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PU Leather – A Plastic Material Sometimes Better Than Leather

I recently needed a leather substitute I could use for practicing techniques. This led me to various PU leathers that I could purchase for a fraction of the price. Working with this material made me want to learn more about it and how to utilize it better. 

PU leather is a synthetic material that uses plastic polymer and is made as an animal leather alternative. PU leather can achieve a color, texture, durability, flame resistance, UV protection, and even smell similar to animal leather through various steps. PU leather may cost $1–$3 per square foot.

PU leather may be a good choice for some crafters, but animal leather differs. Let’s take a closer look.

What Is PU Leather?

PU leather is a synthetic leather that is created using polyurethane. The material attempts to recreate the qualities of leather in a more sustainable and economically friendly way. 

To do so, the material is entirely artificial, using chemical mixins to provide color, smell, flame retardant, and UV protection. This mixture is typically bonded to a fabric or paper-like backing. The resulting material is a sheet of durable plastic made to look, smell, and behave like leather. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of PU Leather
  • PU Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
  • In-Depth Characteristics of PU Leather
  • Pros of PU Leather
  • Cons of PU Leather
  • How PU Leather is Made
  • Production Stats for PU Leather
  • Cost of PU Leather
  • When You Might Leathercraft With PU Leather
  • Tips for Leathercrafting With PU Leather
  • Examples of Goods Made from PU Leather
  • My Personal Research on PU Leather
  • PU Leather Care & Maintenance
  • Helpful Insights on PU Leather
  • Key Takeaways
PU Leather Handbag - PU Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
PU Leather Handbag

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

Almost everyone has seen or owned PU leather before, and it has likely fallen apart over time. This often gives the material a poor reputation, making it seem substandard. However, the fabric industry has continued improving PU leather and created a worthy material. While PU leather falls short compared to animal leather, it has respectable qualities on its own. 

The leather is low cost, durable, water resistant, and mimics the look of animal hides extremely well. While some PU leather still relies on paperlike backing, the use of fabric has helped improve common fail points of PU leather. Good PU leather will not crack easily nor peel when an area is damaged. The stronger bond increases PU leather’s longevity, making the material a standard in many industries, including automotive and fashion.

History of PU Leather

PU leather was created in the 1950s. Before this, faux leather was made using paper pulp, which would fail quickly and disintegrate over time. The solution to this problem was to use polyurethane attached to a fabric backing that could be embossed with the leather texture. While this proved more durable, the leather still had trouble with longevity due to the material becoming brittle.

Although a permanent solution is yet to be found, manufacturers are incorporating UV protection in their products, allowing PU leather to better withstand exposure to the sun during daily use. Innovations such as this have brought PU closer to the longevity for which animal leather is praised. 

PU Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticSynthetic
Surface TextureVaried
Available Thickness (oz/mm)1–5 ounces (.4mm–2mm)
Largest Workable SizeAny 
Flexibility (1–10)5
Softness (1–10)6
Sewability (1–10)7
Durability (1–10)5
Ease of Maintenance (1–10)9
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)3–5 years
Available ColorsAny
Waterproofness (1–10)8
Cost per Square Foot ($)$1–$3 per square foot
Ease of Crafting (1–10)7
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Common
Annual Production VolumeAround 40 billion square feet
Biggest Exporting CountryChina
Biggest Importing CountryVietnam
PU Leather Characteristics

In-depth Characteristics of PU Leather

Natural or Synthetic

PU leather is a completely synthetic material despite having “leather” in its name. The material is made out of polyurethane that is bonded to a fabric backing through the use of heat. Although the surface of PU leather resembles animal hides, it is merely a stamp that has been added to make the PU leather better copy animal leather. 

Surface Texture

A benefit of using artificial materials when making PU leather is the ability to use a variety of surface textures. When the leather has been bonded to the backing, it can be stamped with different textures. Most commonly, PU leathers will mimic the look of various animals, including exotic hides. However, the material can also be stamped with raised patterns that are often used for fashion goods.

Available Thickness

The standard thicknesses for PU leather are 1-5 ounces (.4mm-2mm). While the material could be made thicker, it is difficult to find without placing a specialty order. The current thickness range of PU leather covers is perfect for almost any project, including double-layered belts. 

Largest Workable Size 

Unlike animal leathers, PU leather is not limited in size by a hide. Instead, the material is made in large rolls, often around 54 inches wide, with almost no limit to its length. This is a huge benefit of PU leather as it allows for large projects at a much lower cost. 

Flexibility

PU leather is somewhat flexible but can have problems caused by bending the material. While it is not rigid, deep bends can easily crease or crack the leather, potentially causing damage to the surface of the material.

The top layer of PU leather is bonded to the backing material; therefore, constant bending of the leather may cause the two layers to separate. It is best not to fold PU leather or create high-stress areas due to bending. 

Softness

While PU leather has an artificial feel to the surface, some hides may feel slightly soft. While it does not offer the same plush feeling as animal hide, the fabric backing used with PU leather can make it feel softer. Upholstery is one area that this is most commonly seen. Using a nice fabric backing, the leather can create a fluffy feel despite having a harder protective coating. 

Sewability

Sewing PU leather will feel similar to any other leather. The surface can be marked and punched with little issue. However, depending on the quality of the leather, the area surrounding the punched holes in PU leather may weaken.

This may cause the leather to peel if the bond surrounding the area becomes loose. To avoid this, it is best to sew the material with a machine when possible or always use a sharp piercing tool to prevent any potential damage. 

Durability

Since PU leather uses a heavy polyurethane coating, it is fairly durable. The material is often scratch, wear, and water resistant. Compared to animal leather, PU leather can be considered more durable than some, but it has a large flaw holding it back.

Over time, PU leather will become more brittle, causing its durability to decline. At some point, the material is most likely to crack or peel, completely ruining the surface of the leather. While PU leather starts strong, the material becomes weaker as it is used.

PU Leather Couch - PU Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
PU Leather Couch

Ease of Maintenance

The maintenance process for PU leather is different from that of other leathers but is considerably easier. PU leather can be cleaned using a slightly dampened cloth without damaging the material. This makes it much simpler when removing stuck-on dust or debris. With the leather’s highly durable protective finish, PU leather will also require less overall maintenance than animal leather. 

Lifespan With Daily Use

The single most significant drawback of PU leather is the limited lifespan of the material. PU leather is expected to last 3–5 years due to the material becoming more brittle over time as it is exposed to sunlight and heat. As the material becomes more brittle, it is much more likely to begin to crack or peel, ruining the material. 

Available Colors

PU leather can be purchased in any color as it accepts dyes well. This means the leather can be fully saturated, offering typically complex colors such as pastels or neons. While PU leather will typically try to mimic animal leather, suppliers often provide a much larger variety, allowing crafters to add flair to their projects with various colors and patterns.

Waterproofness

Since PU leather is a plastic material, it repels water extremely well but is not waterproof. When liquid hits the leather’s surface, it often rolls off, and any remaining drops can be wiped away.

However, if liquid is left to soak into the surface, it may cause damage. Discoloration is the most common type of damage, but it could also weaken the bond between the surface and backing or cause the leather to become more brittle when dried.

Cost

One area that makes PU leather highly competitive is the low cost. Starting at only $1 per square foot, the leather is a fraction of most other animal hides. Some PU leathers will be slightly higher, up to $3, offering more unique textures or a higher quality finish. Since PU leather is sold by the yard, discounts are often available when purchasing a large amount of the material, further driving down the already low price of the leather. 

Ease of Crafting

Crafting with PU leather is simple for the most part. Those who have worked with animal leather in the past will feel comfortable with this material. It marks, cuts, and sews with little to no issues. PU leather only stretches a little, making the work easier. One area in which it falls short is how it handles dull tools. The surface will be tugged at, potentially causing separation between the layers. 

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

PU leather is very common and can easily be found in many lower-priced leather goods. The material was created to be a lower-cost alternative to animal hide and fits that role well. While other faux leathers have begun to enter the market, PU remains the most popular at this time. Since PU leather is manufactured, there are no limitations on producing the material as it does not require animal hides.

Pros of PU Leather

PU leather was introduced as a leather alternative and has performed well. It has also surpassed real animal leather in meaningful ways, eliminating the need for animals and reducing the environmental impact. Some benefits of PU leather include:

  1. Eliminates the use of animal hides
  2. Costs much less than animal leather
  3. Can be produced in larger sizes
  4. Offers better consistency with no flaws

Saiqi Tian from Wenzhou University in Wenzhou, China, discussed the advances of polyurethane throughout the years for creating better PU leather while working towards a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process. This showed improvements in areas including: 

  1. Anti-fouling
  2. Self-healing
  3. Antibacterial
  4. Luminescent
  5. Shape memory 

Cons of PU Leather

Despite attempting to recreate animal leather using other materials, PU leather does not quite capture the same high-quality product. While the material can be purchased at a lower price, there are some trade-offs to consider when purchasing PU dinner. Some cons of PU leather can include:

  1. It becomes more brittle over time
  2. It has a significantly shorter lifespan than animal leather
  3. Does not breathe well 
  4. It has an artificial feeling to the material 

How PU Leather is Made

The main part of PU leather is the coating that will later be added to the backing fabric. This starts by adding a plasticizer to a large vat. The plasticizer helps improve the flexibility of the final product and makes it softer. UV protection and a flame retardant solution are also added to the mixture at this time. 

While this is mixing, polyurethane is poured in. This is the main ingredient for making PU leather, providing the top surface stability, durability, and body. At this time, dye is poured into the mixture, giving the leather any color desired. 

Once the mixture has finished, it can be bonded to a backing material using a heat press. The most common backings are a paperlike material or fabric. Once poured on top, a heat press bonds the two materials together and can also be used to add texture to the material. Helping PU leather look more similar to various animal hides. 

Check out this helpful video from How It’s Made to see the manufacturing process of synthetic leather.  

Production Statistics of PU Leather

  1. Volume per year – Around 40 billion square feet
  1. Key countries where it is produced – China and Taiwan
  1. Biggest exporting country – China
  1. Biggest importing country – Vietnam

Cost of PU Leather

  1. Square Foot – $1–$3 per square foot
  1. ½ Hide – $10–$30
  1. Full Hide – $20–$50 

When You Might Leathercraft With PU Leather

While animal leather is typically the preferred material for crafters, there are times when PU leather may be the best choice. This is often due to budget restrictions or the need for animal-free material. Reasons to craft with PU leather can include:

  1. When looking for a lower-cost leather to practice on  
  2. When creating projects that are vegan-friendly
  3. When needing durable leather that is wear-resistant

Through various steps, PU leather can achieve a color, texture, durability, flame resistance, UV protection, and even smell similar to animal leather.

Tips for Leathercrafting With PU Leather

Working with PU leather is very similar to working with animal leather. PU leather will mark, punch, and stitch in many of the same ways. To get the most out of this leather, a few tips to keep in mind while crafting include:

  1. Keep every tool sharp to prevent the surface from becoming damaged. 
  2. Work on the backside of the material to help avoid a bumpy texture that can misalign tools.
  3. Test supplies on scraps of PU leather before using them to prevent unwanted reactions. 

Some Examples of Items Made From PU Leather

With PU leather being a leather substitute, it is often used on the same goods as animal leather. The material behaves similarly while providing a lower cost to the customer. 

  1. Wallets
  2. Bags
  3. Garments
  4. Belts

My Personal Research on PU Leather

Although there are plenty of PU leather items on the market, there is limited information on different techniques that some may want to use. This includes dyeing, gluing, and removing smells from the leather. Therefore, I decided to research the best ways to handle these common restorative practices on PU leather. 

Dyeing

A common problem that comes up with PU leather is wanting to change or restore the color of the leather. Many will turn to fabric or leather dyes, finding that the item becomes a smudgy mess, unevenly accepting the dye and having a lot of color bleed from the surface.

This is due to the way PU leather is made, having a highly protective coating that prevents liquids from penetrating the surface. As a result, dyes will not work. Leather paint is recommended to recolor PU leather instead, which doesn’t need to penetrate the surface to provide color.

Rather, leather paint sits on top of the material. Angelus provides high-quality paint that is specifically meant for use on leather. It coats well, remains flexible, is durable, and will not bleed color. Painting PU leather is the best way to add color to the leather, but it should be finished with a sealing product to help ensure the longevity of the painted surface. 

Gluing

Many PU leather items rely on adhesives for their construction. This can often lead to the material peeling up over time, requiring repair. The problem most people encounter is finding a glue that offers a permanent rather than temporary solution. 

The best glue for repairing PU leather is rubber cement. Rubber cement can be applied to most surfaces, including PU leather, and create a chemical bond between two rubber pieces. The glue is strong, water-resistant, and flexible when dried. 

There are many rubber cement brands, each with a unique application process. Instructions should be followed, and ample setting time should be allowed for the best results. Rubber cement may produce harmful odors, making proper ventilation necessary. Follow the safety guidelines provided with the product to remain protected. 

Removing Smells

Unlike other leather types, PU leather is not a breathable material, yet garments and upholstered items are still made from it. This can cause the leather to trap heat and odors. The problem with using deodorizing products is their potential to damage the leather by staining the surface or removing the protective layer. 

The best way to handle smells with PU leather is to use baking soda. The baking soda can be sprinkled inside or on top of PU leather products and left to sit. The item should be placed in a bag with the leather to absorb into the material and can be left overnight for the best results. Repeat the process as often as necessary. 

Conclusion

The best way to increase the longevity of any PU leather item is to maintain it. Finding the best method for various issues may be difficult due to the available information. By looking at common issues and gaining a better understanding of the material, PU leather can continue to look good for the years it is used. 

PU Leather Care and Maintenance

How To Clean PU Leather

Since PU leather is made using artificial materials, it is much easier to clean than animal leather. Most dust and debris can be brushed off with no lasting damage. If the leather requires a more thorough cleaning, a cloth can be slightly dampened with water to scrub the surface lightly.

In addition, a small amount of soap can be mixed with water to clean the PU leather best. Any cleaned area should be wiped dry to prevent damage from occurring. 

How To Condition PU Leather

PU leather does not require conditioning to maintain. Once the leather is cleaned, it should be ready for use. Unlike animal leather, which dries out over time, PU leather does not have the same restorative properties. One suggested product for PU leather is a UV protector that should be applied periodically. This may help avoid brittleness by protecting the leather from the sun when in use. 

How To Store PU Leather

Storing PU leather is similar to animal hides. The material needs to avoid heat, moisture, and sunlight. As all may cause various problems with the leather. Color fading, mold, and brittleness are all common problems due to improper storage.

A great option for storing PU leather products is to place the item in a dust bag. Not only does this reduce the exposure to sunlight, it helps limit the dust buildup that may occur during storage. 

Helpful Insights on PU Leather

Is PU leather good quality?

The quality of PU leather is entirely dependent on the manufacturer. Good PU leather is often highly durable and a great material choice for many. While it may fall short compared to real animal leather, PU leather remains stronger than many other common materials. 

Is PU leather a real leather?

No, PU leather is a leather alternative. Despite the name, PU leather is not leather at all. The entire material uses manufactured materials, with no animal hides involved. PU leather “leather” is a marketing term suggesting the material is comparable to the beloved animal product. 

Is PU leather fake?

Yes, PU leather is a leather alternative and can be considered fake. By definition, leather is processed animal skin. PU leather does not use animal skin in its manufacturing process and is, therefore, leather by name alone. 

Which is better: PU leather or faux leather?

Faux leather is a term used for all synthetic leathers, while PU leather is a special type of leather substitute. PU leather utilizes polyurethane to recreate the qualities of animal leather, while faux leather may use other bases, including vinyl, fruits, plants, and more. The heavy use of plastic often turns many away from PU leather, but all synthetic leathers are similar, and there is no best product. 

What is the disadvantage of PU leather?

Longevity is the biggest disadvantage of PU leather. Animal hides can easily last decades, while PU leather is expected to last three to five years. PU leather will become brittle over time, causing the material to fail. Another disadvantage of PU leather is the lack of breathability. The artificial surface offers no way for air to pass through, making it stuffy.

Does PU leather crack easily?

Yes, one of the main issues with PU leather is it is prone to cracking with normal wear. Exposure to sunlight or a dry environment from daily use will slowly make the material more brittle over time. Eventually, this will cause the PU leather to crack at the slightest flex and ruin the material. 

What happens if PU leather gets wet?

Often, exposure to water will not damage PU leather as its coating will prevent the water from soaking in. However, the leather may become brittle if the water is allowed to saturate the material. It often hardens when dried, leading to cracking and peeling of the surface coat.

Key Takeaways

  1. PU leather is highly durable and water-resistant.
  2. Exposure to sunlight will cause PU leather to become brittle over time.
  3. PU leather has an expected lifespan of only three to five years.

In Closing

As leather crafters, using a synthetic material is often not our first choice. However, being flexible with the type of leather we use may provide some benefits. PU leather offers a great practice and planning material at a low cost. While also helping expand our customer base to those who avoid animal products. 

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