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Aniline Leather – When to Use this Bright, Colorful Leather

Aniline leather is generally less common than other leathers. However, I recently discovered that aniline leather is actually something that is well-tailored to luxury and premium projects, making it something  I’ll look to purchase for my next project. 

Aniline leather is an uncorrected, high quality full- or top-grain leather dyed with soluble dyes. It comes with all the natural characteristics of hides like wrinkles and bug bites and is known for being soft and supple. It can run anywhere from $20 to $30 per square foot, depending on the quality.

Aniline leather may be unfamiliar to some and familiar to others. In a world full of terminologies, aniline leather just seems like another phrase to add to the list. However, it isn’t too hard to catch onto what aniline leather refers to—let’s take a closer look at what aniline leather is. 

History of Aniline Leather

In 1826, Otto Unverdorben discovered the aniline leather dye by distilling natural vegetable indigo. The world ‘aniline’ itself comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Nila’ which means “indigo.” In 1854, Antoine Béchamp reported a method that allowed aniline (which was quite expensive at the time) to be produced by the ton. The dye was first used in 1856 by William Henry Perkin after he discovered mauveine, which became the first commercial synthetic dye.

How Aniline Leather is Made

Aniline leather refers to the aniline dyes employed in the process of dyeing the leather. There are a few steps to the process:

  1. High quality leather is selected.
  2. The leather is placed into a large drum without any corrections, and aniline dye is added. 
  3. Once the leather is dyed, it is removed and ready to use. No further processing happens in the case of pure aniline leather—the soluble dyes have a kind of transparent character to them, which allows for the grain and texture of the leather to be clearly visible through the dye. In the case of semi-aniline leather, some pigments may be applied so that the top layer is more uniform. 

A common misnomer is “aniline tanned leather” since tannins are not involved in the process; therefore, the term ‘aniline’ should only be applied to aniline dyes, aniline leather, or aniline-dyed leather. 

Characteristics of Aniline Leather

There are two different kinds of aniline leather: pure aniline and semi-aniline leather. A simple way to think about the difference between the two is how processed the leathers are; sometimes, you will see a third category simply called aniline that lies in between pure and semi-aniline leather in terms of processing. Pure aniline leather is uncorrected, high quality full- or top-grain leather that is dyed for color without any pigments.

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This means that the surface of the leather will continue to display any irregularities; therefore, a high quality leather needs to be used for aniline leather. Semi-aniline leather is aniline leather that is coated with a pigmented light surface, giving semi-aniline leather a more uniform color and less sensitivity to water. With pure aniline leather, the pores are completely visible on the leather while semi-aniline has a much lower pore visibility.

If the difference is still unclear, Chris Stout-Hazard explains the difference in the context of leather sofas in this video.

A telltale sign of aniline leather is when you can see the grain character of the leather in tandem with a range of color—often, aniline leather will have more or less depth in some areas whereas semi-aniline leathers tend to look fairly consistent on the surface. The reason aniline leather has a range of color is because the hide absorbs dye at different rates, which means that the end result will not reflect a uniform color.

Pure aniline leather is uncorrected, high quality full- or top-grain leather that is dyed for color without any pigments.

Though aniline leather has character, it is also more evident when there are any impurities in pure aniline leather such as bug bites or scratches. Therefore, it’s important to consider the context in which the leather will be used. 

Surface Texture

Aniline leather is a porous smooth leather. When handling aniline leather, the natural texture of the skin is the most prominent feature, making it soft and smooth to touch.

Flexibility

Aniline leather is known to be soft, and its flexibility makes it a great option for furniture and handbags.

Softness

Aniline leather is soft and warm to touch. Sometimes, soft aniline leather is called “napa leather,” and for a sense of how soft it is, aniline leather is categorized in the same group as suede or nubuck leather. 

Sewability

Aniline leather is generally pretty easy to sew, owing to its soft nature. There will be no problems making items like wallets or bags from this leather.

Durability

Despite being soft, aniline leather is made from the highest quality leather and thus is quite durable. Despite how easily it takes scratches, aniline leather can be buffed and the scratches can be removed. Aniline leather is reliably able to last much longer than the average leather since it is made of such quality leather.

Ease of Maintenance

Aniline leather is not easy to maintain despite its durability. It easily takes and displays scratches, and it fades after prolonged exposure to the sun. In addition, any stains that occur will likely be set permanently in the leather.

Colors

Though the first aniline dye was mauveine, aniline leather comes in a wide variety of colors. Shades of brown are very common, but greens, blues, and reds are also quite common. This is because the variety of dyes is fairly large.

Waterproofness

Semi-aniline leather is more water-resistant than pure aniline leather, which will absorb water if exposed to it.

Cost

Aniline leather can be extremely costly. Though the lowest I’ve seen is about $8.35 per square foot, the average is closer t o $20 to $30 per square foot. 

Aniline leather is not easy to maintain despite its durability. It easily takes and displays scratches, and it fades after prolonged exposure to the sun. In addition, any stains that occur will likely be set permanently in the leather.

Pros and Cons of Aniline Leather

Pros of Aniline Leather

  1. High quality leather – Since aniline leather is made by applying online dye to the highest quality hides, aniline leather is often extremely high quality. 
  2. Patina – The highly sought after leather patina tends to develop well on aniline leather, as it will absorb body oils from skin that it comes into contact with.
  3. Texture – Aniline leather is very soft because it goes through very little processing, giving it a luxurious feel 

Cons of Aniline Leather

  1. Delicate care – Aniline leather marks and stains very easily, so quite a bit of extra care is required when handling it or when working with it. It also fades in direct sunlight, which is a further condition to beware of when it comes to aniline leather.
  2. Expensive – Naturally, with leather of such high quality, it’s bound to be expensive. Aniline leather is not cheap, which is another reason why it is commonly featured in luxury goods.

Production Notes

Generally, aniline leather is produced in Europe, as European cattle are often better protected since they are raised in smaller herds on free-range farms without any branding. This allows the aniline hides to have the fewest aberrations while being the highest quality. 

Popular Uses for Aniline Leather

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Even though it’s a soft leather, aniline leather finds its way into quite a few of common items. Some popular uses for aniline leather include: 

  1. Leather clothing (i.e., leather jackets)
  2. Bicycle saddles
  3. Furniture leather/upholstery
  4. Shoe leather
  5. Handbags
  6. Suitcases
  7. Wallets

Tips for working with Aniline Leather

  1. Pay close attention to discoloration – if the aniline leather is exposed to any dyes, they will penetrate and will be very difficult (if not impossible) to remove.
  2. Scratches will buff out either on their own or with some conditioner and a cotton rag.
  3. Make sure to examine the leather for any bug bites or other abnormalities prior to crafting. Since aniline leather comes with all of the natural characteristics of the hide, it is likely that a perfect aniline leather hide is out of the question. Therefore, make sure to look over the pieces you’re using to make sure there aren’t any scars or blemishes (unless those are desired).

Insights from Real Crafters on Aniline Leather Care

Since aniline leather is so sensitive to damage of various kinds, I thought it might be interesting to see what leathercrafters had to recommend in terms of caring for aniline leather. Chamberlain’s Leather Milk was recommended for how it replenishes the natural oils in leather and its pleasant scent.

On Leatherworker.net, the Furniture Clinic Leather Kit was recommended to help with a user’s aniline leather couch. Other conditioners that experts suggested were Montana Pitch-Blend All Natural Leather Dressing and Obenauf’s (though Obenauf’s was said to have darkened leather, so be careful for this). 

Following up on this, a study on the Effect of Care Products on Leather Properties by Renate Meyndt and Heinz Peter Germann was done on the effect of care products on leather properties, and the findings confirmed what has already been said: aniline leather is very sensitive on the surface. Even when appropriate care was taken, repetitive applications of certain care products caused discoloration and even surface-level damage.

Aniline Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Aniline Leather

It is recommended to use a pH neutral soap to clean aniline leather—saddle soap works perfectly fine to clean aniline leather.

How to Condition Aniline Leather

As for conditioner, conditioners like Chamberlain’s Leather Milk are recommended. Just apply some to a cloth and rub into the leather. It may be wise to test a small, discreet spot first just to see what effect the conditioner may have on the leather.

How to Store Aniline Leather

Aniline leather is best stored away from direct sunlight, as it will cause fading. If you can help it, try to avoid storing it where spills are likely to occur as well, since staining is close to permanent (should it occur).

Related insights

Is aniline leather real leather?

Yes, aniline leather is real leather—it’s actually high quality leather. “Aniline” refers to how this leather is dyed with soluble dyes, which allows you to still see all the natural characteristics of the leather after dyeing. 

Does aniline leather peel?

No, aniline leather does not peel. This is partially due to the fact that there are no pigments or non-solubles applied to its surface.

Is aniline leather hard wearing?

Yes and no. Aniline leather takes on scuffs and scratches easily, but the leather itself is very durable.

Is aniline leather good for homes with pets?

Not really. Since pets will likely paw and scratch at an aniline leather sofa or other aniline leather goods, it is better to go for a semi-aniline leather instead.

Which is better aniline or semi aniline leather?

They both work well in different contexts! Aniline leather is extremely well-suited to luxury items like wallets or handbags, while semi-aniline leather is a bit more protected and therefore easier to maintain in environments with a lot of potential hazards.

Aniline leather is a patina chaser’s dream. It has the natural character of the animal hide with all of the personality and depth of the natural inconsistencies occurring in a piece of uncorrected leather. Because it’s usually made out of such high quality leather, it’s guaranteed to last you long enough to see that beautiful patina develop. I’m definitely going to be looking for some for my next project! 

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