end of the processing stage. The dye is transparent and allows the grain and natural characteristic to show through.

Aniline leather has a soft “hand” and has been described as buttery soft.

Aniline is very susceptible to sun fading, spills soaking in creating areas that look like stains but are not removable. It is also susceptible to body and head oil penetration. Oil penetration has soaked in like body lotion and is not removable without creating blotchy areas. This should be kept in mind when choosing where to use it. Bad specification for use will equate to a poor performance and dissatisfaction both with the leather and the specifiers.

Nubuck

Cleaning Code: N. Nubuck leather may also be called “Reverse Suede,” “Suede,” “Distressed” or “Bomber.” Some manufacturers may call leather products by company names to separate themselves from other company’s products.

Nubuck is aniline leather that the grain surface has been sanded or buffed to create a velvet-like texture or nap. Many times nubuck is confused with suede. Suede is actually the flesh side of the hide or both sides of a split.

Nubuck is defined as a hide that has been treated with aniline dye. Aniline dye can be both organic and inorganic material used to impart color to the hide. Aniline dying is carried on in the wet-end of the processing stage. The dye is transparent and allows the grain and natural characteristic to show through.

Nubuck leather has the softest “hand” feel due to its velvet like texture.

Nubuck is the most sensitive of leathers. It is very susceptible to sun fading, spills soaking in creating areas that look like stains but are not removable. It is also susceptible to body and head oil penetration. Oil penetration has soaked in like body lotion and is not removable without creating blotchy areas. This should be kept in mind when choosing where to use it. Bad specification for use will equate to a poor performance and dissatisfaction both with the leather and the specifiers.

Leather Identification

Deck tag. The AHFA, in a joint industry venture with the IICRC, is currently working on a cleaning and identification deck tag that allows the consumer and the professional cleaner to more easily assess what types of leather they are maintaining. Many tags are already in use:
  • P= Pigmented.
  • A= Aniline.
  • N= Nubuck.
Scratch test. Find a swatch of leather, zipper over-run or another inconspicuous area to test the leather. Scratch the test area lightly with your fingernail. Aniline leather, wax pull-ups, and oil pull-ups will scratch very easily and leave a light mark. This includes nubuck wax pull-up. No mark is left on pigmented leather. Aniline leaves a lighter mark.

Nubuck

Moisture test. Find a swatch of leather, zipper over-run or another inconspicuous area to test the leather. Apply a few drops of water to the test area and rub lightly. Aniline leather, wax pull-ups, oil pull-ups and nubuck will readily absorb the water. Pigmented leather repels it.

Visual test. View the entire piece of leather. Aniline, wax pull-ups, oil pull-ups, and nubucks will have variations in hue and color. They will also readily show scars, bites and other natural markings. Wax pull-ups may look like wrinkled wax paper and oil pull-ups will have a deep rich look to their color. Pigmented leathers will have a more uniform color and many times the natural markings have been removed by sanding and or embossing and new grain pattern. Pigmented may also appear shiny from a distance.

Tactile test. All leathers have what is referred to as a “hand.” Nubuck has a velvet-like texture created by buffing. Aniline has a soft warm buttery feel. Wax pull-ups have a waxy touch and oil pull-ups are slightly oily to the touch. Pigmented leather feel slick similar to vinyl. Nubuck has a velvet texture.

Now that your interest in leather is peaked, next time, after identifying the various leather types, I’ll lead you through the cleaning process.

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