When some people think of leather, it’s not really leather at all. Faux leather is used to make most anything leather is used for.
Faux leather is a synthetic leather, usually made from plastic. It is often manufactured in such a way that it looks and smells like real leather. Faux leather is available in a wide variety of colors, textures, and finishes. It’s used to make everything including shoes, clothes, and upholstery.
This is a material that is so common and we likely interact with everyday. Let’s check out where it came from and why it’s so popular.
What is Faux Leather?
Faux leather is a synthetic material that is made to look like real leather. Real leather is rather costly to produce, manufacture with, and care for. Faux leathers are made mostly from plastics. This allows them to be far less expensive, easy to manufacture, and easy to care for. Faux leather, is essentially, a plastic fabric.
Since it is a man-made material, faux leather can be produced to meet a variety of needs across many industries. Also, the materials can be made in very large sizes, unlike most leathers that are limited by the size of the hide. It can be produced on a fabric, or flexible plastic backing (such as polyester).
Faux leather also has some qualities of real leather, though few. In general, it will last only a few years, and begin to weaken crack in leather goods that are exposed to a frequent flexing and bending (such as shoes). However, it’s benefits make it a staple in todays marketplace.
Other Names for Faux Leather
Over the years, companies and marketers have come up with a large variety of names to refer to faux leather. Rather than saying plastic leather, or fake leather, there is a preference by some to call it something unique.
This might help add to the mystique of a material that the buyer really doesn’t understand. After all, if it has “leather” in the name, it is sending a message that leather is part of the material That isn’t always the case. Here is a list of names that are also used to refer to fake leathers, and materials made to look and perform like real leather.
- Artificial Leather
- Imitation Leather
- Synthetic Leather
- Man-Made Leather
- Vegan Leather
- PU Leather
- Leather Substitute
- Polyurethane Leather
- Poly Leather
- Leather Substitute
- PVC Leather
- Vinyl Leather
- Simulated Leather
History of Faux Leather
In recent centuries, advancements in technology have allowed for a variety of synthetic materials to be made that look and feel like leather. Generally, the availability of petroleum-based plastics has driven innovation in this area the most.
Let’s check out some of the key developments that have led to modern-day faux leather. Below is a quick reference chart, and following that a more detailed look into each.
|Late 1800’s||Presstoff||Presstoff is a simulated leather material made from tree pulp, developed in Germany.|
|1914||Naugahyde||The first rubber-based artificial leather, developed by the U.S. Rubber Plant was a business based in Naugatuck, Connecticut|
|1915||Fabrikoid||A DuPont developed material that “relates to a process of producing coated fabrics whereby an artificial leather of great efficiency and high quality is produced…”|
|1926||Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)||Waldo Semon, a researcher at the B.F. Goodrich company produced a material referred to as vinyl|
|1963||Corfam||A DuPont developed DuPont type of “poromeric” leather substitute|
Late 1800s – Presstoff Leather – Presstoff is a simulated leather material made from tree pulp, developed in Germany. It was treated in such a way that it would bind together in layers, and in general function resemble and work like leather. Under frequent flexing, or exposure to moisture, it would begin to deteriorate.
Presstoff found its widest use in World War II Germany. Leather was in limited supply, so this material was used as a leather replacement in many products including cases, sheathes, belts, straps, and covers.
1914 – Naugahyde – The U.S. Rubber Plant was a business based in Naugatuck, Connecticut. This is also where it got it’s name from. They invented Naugahyde in 1914, as the first rubber-based artificial leather. This material gained in popularity as a substitute for leather.
For decades the materials was used for upholstery and various commercial applications. In a clever marketing campaign in the 1960’s, Naugahyde was comedically purported to come from the “Nauga” fictional animal. The Nauga would shed it’s skin to produce the hide. Making it an animal friendly resource.
While this was only a marketing approach, and Naugahyde a synthetic, rubber-based material, it added to its history in popular culture.
1915 – Fabrikoid – On October 23rd, 1915, DuPont filed a patent for a “Method of Forming Artificial Leather and the Product Thereof”. It was for an invention that, as the patent application states, “relates to a process of producing coated fabrics whereby an artificial leather of great efficiency and high quality is produced…”.
The key materials included cloth covered with a pyroxylin jelly comprised of (click here to view the Fabrikoid patent):
- Nitro Cellulose
- Ethyl Acetate
- Castor Oil
On August 17th, 1920, the patent was approved. Fabrikoid was used for all sort of applications ranging from automobile upholstery, convertible car top covers, luggage, binding for some books, to smaller leather goods and other accessories.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
1926 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – Waldo Semon, a researcher at the B.F. Goodrich company produced a material referred to as vinyl. PVC has been initially created by German chemist Eugen Baumann in 1872, though it was not refined down into a usable fabric-like material.
This new PVC began to see use across a broad range of applications. After World War II, when resources were limited and new, inexpensive ways to produce materials was key, PVC saw a surge in use. It steadily grew through the 60’s and 70’s, and even through to today is an incredibly popular type of faux leather used in a wide array of commercial goods.
1963 – Corfam – In 1963 at the Chicago Shoe Show, DuPont introduced a type of “poromeric” leather substitute. It’s goal was, to by 1984, have Corfam comprise about 24% of the United States shoe market. While it was shiny and water repellent, the material was not very breathable and as comfortably flexible as real leather. Also, the low cost and high-performance of PVC leather made it a more appealing product.
By 1971, DuPont had stopped selling Corfam. While their hopes and goals for it were optimistically reasonable, the market did not respond. The c&en archives provided a detailed look into the rise and fall of Corfam (click here the visit their site).
How Faux Leather is Made
Faux leather is made through a few simple steps. There might be unique production variations based on the specific type of faux leather that is being made, though in general it is comprised of these processes.
The plastic composition for the faux leather is mixed and prepared. The elements in the thick liquid mixture can vary based on the intended use of the material. For example, additives that protect the material from the sun could be added. Also, flame retardant elements could be mixed in at this point too.
Another major element added at this step is color. Faux leather can be made in virtually any color imaginable. The dyes in the proper amounts are added to mechanical mixing bins, and the color blends in with the plastics and additives, resulting in a thick, liquid blend that is ready for the next step.
In some cases, the color will be added later as an additional layer during extrusion. The plastics typically used are polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also referred to as, vinyl.
Once mixed, the faux leather liquid is extruded onto a flat backing. The extrusion might be via gravity and pouring, or via machines that push the material out evenly onto the backing.
A backing is necessary as the faux material needs a secure place to dry and adhere to to take the final shape. The backing is usually made of a paper or fiber (cotton, polyester, etc.). It can also be made of a fine mesh (fiber, plastic, metal). This mesh provided more gripping areas for the mixture to more easily adhere to the backing. Once the plastic is extruded onto the backing in an even layer, it is set to dry.
The backing selection is often based on the intended use of the finished product. For example, bookbinders might utilize bonded leather with a paper or fabric backing. Upholstery workers might use faux leather on a polyester backing. This provides the material a flexible base on which to form around the furniture curves.
Heat can be used to aid the drying process. This controlled method can be both even, and fast. Additional layers can be extruded onto the first, if a thicker-layered material is preferred. It is then heated again and let to cool.
Once colored, the faux leather can have a surface texture applied. This can be utilized to make it look like the natural grain of a natural leather. It can also be used to imprint a preferred design that is visually appealing.
While stamping natural leather is sometimes used to cover surface imperfections, stamping faux leather is purely cosmetic for finishing reasons. The faux leather surface is generally even due to the extrusion processes.
Various textures might be preferred in a final product, depending on what type of goods it will be used for. Since this is a synthetic material, faux leather offers an opportunity to easily introduce stylish and functional textures. This can include embossing as well.
Additionally, surface colorings might be printed onto the faux leather. These could be to give it an “antique” or vintage look. It could include a logo or design, or be any stylistic, visual touch that is desired. Often, the leather surface will have a finish applied that will protect the printing, texture, and color.
Once stamped/embossed, faux leather can be finished. This is usually done with a synthetic surface protectant. It can provide a shiny appearance to the leather. The surface finish can also provide a layer that protects the material underneath. Generally, these finishes are a transparent polymer that resists water and scratches/abrasions. Finishes can also include scents that help make the faux leather smell just like more natural leather.
Since the underlying material and surface protectants are man-made, they can add many various performance characteristics to the faux leather. Also, as the finishes and material are plastics, they are usually very water resistant/waterproof.
This video demonstrates a helpful walkthrough of the process.
What is Faux Leather Used For?
Faux leather is used in an incredibly broad amount of consumer goods. These can include:
|Clothes||Jackets, pants, belts, tops, shirts, shorts, hats, coats, costumes|
|Upholstery||Furniture, cars, trains, buses, amusement park rides, convertible tops, boats, office chairs, motorcycle seats, bicycle seats|
|Shoes||Shoes, boots, sandals, slippers, athletic footwear, childrens’ footwear, specialized footwear|
|Cases||Briefcases, duffle bags, portfolio cases, travel bags, electronics protective cases, CD/DVD cases|
|Covers||Bookbinding, notebook covers, car covers, boat covers, storage dust covers|
|Others||Literally a near-endless list of goods – if somethings can be made with fabric, faux leather has likely been used|
For more detail on its use in the clothing industry, click here for my article about leather jeans.
Faux Leather Pros & Cons
Faux leather offers a balance of positive and less desirable qualities, when compared to leather. for example, it is not nearly as strong. However, it is much less expensive to make. It can also be used more successfully than leather in applications that involve high volume use, and exposure to water.
For example, major transportation manufacturers will often use it as upholstery in seats for trains, busses, and transport vehicles. It can protect the seat material underneath, is easy to clean, most are waterproof, and they are relatively inexpensive to replace.
Another use for faux leather is in marine applications. Upholstery on boats and watercraft benefit greatly from this material that is waterproof. Since water doesn’t penetrate the plastic material, it also It also dries fast too.
Let’s look at a list of pros and cons:
|Inexpensive||Wears out quickly (just a few years)|
|Waterproof||Not very breathable|
|Can be virtually any color||Has a plastic-y feel|
|Many texture options||Not very recyclable|
|Can be made in large, long, rolls||Environmentally unfriendly production process|
|Easy to shape, cut, and sew||Doesn’t have the strength of real leather|
|Can be used around water.||Dyes might transfer once finish wears off|
Leather Working with Faux Leather
Generally, leather working is not performed on faux leather. It certainly can be done, though the characteristics of fine leather goods usually yield best to being made from natural leather.
Faux leather is very popular in the upholstery industry, as well as the fashion industry. When using the material, since it is not really leather, it would more accurately be referred to as vinyl work. Or, just the general production category of upholstery, or clothing manufacturing, with the invitation leather as a material used.
How Can You Tell Between Real Leather and Faux Leather?
Some faux leathers look incredibly realistic. Even when touching them, it can be hard to tell that they are faux leather. So while it might not always be obvious, here are a few things to look at that might help.
Since real leather is natural, it often has a somewhat varied grain pattern on the surface. Imitation leathers are produced by machines, so they could look extremely smooth and even. Also, if stamped with a grain pattern, faux leather grain pattern will usually look consistent and repetitive.
Sometimes, faux leather will have a plastic or chemical smell. This is due to the plastics and chemicals that are used to make them.
Faux leather might feel a bit rubbery, plastic-y, or synthetic. Real leather has a more “natural”, fiber feel to it. Imitation leather sometimes is very smooth and slick.
If possible to cut into a piece of leather, seeing the composition of the inside can help. If it’s made from multiple layers, it might be a type of faux leather.
Edges When Cut
Check out the edges of a cut piece of leather. Natural leather tends to leave a “hairy” edge with some of the natural fibers sticking out. Faux leather generally will have a smooth, even, clean edge. This is because the synthetic leather material cuts very cleanly and evenly.
Where to Buy Faux leather
If you are planning to buy faux leather, there are a few places you can look that can be helpful.
Many resellers and large commerce sites sell faux leather. It can often be purchased in smaller amounts, or even in bulk or by the roll. Colors, styles, textures, thicknesses, and prices will vary greatly. So with some looking around online, searching for faux leather or vinyl, a lot of options should come up.
Craft and Fabric Stores
These are great locations to physically see and hold the material. For some projects, it’s important to know beforehand how the material really feels. Crafts stores usually have a few types that can be purchased in smaller rolls. Fabric stores usually have larger amounts, or can order in bulk for you.
If you’re looking for large volumes of faux leather for a project or large-scale production, wholesalers are usually a good place. They can be based in your country, or located overseas. Depending on your location and volume needed, this is often the way to get the best price per unit of the material. Searches online for faux leather wholesalers, vinyl leather wholesale, or faux leather in bulk should help.
Faux Leather Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and stored safely, faux leather can look nice and perform well for a few years.
How to Clean Faux Leather
Due to it’s finished surface, faux leather can be cleaned gently with a wet cloth. Ensure the cloth doesn’t have loose fibers and lint that could transfer to the surface. A microfiber cloth could work well. Also, test in a small area first to make sure the cloth will not transfer any color to the items surface (couch, sofa, bag, purse, etc.).
If the item needs additional cleaning, a very soft brush can be used to help loosen dirt and grime. Wet it slightly and work it over the leather, being careful not to press to hard. The bristles of the brush should be doing most of the work. After this step, going over it with a damp cloth can help clean off any remaining dirt/dust. Let the item dry off before using or storing.
If what you are trying to clean goes beyond dust/grime, and is a stain from something, additional care might be needed. First, consider what type of stain it is. Knowing the substance can help determine what the best method to clean it is. If it is something common, and gentle cleaner might work.
If it’s something more significant, look into cleaners made specifically for faux leather. They will be made to treat the stain while helping to maintain the surface finish. As with most cleaners, always test in a small, non-noticeable spot first to ensure it will not discolor the bag. Definitely don’t want to make a second stain while trying to clean the first 🙂
How to Condition Faux Leather
Since faux leather has a protective surface finish, it doesn’t need to be conditioned. And functionally, it really can’t. The surface finish protects the material underneath which is usually plastic. It also serves as a barrier that conditioner can not penetrate.
Thankfully though, the protective surface makes it’s very easy to clean with a damp cloth. This is an easy way to always keep faux leather products looking great. If the surface layer begins to wear away, additional protectant can be applied to help restore it.
Some of these products will be applied with a cloth or applicator, and others sprayed on and wiped off. Make sure to read the instructions on any finish you plan to apply, and test on a small area first (to make sure it will not discolor the surface) before applying to the entire item.
How to Fix a Scratch on Faux Leather
Fixing a scratch on a faux leather piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repair kit. Since faux leather is a plastic mix, it will require replacement of the material that was scratched away.
Typically, leather repair kits have color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled.
How to Fix Tears in Faux Leather
Tears in faux leather are harder to fix than scratches. Since faux leather is a plastic blend, fixing tears might require a repair kit that includes a filler. The space created by the tear might need to be filled.
Depending on the size of the tear, this can be done with fabric, flexible glue, or the color-matched liquid that comes in the repair kit. Since the item will likely be sat or or used and need to flex, the material used as a filler will need to be flexible once dry too. Sewing the tear is an option too, depending on the size.
Once the tear is filled, just fix the remaining scratch that is visible above it. Pour the color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled.
How to Store Faux Leather
Faux leather should be stored in a cool, dry place. Keeping it out of direct sunlight is key, as the sun can discolor the protective finish. For example, most furniture is kept indoors, and thus a great place for them.
If you have faux leather clothing or accessories, storing them in a closet or drawer works great. Keeping them away from extreme heat, and sunlight, are key.
Some specialized faux leathers, such as those used in automobile upholstery, are finished with protectants that reduce damage from the sun. This allows them to be exposed to UV rays without becoming damaged as quickly as those not treated with special finishes. Be aware of what types of finishes the leather you’re using might have, for optimal maintenance and use.
Some applications benefit greatly from the use of faux leather. Depending on what you’re working on, it might be a material worth considering closely.
Is faux leather better than real leather?
For some things, yes. Real leather is generally superior in strength, durability, look, feel, and function. However, faux leather is low cost and water proof. For uses where it will be exposed to moisture, faux leather is usually the better option.
How long can faux leather last?
Faux leather generally lasts 2-5 years. Actual use can vary greatly based on the item, conditions, and frequency of use. However, it will generally begin to deteriorate, wear, dry out, or discolor after just a few years of consistent use.