Honesty in Materials: Understanding Leather

The Fundamentals of Leather

Leather is one of the most naturally beautiful and durable materials available for furniture upholstery. It imparts a timeless and sophisticated aesthetic that, when cared for properly, looks and feels better with age. Lasting four times longer than fabric, high-quality leather furniture can endure for generations to become coveted heritage pieces.

Highly sought-after by designers around the world, leather does bring some complexity to the specification process, requiring a bit of education to ensure the best selection for the design project. Descriptors like “aniline,” “semi-aniline,” and “corrected leather” can be highly confusing. We’ll help demystify some of the terminology here to help you make an informed decision for your project.


Considerations for Specifying Leather Upholstery

While there’s no doubt that color and patterning are essential for communicating a design vision, these should not be the only considerations for leather selection. How a hide has been processed will impact its performance and durability over time and are the factors that should determine where and how the leather is being used. This is why it’s essential to understand the descriptive terms used within the leather industry.

Mostly Modified
- Corrected Leather

Corrected leather is made from lower quality animal hides that get sanded and buffed to eliminate scars, variations, and perceived imperfections to create a more consistent-looking material. Often, corrected leathers are embossed with an artificial grain since the natural grain has been removed through the sanding process. Other industry terms used to describe corrected leather include “enhanced grain,” “corrected grain,” or “corrected top-grain.” 

Sanding and buffing leather removes the natural oils in the hide, causing it to lose drapability and the soft, supple “feel” associated with high-quality leather. Any embossing will be done with high heat, further extracting the natural oils and resulting in a stiffer feel. Adding color to corrected leather involves applying a heavy layer of pigment to the surface. The resulting consistent, opaque color blocks the hide's pores, affecting its breathability and taking away the natural feel of the leather. The benefit of using pigment to color leather is that it is less sensitive to UV light and will resist fading. However, over time, corrected leather will begin to split and crack. 

The Best of Both Worlds -
Semi-Aniline Leather

The term “semi-aniline” refers to the treatment the leather receives. Starting with high-quality, full-grain hides which have not undergone any sanding or buffing, a micro-pigment of color is applied to the hide along with the aniline dye. This still allows the leather to retain its soft, natural feel. Because the hide's top layer has been left intact, markings such as insect bites, scars, and stretch marks remain visible, providing a very natural look with unique characteristics.   

The light layer of protective pigment does reduce some of the leather’s porosity, making it less susceptible to fading, stains, and damage from excessive wear. This is why semi-aniline leather is considered the perfect compromise between softness and durability. This type of leather upholstery is ideal for higher use areas, such as corporate reception spaces and meeting rooms, hospitality public spaces, and healthcare waiting areas where protection against stains and scratches is preferred.

Perfectly Imperfect - Full Aniline Leather

Full aniline leathers are considered the most premium leather available and offer a luxuriously soft hand-feel. Only the top 10% of the world’s hides can be used to produce full aniline leathers, which undergo the most minimal processing. Absolutely no sanding, buffing, embossing, or pigmenting is applied to this full-grain leather. The hides are simply tanned and then dyed the final color.

This means full aniline leather will showcase beautiful variations in tone and any unique markings or imperfections, honoring a natural look that is prized over uniformity. The most porous of the leathers, full aniline leather will absorb body oils and moisture and show signs of use and fading over time, developing a highly sought-after patina that only enhances its character.

Full aniline leathers are best suited for executive offices and boardrooms, luxury hospitality settings, and high-end residential projects.


Top-grain vs. Full-grain

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of “top-grain” and “full-grain” leather. But what do these words mean? There’s much confusion around these terms because they are frequently described incorrectly. Some manufacturers use “top-grain” to describe corrected leather or as a marketing statement to indicate quality. Simply put, top-grain refers to the top portion of the hide. Therefore, any and all leather made from the uppermost layer of a hide can be considered top-grain.

Full-grain, on the other hand, is leather that is produced from a hide with an unaltered uppermost layer. This is the highest quality, most natural-looking, and desired grain of leather. While all full-grain leather is technically considered top-grain, not all top-grain leather is full-grain.

When specifying a project, opt for full-grain leathers, which will feel the softest, look the most authentic, and offer visual depth and interest. Remember, only full-grain leathers will be used in the aniline or semi-aniline coloring processes. 


Consider the Source

Cumberland is proud to partner with Elmo Leather as our supplier for Semi-Aniline and Full Aniline leathers. Elmo uses Scandinavian cowhides, considered by many to be some of the best in the world. Why? Scandinavia’s colder climate eliminates many of the skin diseases and insect bites that can plague hides originating from other parts of the globe. Also, the Scandinavian region does not use any brands on their cattle or barbed wire in their fencing, resulting in more pristine hides with less scarring.

At Cumberland, protecting the environment and using our resources intelligently are fundamental to how we operate. That’s why we choose to partner with suppliers who share these values. Elmo has driven sustainability initiatives that continue to serve as a benchmark for the tanning industry. In addition to being at the forefront for VOC air emission reduction, Elmo uses a world-renowned state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system in their tannery processes which leaves the water cleaner when it leaves than when it comes in. They have also become 100% CO2 Neutral, meaning their carbon footprint is now net zero.

Elmosoft, a semi-aniline leather available on all Cumberland upholstered furniture, is a “chrome-free” tanned leather, which will decompose in a landfill as nothing but organic material.