Artificial leather provides a great alternative that is cost effective, and can be used in places natural leather cannot. Let’s explore.
Artificial leather is a man-made material designed and manufactured to look like natural leather. It’s often made from plastics, and available in a variety of textures, finishes, colors, patterns, and even, smells. Artificial leather is most commonly used in upholstery, clothing, footwear, and bags.
So how is it made and how can it be a great material choice for your next product purchase or leather project? Let’s learn more.
What is Artificial Leather?
Artificial leather is a material that is manufactured to look and feel like real leather. Natural leather is relatively costly to produce and comes from the hides of animals. Artificial leather is most often produced from plastics and related polymer materials. This allows them to be much less expensive to make, faster and easier to manufacture, and require much less care and maintenance than natural leather. Artificial leather is essentially, a type of plastic fabric material.
Since it is man-made, artificial leather can be produced with an array of characteristics and preferences to meet many needs. These can include both stylistic, and functional need. Also, artificial leather can be made in very large sizes, even rolls. This makes it cost effective and also very suitable for goods and uses that require material larger than typical animal hides. Artificial leathers are most often produced on a fiber-based fabric, or on a flexible plastic backing (such as polyester); each of these provides a supportive layer to hold the plastic surface together.
Artificial leather also has some qualities similar to that of real leather, though, they are few. In general, it lasts only a few years, and begins to weaken/crack/breakdown when used in goods that are exposed to a frequent flexing and bending (such as in furniture upholstery or footwear). It can also discolor over time when exposed to the sun and UV rays. However, its benefits make it quite a popular material choice and very common in today’s marketplace.
Some areas where artificial leather are excellent include those where it is exposed to water. It is a waterproof material, thus often making it a better choice than natural leather in these situations.
Other Names for Artificial Leather
Curious about what do you call fake leather? While artificial leather is a common term used to refer to materials that are made to look like natural leather, there are several other popular names also used to refer to it, they include:
- Simulated Leather
- Vegan Leather
- Imitation Leather
- PU Leather
- Leather Substitute
- Synthetic Leather
- Faux Leather
- Polyurethane Leather
- Vinyl Leather
- Man-Made Leather
- Poly Leather
- PVC Leather
The History of Artificial Leather
While natural leather has been around for thousands of years, artificial leather is a development from the last few centuries. Mainly, they are produced from plastics and related polymers which have evolved from different companies and researchers.
Let’s check out some of the most popular artificial leathers that have led to the ones we commonly see and use today.
|A synthetic leather made from tree pulp, developed in Germany and most popular during World War II
|Developed in 1914, in Naugatuck, CT, used extensively for upholstery
|A pyroxylin jelly, cloth-base material developed by DuPont in 1915, used for leather goods
|Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
|Commonly used for PVC pipes, this material became popular for use in personal leather goods
|A “poromeric” leather developed by DuPont in the 1960s. Shiny, smooth and used in footwear
Artificial Leather Cost
Artificial leather costs about $12 for a 20 sq. ft. piece. Certainly, specific cost can vary based on the material, thickness, type of finish, textures, and any unique brands that are purchased. In context to natural leather, it is relatively inexpensive. A good quality, vegetable-tanned, natural cowhide can cost about $150 for a 20 sq. ft. piece.
What Is Artificial Leather Made Out Of?
Artificial leather is most commonly made from plastic polymers. This allows to be sourced inexpensively, be made quickly, and be available in a variety of colors, shapes, textures, and sizes. Some newer artificial leathers are incorporating natural fibers, such as the Pinatex material using pineapple fibers. It still uses some plastic, though the integration of natural materials helps them become more recyclable, and preferred as more sustainable vegan leather options.
How Artificial Leather is Made
The artificial leather manufacturing process is somewhat fascinating in the about of different styles, thicknesses, colors, and textures that can be produced. While unique production processes might vary, let’s run through the basis steps.
First, the plastic-based composition is mixed together; this will form the main mixture of the material. It produces a very thick, liquid. Within it, special additives can be mixed that give the final product special functional properties including ultraviolet ray (UV ray) protection, or help make the material flame-retardant. A big part of mixing involves color. Pigments resulting is most any of millions of colors are added at this step, to large mixing bins, blending them with the liquid plastic mixture.
In some production styles, color will be added later on as an additional surface layer during extrusion process. This usually requires less pigment to use as it’s only needed for a thin surface layer rather than throughout the entire material. The plastics used in this process are most often polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also commonly known as and referred to as, vinyl.
Once the artificial leather liquid it is mixed, it is then extruded (pushed/poured) onto a flat backing so it has support once it dries. This extrusion process might be done by gravity, or with machines that push the liquid out onto the backing, in a very smooth, even way.
The backing material provides a critical support function, allowing the liquid mixture to have a place to securely adhere to, while also being flexible later.The backing material is most often made up of a paper or fiber, such as cotton or polyester. This backing can also be made of a fine mesh (such as metal, plastic, or fiber. The mesh provides more gripping surface areas for the mixture to evenly adhere to, making a more even, and stronger finished product. Once the artificial leather liquid has been extruded onto the backing in a very smooth, even layer, it is allowed to dry.
In cases where the drying process can be sped up (to save time/costs), heat can be applied.Using this controlled method can be easy and fast, making the manufacturing process much more efficient. Additionally, if a thicker material is desired, at this point additional layers can be extruded onto the first layer. This process can be repeated as needed, resulting in a thicker fined product.
After the leather has been colored, a surface texture can be applied. This can be done to make the material look more like the natural grain of leather, to add performance characteristics such as being more easily gripped (less smooth), or even to imprint branding characteristics or logos.
In natural leather, stamping a pattern is sometimes used to cover up surface imperfections. In artificial leather, stamping patterns is purely a stylistic or functional approach, as the initial surface is very smooth after the extrusion process.
Additionally, surface colorings of various patterns and tones might be printed onto the artificial leather. This could be done to give the surface a vintage or “antique-style” look. Or, similar to stamping, surface patterns, logos, or branding can be printed at this stage.
After the material has been stamped or printed on, it’s ready for finishing. This stage is an opportunity to add layers of protectant over the top of the material, that can help in a number of ways. Most often, the finishes are a transparent polymer that resists/repels water, as well as scratches/abrasions. Others can include UV resistance, or fire retardants. Since they’re transparent, they provide protection without being very noticeable. And believe it or not, some finishes also include scents intended to make the artificial leather smell just like natural leathers, making them seem even more real.
This video demonstrates a great walkthrough of the artificial leather manufacturing process:
Is Artificial Leather Good?
Yes, artificial leather can be good depending on what application it is used for. As an example, an artificial leather handbag or purse, when used everyday, might only last 2-3 years before becoming cracked, worn, and generally unusable. For comparison, a natural leather purse or bag might last 10-20 years, requiring only basic care and maintenance over that time, and it can look good as new even 20 years later. In that case, artificial leather is not a great option for items one plans to keep and use for long periods of time.
Alternatively, there are uses where artificial leather can be an excellent choice. These usually involve cases where it will be exposed to moisture or water. Commercial transportation upholstery (as on buses, trains, subway cars, and planes) benefits greatly from the low cost and low maintenance of artificial leather.
Another application is boat and marine upholstery, where the material gets wet all the time. In this case, unfinished natural leather will quickly become wet, dirty, and begin to wear down fast. Artificial leather will maintain its finish, be waterproof, and withstand years of daily use. In this case, artificial leather is an excellent choice to use.
So in general, its effectiveness will depend on how it is used and what is it used for. Since this material is often much lower in cost than natural leather, and water repellent, those along make it appealing for many uses.
Is Synthetic Leather Better Than Artificial Leather?
Synthetic leather and artificial leather are the same. There are different terms used to refer to man-made materials that are intended to simulate the texture, feel, and performance of natural leather. Synthetic leather and artificial leather are two popular terms, others include faux leather, leatherette, and vegan leather.
Is Artificial Leather Waterproof?
Yes, artificial leather is generally water resistant and waterproof. Since it composed often plastic, and sometimes has an additional protective plastic layer applied to the surface, it repels moisture and water very well This makes it a great material choice for places where moisture exposure is likely, such as on boating upholstery and the environmental conditions found on mass transit upholstery on buses, trains, and planes.
How Long Does Artificial Leather Last?
Artificial leather generally lasts about 2-5 years. This is mainly due to it being made of plastic; the plastic begins to dry out and degrade from frequent use and flexing, and the surface protectant can begin to crack, peel, and even change color if exposed to prolonged sunlight.
It’s great as a low cost option that is also low-maintenance, though important to keep in mind the general use time for how long artificial leather lasts. Surely some can last longer, though natural leather typically can last for decades or longer with proper care and maintenance.
Can Artificial Leather be Recycled?
Generally, no, artificial leather can not be recycled. Since it is most often made from non-recyclable plastic materials, it usually becomes a waste product after being used. Some newer artificial leathers are being made in part with natural fibers, so elements of them can be recycled. This is surely a great start towards a new trend of more sustainable artificial leather.
Is Artificial Leather Durable?
Yes, artificial leather is relatively durable. As a plastic material, is require low maintenance, resists water and abrasions, and can withstand a range of temperatures. It can take abrasions and wear while still holding its shape. Artificial leather usually only lasts a few years before beginning to break down, though during that time, it is a mostly durable material.
Artificial Leather Care & Maintenance
When handled properly, cleaned as needed, maintained well, and stored properly, artificial leather can look nice and perform well for years of daily use.
How to Clean Artificial Leather
Since it has a smooth surface finish, it can be easily cleaned with a wet cloth. Microfiber is usually best, as they’re lint-free yet very effective. It is recommended to test first in a small area, this helps ensure that the cloth will not transfer any color to the surface of the artificial leather item.
If the items needs deep or special cleaning, a soft brush can be used to help loosen dirt, grime, and any debris. Just wet it slightly, then work it over the leather in small circles, being careful not to press to hard. The bristles of the brush should be doing most of the work here throughout this cleaning process. After, the leather can be gone over with a damp cloth to help clean off any remaining dirt/dust/grime. Then let the item dry off well and it should be ready to use.
To help remove more serious stains, look into cleaners specifically made for artificial leather and the type of substance that needs to be removed. These types of cleaners will usually help clean the stain while also protecting the surface of the leather. As recommended with most cleaners, always try to test in a small, not noticeable area to help ensure it will not discolor the item or the surface finish. It’s always helpful not to make a second stain while trying to clean the first 🙂
How to Condition Artificial Leather
Since artificial leather often has a protective finish applied to the surface, it makes it difficult to apply conditioners or oils. The surface, and often the underlying plastic material, is water proof, thus blocking out moisture and conditioning agents, which can’t penetrate the material.
Thankfully though, the smooth surface makes it’s very easy to clean with a damp, lint-free cloth. This is a simple way to always keep artificial leather products looking great. If the surface begins to wear away, over time, some additional protectants, can often be applied to help restore it a some over time.
How to Fix a Scratch on Artificial Leather
Fixing a scratch on an artificial leather item often involves application of a basic leather repair kit. Since synthetic leather is mainly a plastic-based material, it will require replacement of the material that was scratched away, to even out the surface.
Often, leather repair kits have a color-matched liquid that is poured into the scratch or crack on the leather item. Once filled, it might need to be evened-out to make the repair match the surface of the existing material, heat-pressed, or a grain pattern applied (to match the surface texture/pattern of the existing leather item). Then, allow it to dry and then the scratch should be filled in and looking great.
How to Fix and Repair Tears in Artificial Leather
Fixing tears in artificial leather can be harder to fix than light scratches, since they run deeper into the material. Artificial leather is a plastic material-based blend, thus fixing tears might require a repair kit that includes a filler to help make the repaired area look more uniform.
Depending on the size of the rip or tear, this can often be done with fabric, a flexible glue, or the color-matching liquid that comes in the leather repair kit. Since the leather item will likely need to flex when used (for example a piece of clothing when worn, or furniture upholstery when sat on), the material used as a filler will need to be flexible as well once it dries. Another option is to sew the tear. This can help with larger tears or those with non-uniform shapes.
Once the tear is filled, it will likely leave a scratch-like mark on the surface. Just fix this remaining area like one would fix a scratch. Pour a color-matching liquid into the scratch, or touch it up with flexible, acrylic paint. It might then need to be evened-out, heat pressed, or a grain pattern applied, to match the surface of the original leather item. Next, allow it to dry, and then the scratch should be filled and ideally not even be noticeable during everyday use.
How to Store Artificial Leather
Artificial leather should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from any sort of direct sunlight. The sun can discolor the protective plastic finish and even make it begin to look yellow, so this is an important thing to remember especially for this type of leather.
A closet or drawer can be a great place to store clothing, shoes, bags, or personal accessories. As long as they are away from extreme temperatures (especially heat) and direct sunlight, they should generally store well.
When considering the purchase of a new leather item or figuring out what type of leather might be perfect for your next project, artificial leather has some benefits that are surely worth keeping in mind. If you’re curious about other leathers available, click here for my overview article to learn about all the types of leather.
Is artificial leather real leather?
No, artificial leather is not real leather. It is a man-made material, composed mostly of plastic polymers, that is manufactured to look and feel like real leather. While inexpensive and easy to make, artificial leather often lasts only a few years.
Can artificial leather be washed?
Yes, artificial leather can be washed. Being made of plastic, it can be wiped with a cloth and cleaner (suitable for artificial leather), or, depending on care instructions, machine-washed to help clean it of dirt/debris collected from use.
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