When choosing material for a leather project, there are cases where synthetic leather (faux leather), can actually perform better that natural leather.
Synthetic leather is a material that is designed to look like natural leather, and is often made from plastic. It is available in a wide variety of textures, colors, finishes, and sometimes, smells. Synthetic leather is most commonly used in clothing, shoes, luggage, cases, and upholstery.
So what makes synthetic leather different than natural leather? When would you find it a useful material to use? Let’s explore.
What is Synthetic Leather?
Synthetic leather is a material that is made to look like real leather. Real leather is rather costly to produce, manufacture with, and comes from animals. Synthetic leathers are mostly derived from plastics and polymers. This allows them to be far less expensive, easier to manufacture, and easier to care for than natural leather. Synthetic leather is essentially, a type of plastic fabric.
Since it is a man-made material, synthetic leather can be produced to meet a variety of needs across types of industries. Also, the materials can be made in very large sizes, even rolls. This is unlike most natural leathers that are limited by the size of the hide. Synthetic leathers can be produced on a fiber-based fabric, or on a flexible plastic backing (such as polyester).
Synthetic leather also has some qualities of real leather, though few. In general, it will last only a few years, and begin to weaken and crack when used in goods that are exposed to a frequent flexing and bending (an example such as shoes). However, it’s benefits make it quite a popular material choice and a staple in todays marketplace.
The History of Synthetic Leather
This material is a development from more recent centuries, generally driven by the availability of petroleum-based plastics and plastic products. These help make the production of plastics and synthetic leathers easy and cost-effective.
Let’s review some of the key innovations along the way that have led to the synthetic leathers we’re most familiar with. Here’s a quick reference chart, followed by more detail on each:
|Late 1800’s||Presstoff||A synthetic leather material made from tree pulp, developed in Germany|
|1914||Naugahyde||Developed in 1914, used for upholstery and commercial applications|
|1915||Fabrikoid||Developed by DuPont in 1915, it is a cloth-base material covered with a pyroxylin jelly|
|1926||Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)||Synthetic material developed by Waldo Semon, became very popular after World War II|
|1963||Corfam||A shiny, smooth “poromeric” leather developed by DuPont in the 1960s|
Presstoff is a material made from tree pulp and intended to look like natural leather. It was developed in Germany, with its most popular uses seen during World War II. This synthetic leather helped mitigate natural leather shortages. Overall, it performed well, only deteriorating under frequent flexing or exposure to dampness and moisture.
This synthetic leather fabric material was developed in 1914 by the U.S. Rubber Plant. The plant itself was located in a town named Naugatuck in the state of Connecticut. Thus, when naming it, the “Nauga” part of the town’s name made its way into the material name, “Nauga”hyde.
Naugahyde was mainly used for upholstery, larger commercial applications, and the popular marketing animal named “Nauga”; it was a comedic campaign that suggested the synthetic material came from the hides of this cartoon animal, as a way to make it related to more natural leathers, which come from the hides of animals.
Fabrikoid is a synthetic leather produced by the DuPont company in 1915. It is made up primarily of:
- Ethyl Acetate
- Castor Oil
- Nitro Cellulose
It is a cloth base material covered with a pyroxylin jelly. For more details, click here to view the Fabrikoid patent, which was approved in 1920. Fabrikoid was used extensively, for personal accessories and goods, luggage, book binding, and car upholstery.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a well-known plastic commonly used today for pipes. In 1872, PVC had initially been developed by Eugen Baumann, who was a German chemist. Later, a B.F. Goodrich researcher would utilize PVC and with some additional changes developed a material called vinyl. His name is Waldo Semon.
Vinyl became very popular, used for many commercial products including clothing, upholstery, accessories, shoes, luggage, and bags. It’s saw initial growth after World War II, a surge in popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and even into the 21st century is a relatively popular and widely-available material.
Corfam was an early, popular type of synthetic leather that would lose it’s hold on the market relatively quickly. It was introduced by DuPont at the 1963 Chicago Shoe Show. It very much resembled the Patent Leather of today; if you’re interested in my article about the benefits of patent leather, click here. Corfam resisted water and easily kept its shine.
However, by 1971, Corfam stopped being sold. It wasn’t the big hit that was anticipated, though was surely a part of the history of synthetic leather development. For more details about Corfam, click here to visit the c&en archives, they share a great look into the material.
Is Synthetic Leather Good?
Yes, synthetic can be good depending on how it is used, and what is made from it. For example, an everyday-use handbag might only last 2-3 years before looking cracked, worn, and generally unusable. Whereas, a natural leather handbag might last 10-20 years, with only basic care and maintenance, before looking very worn. In that case, leatherette is not a very good option for good that will be used for long periods of time, or decades.
Alternatively, there are uses where synthetic leather can be an incredible choice. 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. Synthetic leather will maintain it’s surface finish, be waterproof, and stand up to years of daily use. In this case, leatherette is excellent.
So in general, its effectiveness 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 and material properties might make it a great choice.
What is Synthetic Leather Made Of?
Synthetic leather is made out of plastic. The plastics typically used are polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also referred to as, vinyl. Due to those each being a manufactured material, many colors and additives can be mixed in during manufacture. These allow for a range of color options, as well as various protectants such as UV resistance to be added in.
How Synthetic Leather is Made
The synthetic leather manufacturing process is an interesting one made up of a few main steps. There might be production variations that are introduced based on the specific type of synthetic leather being made, though most commonly it involves these steps below.
A plastic composition for the synthetic leather is mixed and prepared. The elements in this thick liquid mixture can vary somewhat based on the intended end-use of the fabric material. For example, additives that protect the material from the sun and ultraviolet rays could be added. Also, flame retardant components could be added to the mixture at this point too.
Color pigment is another major element added at this step. Synthetic leather can be made in virtually any color imaginable, which makes it versatile. In the proper amounts, pigment dyes are added to large mechanical mixing bins, and the color pigment blends in evenly with the plastics and other additives. This results in a thick, liquid blend that is ready for the next step in the synthetic leather manufacturing process.
In some cases, the color will be added later as an additional layer during extrusion process. The plastics typically used in this process are polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also commonly known as and referred to as, vinyl.
After being mixed, the synthetic leather liquid is then extruded onto a flat backing. The extrusion might be done via gravity and pouring, or done via machines that push the material out very evenly onto the backing.
A backing material is necessary as the synthetic material needs a secure place to dry and adhere to, to take on the final flat shape. The backing material is usually composed of a paper or fiber (such as cotton, polyester, etc.). The backing can also be made of a fine mesh (such as fiber, plastic, or metal). This mesh provides more gripping areas for the mixture to evenly adhere to. Once the plastic liquid has been extruded onto the backing in a smooth, even layer, it is set aside to dry.
The backing material selection is often done based on the intended use of the finished product. For example, bookbinders might utilize a bonded leather surface with a paper or fabric backing. Upholstery workers might use synthetic leather on a polyester material backing. This polyester provides the material a flexible base on which to form around, as is seen on furniture and seating curves in the product’s design.
To speed up the drying process, heat can be used. This controlled method can be both even, and fast, making the synthetic leather manufacturing process more efficient. Also, if a thicker material is preferred, additional layers can be extruded onto the first. this can be repeated as needed, and it is then heated again and left to cool.
Once colored with the preferred pigment, the synthetic leather can have a surface texture applied to add even more uniqueness. This process can be utilized to make the material look like the natural grain of a natural leather. It can also be used to imprint a preferred design that is visually appealing or represents a brand.
While stamping a pattern into natural leather is sometimes used to cover surface imperfections, stamping synthetic leather with surface patterns is purely a cosmetic approach for finishing reasons. The synthetic leather surface is generally smooth due to the extrusion processes, so any texture applied is usually by choice.
Various textures might be preferred in a final product, depending on what type of items it will be used in and purposes they will be used for. Since this is a man-made material, synthetic leather offers an opportunity to very easily introduce stylish and functional textures, including embossing.
Also, surface colorings might be printed onto the faux leather. This could be done to give the surface an “antique” or vintage-style look. It could also include a logo or design, or be any stylistic and visual touch that is preferred. Often, the synthetic leather surface will have a finish applied that will protect the printing, texture, and color from day-to-day use and potential abrasions.
Once the material has been stamped/embossed, synthetic leather can be finished. This step is often done using a synthetic surface protectant. It can provide a shiny or glossy appearance to the leather. The surface finish can also provide a protective layer for the material underneath. Generally, these finishes are a transparent polymer that resists water and scratches/abrasions. So they’re not very visible, yet are helpful. Some finishes can also include scents intended to help make the synthetic leather smell just like some natural leathers do.
Since the underlying material (the plastic base) and the surface protectants are man-made, they can add many different performance characteristics to the synthetic leather. Also, as the finishes and material are plastics themselves, they are usually very water resistant/waterproof.
This video demonstrates a helpful walkthrough of the process synthetic leather manufacturing process:
Is Synthetic Leather Real Leather?
No, synthetic leather is not real leather. It is a man-made, plastic-based material made to look, feel, and sometimes even smell like real, natural leather. It is not as breathable, or durable, as natural leather, though it is often cheaper and much more water resistant. Synthetic leather usually wears out after only a few years of use, and can begin to degrade during that time.
Is Synthetic Leather Better than Artificial Leather?
They are essentially the same. Artificial leather is simply another term used to refer to synthetic leather. If you’re wondering “what is synthetic leather called?”, here is a list of names that are commonly used to refer to artificial and synthetic leathers:
- Artificial Leather
- PU Leather
- Simulated Leather
- Imitation Leather
- Leather Substitute
- Synthetic Leather
- Vinyl Leather
- Man-Made Leather
- Vegan Leather
- Leather Substitute
- Poly Leather
- PVC Leather
- Polyurethane Leather
Does synthetic leather last long?
Synthetic leather generally has a lifespan of about 2-4 years. Over that time period, it can begin to crack, flake, and break down. Also, the surface can become dull and worn out. When considering furniture, clothing, or personal accessories, this is a relatively short time to have a piece or leather good for use.
As a balance to that short use, synthetic leather goods are generally lower cost than natural leather goods. Thus, it mainly comes down to preference and budget. A less expensive synthetic leather item can be repurchased every few years. Alternatively, a more expensive natural leather item can be purchased once and last for decades if well-maintained and cared for.
Is Synthetic Leather Washable?
Yes, synthetic leather is washable. Since it is usually made from plastic with a plastic protective coating, it can most commonly be hand-washed. Depending on the material and it’s durability, some synthetic leathers can be machine-washed. For drying, most should be air-dried, as any high-heat from a dryer could begin to alter the synthetic leather surface, or material itself.
Is synthetic leather eco friendly?
Generally, no, synthetic leather is not eco-friendly. The production of plastics, which are used in most synthetic leathers, is often a relatively energy-intensive, chemical-filled process that also produces significant waste. Additionally, synthetic leather only lasts a few years, and is difficult to reuse or recycle. So, while it’s generally less expensive that natural leather, it is not very eco-friendly. There are some synthetic leathers beginning to be developed that use mostly natural fibers, such as Pinatex which is made from pineapple fibers. These use less plastics, and are somewhat more eco-friendly. For my detailed article on Pineapple leather, and it’s benefits, click here.
Do leatherette seats crack?
Leatherette material itself usually doesn’t crack from use, unless it has a thick surface finish applied to it (such as a decorative finish or protective finish) that dries out over time and begins to degrade. Often, a type of faux leather called bonded leather, will usually crack. It is commonly found in use in upholstery on furniture and couches.
These bonded leathers have a real leather base, with a protective layer of plastic over the surface. Thus, as the leather base shifts, moves, and stretches over time from sitting and movement, the natural leather flexes, but the plastic protective surface does not. Since it can’t flex and bend like the leather layer beneath it, the plastic surface begins to wear and show cracks.
Since leatherette is usually a plastic composition throughout the material, it does not have a leather base that will stretch. Thus, the underling material and the surface stay together and the material will usually not form cracks.
Is synthetic leather waterproof?
Generally, yes, synthetic leather is a waterproof material. Since it is composed most often of a plastic base layer with a plastic coating, it will resist penetration by water. This makes it a great choice for uses where it will be exposed to moisture and humidity a lot, such as in marine/boating upholstery and motorcycle seat upholstery, which are sometimes exposed to the outside elements and rain.
How long does PU leather last?
PU leather, a type of partially-synthetic leather that has a natural leather base layer with a plastic coating, lasts approximately 2-4 years. When PU leather goods are used, the natural leather base layer flexes from motion, sitting, wearing, etc. The plastic coating does not flex as easily, and the begins to weaken and crack over time.
Does synthetic leather last long?
Synthetic leather can generally last about 2-5 years. Actual use can vary a lot based on the item being used, the conditions it is being used in, and the frequency and intensity of use of use. However, synthetic leather will generally begin to show wear, deteriorate, dry out, discolor, and begin to crack after just a few years of consistent or daily use.
Is synthetic leather cheap?
In general, yes, synthetic leather is cheap. Most synthetic leathers are made from plastic, which is a relatively inexpensive material to produce and purchase. Though it is cheap, synthetic leather also wears out faster than natural leather. Thus, for long term use, overall cost benefit would depend on purchasing several synthetic leather items, or a single natural leather item.
How do you treat synthetic leather?
Synthetic leather, in general, cannot be treated easily after manufacture. Since it is usually made from plastic, with a plastic finish layered on, the surface cannot be penetrated in which to add any type of treatment, conditioner, or oil. One option for treating the surface is to paint it with a flexible, acrylic paint. This will provide options for changing the color or texture a bit depending on the type of paint and how it is applied.
Is Synthetic better than leather?
It highly depends on the intended use to help determine if synthetic leather is better than natural leather. Natural leather is generally much stronger, more durable, looks great, feels unique, and functions very well. However, synthetic leather generally costs less, and is water proof. For goods that will be exposed to moisture and damp environments, synthetic leather is usually the better option.
Where does synthetic leather come from?
Synthetic leather, in most cases, comes from plastics. They are mixed, extruded, finished, then allowed to dry into a long, wide, flat plastic material fabric that is used to make a wide variety of finished good that are intended to look and in some cases feel and smell like natural leather.
Is synthetic material good for shoes?
Synthetic leather material can be good for shoes due to it’s low cost, abrasion-resistance, and water-resistance. They generally don’t “breathe” as well as natural leather, though can be a suitable option for a wide variety of shoes and footwear.
Does faux leather keep you warm?
Faux leather can keep you warm in that it is a plastic layer that can help keep body heat close. Since the plastic material is generally not breathable, like natural leather is to a degree, it could also keep someone almost too warm since airflow and heat are kept underneath it.
Is synthetic leather breathable?
Generally, synthetic leather is not breathable. It’s plastic composition forms a barrier for air and moisture. This is good as it can keep water away, though it also limits air flow, thus making it not breathable. Ventilation holes can be made in the material to help with breathability, though that would mainly be a design decision.
Is synthetic leather eco friendly?
Synthetic leather is not very eco friendly. While the perception may be that synthetic leather is not made from animals and is thus more environmentally friendly, the manufacturing process is relatively chemical and energy intensive, resulting in wastes that are not that great for the environment. Also, since most synthetic leather is made from plastic, it breaks down in often a few years, can’t easily be recycled, and doesn’t usually last the decade or longer that well-cared-for natural leather can.
That said, some newer synthetic leather materials are coming onto the market that use more renewable fibers. This will help with sustainability. One example is Pinatex, a synthetic leather made in part from pineapple fibers.
What does synthetic mean in shoes?
When talking about footwear, shoes, and sneakers, synthetic usually refers to plastic. These materials, including synthetic leather, are made to look and perform similarly to natural leather, at lower cost. Thus, they’re used if many commercial good, including shoes.
Is synthetic leather waterproof?
Yes, synthetic leather is generally waterproof. Due to it being composed of plastic, and sometimes having a plastic protective surface layer, it repels moisture and water. This makes it a great material selection for uses where moisture exposure is likely, such as boating upholstery and mass-transit upholstery.
What is a common Synthetic leather price?
Synthetic leather generally costs about $12 for a 20 sq. ft. piece. For context, a 20 sq. ft. high-quality vegetable tanned natural cowhide might cost around $150.
Synthetic Leather Care and Maintenance
If handled properly, maintained well, cleaned periodically, and stored well, synthetic leather can look nice and perform well for a few years.
How to Clean Synthetic Leather
Due to it’s finished and often smooth surface, synthetic leather can be cleaned gently with a wet cloth or microfiber cloth. Ensure the cloth doesn’t have loose fibers or lint that could easily transfer to the surface. Also, test first in a small area to ensure the cloth will not transfer any color to the surface of the synthetic leather good(purse, bag, sofa, couch, etc.).
If an item needs additional cleaning, a very soft brush can be used to help loosen dirt, grime, and stuck-on debris. Wet it slightly, then work it over the leather, being very careful not to press to hard. The bristles of the brush should be doing most of the work throughout this process. After this, it can be gone over with a damp cloth can help clean off any remaining dirt/dust/grime. Let the item dry off well before using or storing.
If what you are trying to clean is more significant that just dust/grime, possibly a stain from something, additional care might be needed. First, consider what type of stain it could be. Knowing the substance cfirst an help determine what the best method to clean it is. If it is something common and easily-removable, a gentle cleaner or cleanser might work.
If it’s something more significant or tough to remove, look into cleaners made specifically for synthetic leather and the type of substance you’re removing. They will be made to treat the stain while also helping to maintain the surface finish properly. As with most cleaners, always test in a small, non-noticeable area first to ensure it will not discolor the item or surface. Definitely do not want to make a second stain while trying to clean the first 🙂
How to Condition Synthetic Leather
Since synthetic leather has a protective surface finish, or is plastic throughout, it does not need to be conditioned. And functionally, it really can’t. The surface finish protects the material underneath which is usually plastic, so no conditioners can easily penetrate the material.
Thankfully though, the protective surface makes it’s very easy to clean with a damp cloth. This is a simple way to always keep synthetic leather products looking great. If the surface layer begins to wear away, additional protectant, to a degree, can be applied to help restore it a bit over time.
Depending on the product, some of them will be applied with a cloth or applicator, and others sprayed on and wiped off. Make sure to read the supplied instructions on any finish you plan to apply, and test on a small area first (to make sure it will not discolor or chemically react with the surface) before applying to the entire item.
How to Fix a Scratch on Synthetic Leather
Fixing a scratch on a synthetic leather item is usually as easy as applying a basic leather repair kit. Since synthetic leather is a plastic material, it will require replacement of the material that was scratched away.
Generally, leather repair kits have a color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied (to match the existing material), and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled and looking great.
How to Fix and Repair Tears in Synthetic Leather
Tears in synthetic leather are harder to fix than scratches, since they run deeper. Since synthetic leather is a plastic material blend, fixing tears might require a repair kit that includes a filler. The space created by the tear might need to be filled to look even again.
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 on or worn and need to flex during use, 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 and desired finished appearance.
Once the tear is filled, just fix the remaining scratch that is visible above it. Pour a color-matched liquid into the crack, or touch-up with acrylic paint. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled and ideally not even be noticeable.
How to Store Synthetic Leather
Synthetic leather should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. This is key, as the sun can discolor the protective finish and even make it begin to look yellow.
If you have synthetic leather clothing or personal accessories, storing them in a closet or drawer works very well. Keeping them away from extreme heat, and sunlight, are the keys.
Some specialized synthetic leathers, such as those used in automobile and mass transit 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 these special finishes. In general, be aware of what types of finishes the leather you’re using might have on them, as this can help guide what is optimal for maintenance and use.
When purchasing a new leather good, or deciding what material might work best for your next leather project, synthetic leather is certainly a material worth considering. To learn about all leather types, click here for my overview article about them.
Is synthetic leather washable?
Yes, synthetic leather is washable. Since it often has a plastic finish, or is plastic throughout, it is highly water repellent/resistant. Thus, it’s generally easy to wash it gently by hand to help loosen and remove dirt/debris and clean it up.
Is synthetic leather vegan?
Yes, synthetic leather is vegan. It is not derived from animal hides, and instead comes from a manufacturing process that utilized plastics to make the fabric material. Thus, it’s considered to be a vegan leather.