Faux Leather: Better Than Real?
The fundamental difference between real leather and faux leather is their origin. Real leather is made from animal hides, including cattle, buffalo, oxen, sheep and more. Faux leather is a synthetic material created from a plastic substance that’s then treated with wax, dye or polyurethane to add color and imprinted to mimic the texture of real leather. There are many factors to consider when deciding between real and faux leather: durability, cost, look, application and ethics all come into play. We’re going to explore these topics to help you make the right decision for your individual needs.
Types of Real & Faux Leather
There are different types of leather grades based on how the leather is processed and treated. Hide is made up of two main layers. The top layer is called the grain where collagen fibers are tightly packed, very sturdy and thicker than the corium, the inner layer of the hide. The top part of the grain is what’s exposed to the environment and can accrue stretch marks, scars and insect bites during the animal’s lifetime. Typically the top part of the grain is buffed to remove as many blemishes as possible to make the leather look more uniform and attractive — this is called top grain leather. Leather that has not been corrected and the entire grain is intact is called full grain. Even though it has blemishes, it is more in demand due to its inherent longevity and beauty as it patinas with age, making it more expensive than top grain.
When the second main layer of leather is split from the top layer at the grain and corium junction, this is called split layer. Since it is split from the grain layer, it doesn’t have any of the grain or texture of the top layer. A polymer coating is often applied and embossed to recreate a grain leather look, but these leathers are not as strong or high-quality as grain leathers. Suede is a form of split leather. Finally, there’s bonded leather. This is the lowest grade of leather. It consists of the leftover pieces of leather scraps that are shredded to a pulp-like consistency, and then reconstituted with a synthetic filler and backed with an embossed polyurethane coating. So it is essentially a half real leather, half faux leather material. The exposed side is the leather side and it has a synthetic fabric backing. This is the cheapest and lowest quality leather.
Faux leather is as diverse as real leather, and different varieties are made from different synthetic fibers. Faux leather, also called imitation or vegan leather, is a manmade fabric that is manufactured to look like real leather but contains no animal parts whatsoever. The two major types of plastic-based faux leather — commonly known as pleather — are vinyl (PVC) and polyurethane. The first is a result of adding dye and plastic materials to vinyl, which gives the fabric a more real leather look. Vinyl-based faux leather is more flexible than polyurethane but not breathable, so it is not used for clothing. Polyurethane-based faux leather is made by coating natural fabrics like cotton or wool with a polymer-based substance, then treating it to look like real leather. This type of faux leather is more breathable than vinyl-based leather, and it is used more for clothing and items that will come in contact with your skin.
Sailrite® offers a variety of faux leather vinyl brands with a wide range of applications and qualities so you can select the one that best suits your project needs. Naugahyde® is a vinyl-coated fabric on a jersey knit backing. It’s made with nonmigratory plasticizers to retain a soft, supple feel and has the appearance of real leather. It’s a waterproof fabric recommended for marine exterior cushions as well as indoor and automotive upholstery purposes.
Sailrite’s top faux leather polyurethane option is Ultraleather®. Soft and long-lasting, Ultraleather is a premium-quality fabric offering the luxury and beauty of real leather with superior strength and colorfastness. It’s designed to mimic the look and feel of the softest European calfskin. Polyurethane resins are made of a softer polymer than vinyl faux leathers and, therefore, don’t need additional plasticizers. They also dissipate heat very well, meaning the fabric isn’t too hot or too cold when you sit down.
We're also proud to carry Sunbrella® Horizon, an exceptional indoor/outdoor engineered synthetic leather (ESL). The four-way stretch capabilities of this waterproof ESL make it ideal for contouring and tailoring. It has excellent stretch and recovery properties, meaning it won't sag and puddle after extended use. It's easy to sew, as well as highly abrasion, UV and fade resistant. Sunbrella Horizon's proprietary top coat ensures mold/mildew resistance and bacterial stain resistance to protect against bacterial pinking. Use Sunbrella Horizon for marine, home, RV and outdoor living upholstery and cushions. This ESL comes in two distinct textures and a wide variety of colors.
With a grain that most closely matches that of real leather, EverSoft™ Indoor/Outdoor upholstery vinyl is a top choice for all your interior and exterior projects. This soft, supple, four-way stretch vinyl boasts a three-year warranty to ensure it performs in any area of your life. You'll find that EverSoft is a fantastic choice for marine cushions, patio cushions, home décor and upholstery, and RV/auto upholstery. Bring beauty and durability to your next project with EverSoft!
Look & Feel
While faux leather attempts to mimic the look and feel of real leather, and it does come very close, there is a visual and textural difference between the two. Faux leather is mass-produced by applying or laminating a polyurethane or vinyl finish to base material, usually polyester, cotton, nylon or rayon. Then a roller applies an artificial grain pattern to the material’s surface to recreate the look of animal hide. Because a machine is applying this texture, the grain pattern is very uniform and even in appearance. Since faux leather is a synthetic material, it can be printed with any pattern and dyed any color imaginable, widening its appeal and use to a broad audience of consumers. Polyurethane faux leathers have a more realistic look and feel of real leather than vinyls, and they also wrinkle like real leather when tufted or gathered as they’re sewn.
Real leather comes from an animal, and in the same way that no two people are exactly alike, so it is with animal hide. Think of it as a fingerprint. Real leather, particularly full and some top grain, will have a random grain and textured pattern; it has natural imperfections and blemishes that some think add to the material’s beauty and natural look, as well as a luster or patina that develops over time. Real leather also softens and becomes more supple with age, a huge appeal to the real thing.
Real leather is not uniform in any way and no two pieces look the same. This provides a unique, one-of-a-kind experience to working with real leather. However, if you are sewing accessories or furniture and you want all your pieces to look uniform, real leather may not suit your needs. Since most people who desire real leather enjoy the look of the natural animal hide, it’s typically found in shades of light to dark browns and black.
Durability & Longevity
Real leather provides exceptional durability and actually improves with age — it softens the more it’s used and develops a relaxed, “lived-in” appeal. In fact, some people desire the aged look, and well-cared-for leather can actually become more valuable and sought-after as it ages, much like a good bottle of wine increases in value over the years. Full grain leather is both puncture and tear resistant, as well as breathable. When cared for, and depending on its application and use, leather can last for generations.
Excellent advancements have been made in the manufacture of faux leather. However, the material is still more apt to tear or puncture compared to full grain leather. There are many different manufacturers of faux leather, as well as different treatments and production methods. Therefore, some faux leathers are more durable and will last longer than others. At Sailrite, we carry only the best faux leathers in the textile industry. For example, Ultraleather offers 400,000 double rubs (a test that measures a fabric’s wear rating) for a high level of abrasion resistance and durability. Naugahyde Nauga Soft is a top-quality faux leather that offers the textured look of real leather and boasts an impressively high wear rating of 1,000,000 double rubs. Sunbrella Horizon offers 100,000 double rubs (cotton).
Most faux leathers are also waterproof, whereas full grain leather is permeable and can even rot or crack if not dried quickly after it gets wet. You can apply waterproofing solutions to protect it from the elements, though it will need to be treated routinely. Top grain leather goes through a pigmentation process that seals the pores, making it virtually waterproof, though it is still not recommended to leave stagnant water on it.
Faux and real leather have both similarities and crucial differences when it comes to sewing. Pins will create permanent holes in both materials. So instead of pinning your layers together before sewing, it’s better to use basting tape to hold the pieces together. You can’t use a high-temperature iron to press out the wrinkles on either material. Using a leather sewing machine needle will help you sew real leather with better results and will prevent skipped stitches. However, a standard round point (sharp) needle is preferred for sewing faux leather. Both faux and real leather have a stickiness to the material’s surface; therefore, you’ll need a walking foot sewing machine so the material won’t stick to the needle plate or presser foot.
Is real leather more difficult to sew than faux leather? It really comes down to the type and thickness of the leather. Real leather can be thick and dense, but so can faux leather. Thick leather can’t be sewn successfully on a home sewing machine — they just aren’t strong enough to handle this material. Real leather also stretches slightly over time, which faux leather does not, something to keep in mind if you’re sewing a cover like a cushion or a tablet/cellphone cover. The raw edges of real leather will not fray, but most leatherworkers burnish the edges so they look nice. Faux leather also does not fray, but the raw edges should be finished. Real leather will wear out your needles very quickly, but faux leather will not, so it’s good practice to change the needle before every leather sewing application.
Care & Cleaning
Because it is animal hide and not synthetic material, real leather has to be well maintained to prolong its life. It shouldn’t get wet, and spills should be wiped up immediately to avoid permanently staining or damaging the leather. Real leather should be kept out of direct sunlight, as heavy UV exposure will dry out the natural oils and cause discoloration and premature aging. Remember, leather was once an animal’s skin. Just as we use sunscreen to protect our skin from the sun, so, too, does leather need to be regularly moisturized and conditioned to protect it and keep it looking great for years to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t carry your leather bag or wear your leather jacket on a sunny day, it just means you must be aware of how much exposure to the sun the leather is experiencing and you should clean your leather items with a leather cleaner. Never store your leather pieces in direct sunlight or leave them in your car.
Faux leather is considerably more maintenance-free than real leather. Most faux leathers can be cleaned with a water and mild soap solution. On some faux leathers such as Nauga Soft, you can even use a diluted water and bleach solution to clean tougher stains. Due to the fact that it’s a synthetic material, there’s no risk of UV exposure damaging faux leather, meaning you can put a faux leather couch in a sunlit room without worry of the fabric changing color or cracking. If you get caught in a downpour, your faux leather bag or jacket will be fine. Some faux leathers require rebuffing with a small amount of polish on a clean, dry rag after they’ve been washed. Brands like Naugahyde and Morbern® have added UV stabilizers to ensure they last for years in marine and outdoor environments.
Over half of all real leather production is for shoes, 25% is for clothing, and only around 15% of leather is used for upholstery. Due to the high cost of real leather, it’s not cost-efficient for most consumers to re-cover a couch in leather, though you can. You also have to keep in mind the maintenance required. Since furniture is likely to experience food and drink spills — and even accidents from pets and children — it’s not practical for many households to use real leather for furniture. Accessories like belts, wallets, bags and purses are more likely to be made with real leather, and their high-end look adds to the appeal and luxury of real leather clothing and accessories.
Faux leather tends to be a more kid- and pet-friendly material, thus making it a better choice than its real counterpart for high-traffic locations and furniture. Since faux leather can be exposed to UV rays without the same damaging effects real leather experiences, it’s a great choice for car interiors, golf cart and motorcycle seats, personal watercraft and boat cushions. It’s also ideal for commercial uses such as in restaurants, theaters and hospitals.
The vinyl faux leathers, Naugahyde and Morbern, are better suited for marine and outdoor applications due to their long-lasting, waterproof properties. They’re also ideal for healthcare and high-traffic commercial seating. Vinyls are built to stand up to the harshest environments. They also resist the growth of mold and mildew and perform well in cold weather. Morbern Allsport, in particular, is a prime choice for watersport marine seating upholstery due to its unique four-way stretch. Sunbrella Horizon is great for marine upholstery in addition to home and outdoor upholstery.
Polyurethane faux leathers, on the other hand, are usually recommended for indoor upholstery only. Ultraleather is an excellent choice for boat interior seating and home uses. It won’t heat up in high temperatures or stiffen and crack in the cold, making it a great choice for automotive upholstery as well. Ultraleather Promessa is an indoor/outdoor collection that's perfect for high-end upholstery on yacht interiors, cars and RV upholstery, home furnishings, covered outdoor cushions and more.
Because it’s mass-produced, faux leather is typically much more economical than real leather, especially top and full grain. It’s also more readily available from fabric stores and online retailers. If you own a small business and you are looking to keep production costs down, faux leather is your best option. It still provides the “look” of real leather, in most aspects, at a reduced price. It’s also important to note that faux leather is usually sold by the yard, while real leather is sold by the hide and is typically priced by the square foot. Polyurethane fabrics are typically more expensive than their vinyl faux leather counterparts because there is more cost in the manufacturing process.
Without a doubt, real leather is more expensive than faux leather. But for some people, they see this as a boon. If you’re an artisan sewing handmade leather accessories, you can use the fact that you work with real leather to your advantage with a higher price point on your products. Be aware, though, that real leather will have flaws in the hide that might affect your patterning and design. This will create more waste and higher expense on your end in unusable sections of leather.
The fact that no two pieces of real leather are alike provides uniqueness to your items. They are truly one-of-a-kind creations and for consumers who like the idea of buying a unique item — something no one else in the world owns — this will serve as a selling point for your small business. However, though the quality is undisputed, real leather items are not in everyone’s budget, so this could limit the number of people who could afford your products.
Ethical & Environmental Factors
Many people might shy away from real leather due to the ethical implications behind its sourcing. But the truth is the majority of real leather comes from cattle raised for beef. It’s a byproduct of the dairy and beef industries. Therefore, the animals were already going to be harvested as a food source, meaning they weren’t killed just for their hides. The Native Americans used every part of the buffalo as a way of honoring the animal and to not waste any of its parts; in the same way, leather can be seen as reducing wastefulness.
If you do not believe in harvesting animals for food and clothing, then faux leather is definitely what you want. However, be aware that faux leather is not without its own environmental impact. The processing and production of both faux and real leather take a toll on the planet and create a sizable carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by a product’s manufacture and transport).
In 2017, a fashion industry report was conducted to directly compare the environmental impact of animal leather versus faux leather, along with other textiles. It revealed that faux leather contributes one-third of the environmental impact compared to real leather. Of the five factors examined — chemistry, global warming, resource depletion, eutrophication and water scarcity — real leather had a higher impact on the environment in all five categories except resource depletion. In this case, the production of faux leather requires the use of more fossil fuels than real leather.
While that might sound like a major win for faux leather, keep in mind that real leather typically lasts much longer than synthetic. Over the course of your lifetime, you might need to sew or buy more faux leather products depending on their usage, thus narrowing the environmental impact gap between the two. If you have to re-cover and reupholster furniture more often with faux leather than real leather, or if faux leather bags and accessories break down and deteriorate faster than their real counterparts, then that increases the environmental impact of faux leather since more of it has to be produced.
Lastly, be aware that vinyl faux leather never decomposes — it will sit in a landfill forever unless it’s recycled, which is difficult to do as it’s a Plastic #3 and has to be melted down and repurposed. Some municipal recycling programs won’t take it, and burning vinyl releases toxic compounds into the atmosphere. Polyurethane faux leathers do decompose, but they take 500 years to do so. They are safer to burn as they contain significantly lower levels of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) than vinyl. Full and top grain leather, on the other hand, decomposes after only 50 years since it’s made from organic material. In fact, because leather decomposes, some clever upcyclers use leather boots, bags and material scraps to line plant pots and flower beds. An old cowboy boot makes for a unique planter. Leather belts can be repurposed into plant holders, doormats and more. You’re only limited by your creativity.
Ultimately, the choice between faux and real leather comes down to a variety of issues to consider. For some the choice might be easy, for others not so much. You have to consider the look you want, your budget, how long you want your product to last, and even what you’re using the leather for. It’s not necessarily an easy decision, so be sure to consider all the facts and weigh your options before deciding between faux leather and the real thing.
“2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report,” commissioned by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit
Footnote: This blog was updated in December 2019 to include mention of Sunbrella Horizon.