For some places where leather would be used, a synthetic material that is water resistant and abrasion resistant might work better. Leatherette can be a great option.
Leatherette is a synthetic leather, often made from plastic. It is usually manufactured in such a way that it looks and smells like real leather. Leatherette is available in a wide variety of colors, textures, and finishes. It’s used to make everything including shoes, clothes, and upholstery.
Especially common in automobile upholstery and furniture, let’s explore what makes this material so useful.
What is Leatherette?
Leatherette is a synthetic material that is made to look like real leather. Real leather is rather costly to produce, manufacture with, and care for. Leatherettes are made mostly from plastics. This allows them to be far less expensive, easy to manufacture, and easy to care for. Leatherette, is essentially, a plastic fabric.
Since it is a man-made material, leatherette 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).
Leatherette 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.
How Leatherette is Made
Leatherette is made through a few simple steps. There might be unique production variations based on the specific type of leatherette that is being made, though in general it is comprised of these processes.
The plastic composition for the leatherette 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. This material 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 leatherette 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 leatherette 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 leatherette 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 leatherette 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 leatherette is purely cosmetic for finishing reasons. The leatherette 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, leatherette offers an opportunity to easily introduce stylish and functional textures. This can include embossing as well.
Additionally, surface colorings might be printed onto the material. 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, leatherette 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 leatherette 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 leatherette. Also, as the finishes and material are plastics, they are usually very water resistant/waterproof.
This video demonstrates a helpful walkthrough of the process.
Leatherette Leather Pros & Cons
Leatherette 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. Automobile manufacturers use it very often in car seats.
Another use for leatherette 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 dries fast too.
Let’s look at a list of pros and cons:
|Less common, sustainable materials might have higher cost at first
|Wears out quickly (just a few years)
|Can be made in large, long, rolls
|PU & PVC-based not very recyclable
|Easy to shape, cut, and sew
|Not very breathable
|Many texture options
|Can have a plastic-y feel
|Can be made from many substances
|PU & PVC-based have environmentally unfriendly production process
|Some can be used around water
|Dyes might transfer once finish wears off
|Can be virtually any color
|Doesn’t have the strength of real leather
How Can You Tell Between Real Leather and Leatherette?
Some leatherettes look incredibly realistic. Even when touching them, it can be hard to tell that they are not real 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, leatherette grain pattern will usually look consistent and repetitive.
Sometimes, leatherette will have a plastic or chemical smell. This is due to the plastics and chemicals that are used to make them.
Leatherette 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 leatherette.
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. Leatherette generally will have a smooth, even, clean edge. This is because the synthetic leather material cuts very cleanly and evenly.
Common Leatherette Questions
What is leatherette made out of?
Leatherette is made out of plastic. The plastics typically used are polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also referred to as, vinyl.
What is The Difference Between Leatherette and Leather?
Leatherette is a synthetic, plastic-based material made to look, feel, and sometimes smell like natural leather. It is not as breathable or durable as natural leather, though it is often cheaper and much more water resistant. Leatherette usually wears out after only a few years.
Leather is a natural material, made from animal hide. It can be breathable, durable, and very soft to touch. Leather also usually gets better with age and use. It can often easily last decades with proper care and maintenance. However, leather is generally more expensive than leatherette, since leather is a natural material with often superior qualities to it.
What is the Difference Between Leatherette and Vinyl?
Leatherette and vinyl are essentially the same thing. Leatherette and vinyl are terms used to describe synthetic leather made from plastic. PVC, the full name polyvinyl chloride, is just a shortened term for vinyl. Leatherette can be made from PVC (vinyl), or PU (polyurethane) plastics. For more info on the PU type of leather, click here for an article I wrote.
Often, leatherette is associated with automobile upholstery. Used as a term to differentiate different types of leather used in cars, it’s gained popularity when referring to the upholstery used to cover seats and interiors. Vinyl might sound less classy and expensive, so manufacturers refer to it as leatherette.
Is Leatherette Any Good?
Yes, leatherette can be good depending on how it’s used. For example, a vegan leather handbag might only last 2-3 years before looking cracked, worn, and generally unusable. Whereas, a natural leather handbag might last 10-20 years before looking very worn. In that case, leatherette is not very good.
We can also consider a different application, such as boat and marine upholstery where the material gets wet all the time. In this case, untreated natural leather will quickly become soiled, wet, and could degrade quickly. Leatherette will maintain it’s surface, be waterproof, and stand up to years of daily use. In this case, leatherette is very good.
So in general, it will depend on circumstance and particular use. Also, this material is generally much lower in cost than natural leather. So, depending on the need, the lower cost might make it a good choice for that specific use.
Are leatherette seats any good?
Yes, leatherette seats can be good. Leatherette is a plastic material made to look like leather. They usually have surface finishes applied that help make them water and abrasion resistant. For seats in cars, this is an asset as it help repel spills and rain that might get onto the seats. Usually, this material is far less expensive than leather, which allows one to have the look and some of feel of leather at a much lower cost.
However, leatherette seats are not very breathable. Sweating can be more common, and on hot days the seats will retain the heat, at times being too uncomfortable to sit on. They can also feel sticky to, when touched, due to the plastic surface finishes.
Some leatherette is getting very advanced where it comes very close to the feel of real leather. However, this material can wear faster than real leather. Ultimately, if they are good will depend on your need for the material and your long-term preferences.
How long does Leatherette last?
Leatherette 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.
Does Leatherette Peel?
Leatherette generally does not peel, unless it has an added surface finish that might dry out and wear away over time. Generally, bonded leathers peel. This is because bonded leathers have a real leather base with a layer of plastic over it. As the leather base shifts, moves, and stretches from use, the leather flexes and the plastic surface does not. It will begin to peel and crack.
Since leatherette is usually plastic throughout the material, it does not have a leather base that will stretch. So, the material will usually not peel.
Do Leatherette Seats Crack?
Leatherette usually doesn’t crack, unless it has a surface finish (protective or decorative) that dries out and wears away over time. Generally, bonded leathers used in upholstery like couches, will crack.
This is usually because bonded leathers have a real leather base, with a layer of plastic over the surface. As the leather base shifts, moves, and stretches during use, the leather flexes but the plastic surface does not. Since it can’t flex like the underlying leather, the plastic surface cracks.
Since leatherette is usually plastic throughout the material, it does not have a leather base that will stretch. So, the material will usually not crack.
Leatherette Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and stored safely, leatherette can look nice and perform well for a few years.
How to Clean Leatherette
Due to it’s finished surface, leatherette 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 leatherette. 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 Leatherette
Since leatherette 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 cannot 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 leatherette 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 Leatherette
Fixing a scratch on a leatherette piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repair kit. Since the material 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 Leatherette
Tears in leatherette are harder to fix than scratches. Since the material 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 Leatherette
Leatherette 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 clothing or accessories made from this material, storing them in a closet or drawer works great. Keeping them away from extreme heat, and sunlight, are key.
Some specialized leatherettes, 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.
When you’re looking for a material that performs well and is low maintenance, leatherette is an option worth considering.
While leatherette is often used in automobile upholstery, there was also a popular natural leather type that never really existed 🙂 Click here to read an article I wrote about Corinthian leather, “used” in cars for years.
Is leatherette expensive?
Leatherette is generally inexpensive when compared to natural leather options. For example, a 20 sq. ft. high-quality vegetable tanned cowhide might cost around $150, while the same quantity of leatherette leather would cost around $12.
Does leatherette get hot?
Yes, leatherette gets hot. It is not a breathable material. Also, if used in automobile upholstery and car seats, it can become very hot to the touch when sitting under the sun in a parked car. At times, it might be too hot to touch or even sit on.
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