Sustainability is such a popular topic, as well as the proper treatment of all animals. Vegan leather offers options for materials that consider these needs while also being durable and looking great.
Vegan leather is a simulated leather material, often made of plastic. It is manufactured to look and perform similar to natural leather, while being made from substances that do not come from animals. Natural fiber vegan leathers are also available, and used in shoes, boots, jackets, and bags.
Some vegan leather is made from apples, mushrooms, or soy. It’s incredible to think that common fruit can be turned into materials that can be used in place of leather. Let’s explore more about what vegan leather is and what can be done with it.
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather is a term that refers to materials that are made to look like natural leather, though do not come from animal hides. Most commonly, they are made of a polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl plastic (vinyl). However, deep interest in alternatives and advances in technology are yielding a variety of vegan leathers that are made from 100% natural sources. Some examples include grapes, leaves, and cork.
Real leather is rather costly to produce, manufacture with, and care for. It also comes directly from animals. Vegan leathers are made mostly from plastics. This allows them to be far less expensive, easy to manufacture, and easy to care for. Vegan leather, in most cases, is essentially a plastic fabric.
Since it is a man-made material, vegan 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).
Vegan 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. Also, more vegan leathers are becoming recyclable options. So lifespan of use becomes less a factor, as new ones can more easily be made from recycled materials, and in more efficient ways.
Other Names for Vegan Leather
Over the years, companies and marketers have come up with a large variety of names to refer to vegan leather, including calling it faux leather. Rather than saying plastic leather, or fake leather, there is a preference by some to call it something unique. There newer bio-materials used to make leather-like fabrics also mean a more general term is helpful to refer to these non-animal products.
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. However, that isn’t always the case. Here is a list of names that are also used to refer to simulated leathers, and materials made to look and perform like real leather.
- Vinyl Leather
- Faux Leather
- Artificial Leather
- Imitation Leather
- Leather Substitute
- Polyurethane Leather
- Synthetic Leather
- Man-Made Leather
- PU Leather
- Poly Leather
- Leather Substitute
- PVC Leather
- Simulated Leather
The History of Vegan 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 vegan 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).
Technology-driven alternatives both in materials design and in production process are yielding more and more options every year. The list will continue to expand more quickly. A few examples of the new materials include vegan leather made from pineapples, pears, and wood.
For more details on pineapple leather, click here for an article I wrote on the most popular type.
How Vegan Leather is Made
With the most common variety being plastic-based, we’ll focus on that process here. More unique vegan leathers such as grape leather or leaf leather will have their own unique production processes.
Vegan 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 vegan 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. Vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan leather is purely cosmetic for finishing reasons. The vegan 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, vegan 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 vegan 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, vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan 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.
Vegan 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 dries fast too.
Sustainable materials used in vegan leather, such as apples, grapes, and cork, also make it possible to utilize natural substances with less of a production impact to the environment. This is very appealing.
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||Can have a plastic-y feel|
|Many texture options||PU & PVC-based not very recyclable|
|Can be made from many substances||PU & PVC-based have environmentally unfriendly production process|
|Can be made in large, long, rolls||Doesn’t have the strength of real leather|
|Easy to shape, cut, and sew||Dyes might transfer once finish wears off|
|Some can be used around water||Less common, sustainable materials might have higher cost at first|
Leather Working with Faux Leather
Generally, classic 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 PU or PVC 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.
More exposure to newer simulated leather materials will provide insights into their workability and usability over time. Some are pure substances, such as all apple pulp. Others might be a blend of 30% apple pulp and 70% other materials including plastic. As the composition ranges, so will the performance and wear aspects of the material. It will be interesting to see how these newer materials perform over time.
Newer Types of Vegan Leather
While PU and PVC leather have been very popular vegan leather options in recent decades, newer materials are starting to gain traction. PETA did a great writeup on the different options available (click here to read their post). Below is a list of developing vegan leather types.
- Pineapple Leather
- Apple Leather
- Grape Leather/Wine Leather
- Mushroom Leather
- Mulberry Tree Leaves Leather
- Teak Leaf Leather
- Paper Leather
- Wood Leather
- Cork Leather
- Recycled Coffee Grounds Leather
- Plastic Bottle Leather
- Coconut Water Leather
- Prickly Pear Leather
- Peruvian Plants and Fruits Leather
- Kombucha Tea Leather (Teather)
- Soy Leather
- Fruit Waste Leather
How Can You Tell Between Real Leather and Vegan Leather?
Some vegan 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. These tips focus more on PU and PVC based vegan leathers. With so many alternative materials being developed, each will have it’s own unique traits to look for. Since PU and PVC are by far the most common, we’ll focus on those here.
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, vegan leather grain pattern will usually look consistent and repetitive.
Sometimes, vegan leather will have a plastic or chemical smell. This is due to the plastics and chemicals that are used to make them.
Vegan 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 vegan 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. Vegan leather generally will have a smooth, even, clean edge. This is because the synthetic leather material cuts very cleanly and evenly.
Common Vegan Leather Questions
Is Vegan leather eco friendly?
Yes, and no, it depends highly on the type of vegan leather. PU and PVC-based vegan leathers are relatively inexpensive to produce, though utilize petroleum based plastics, and are not easily recyclable. Thus, they deplete some less renewable resources, and aren’t very reusable.
Newer vegan leathers, such as those that are plant or fruit-based, can be very eco friendly. The manufacturers take great care to ensure the sourcing and production processes used are eco friendly, and result in products that can more readily be recycled or reused. The trend forward will likely result in more and more vegan leather being eco friendly. For an in-depth look, click here for an article I wrote on Eco Leather.
What is vegan leather made out of?
Vegan leather can be made from a variety of substances. Most commonly, it is a plastic based material such as polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Other vegan leathers are made from a range of organic, naturally available substances such as grapes, wood, or pineapples.
Is Vegan Leather good quality?
It can vary based on the material and production process used to make it. There can be some great vegan leathers made from plastic, and some very poor quality ones as well. The same would apply to alternative-substance based vegan leathers such as soy leather and tea leather.
As in most products, availably quality will vary, and often so with price. That said, vegan leathers used for specific purposes (be it handbags, upholstery, or jet ski seats for examples) can be very good quality and function exceptionally well.
Is Vegan leather just pleather?
In most cases, yes. Vegan leather is another term for faux leather, as is pleather. “Pleather” is derived from “plastic leather”, and a majority of vegan leathers are made from PU or PVC plastic. There are newer vegan leather materials that are plant or fruit based, in which case they would not be pleather. However with plastic based vegan leathers being so common, in most cases, vegan leather is a pleather.
Is vegan leather Durable?
Yes, some vegan leathers are durable. How durable depends mainly on it’s intended use, and interoperation of durable. 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, vegan leather is not very durable.
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. Vegan plastic-based leather will maintain it’s surface, be waterproof, and stand up to years of daily use. In this case, vegan leather is very durable.
So in general, it will depend on circumstance and particular use. Also, any material produced at a higher quality, sometimes with related higher cost, will generally be more durable.
What is the best vegan leather?
The best vegan leather will really depend on its intended use. Some will perform well in wet conditions, while others will be more durable against abrasion and exposure to daily use. Others are best for sustainability and eco friendliness, while others are best for being low cost.
As you become familiar with, or already know your preferred need for the material, one will usually stand out as being the best option for your purchase or leather working project.
Vegan Leather Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and stored safely, vegan leather can look nice and perform well for a few years. Newer vegan leather materials made from things such as grapes or wood will have unique care needs based not he manufacturer’s recommendations. With most vegan leather being made from PU or PVC plastic, we’ll focus here on care and maintenance for that type.
How to Clean Vegan Leather
Due to it’s finished surface, vegan 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 vegan 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 Vegan Leather
Since vegan 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 vegan 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 Vegan Leather
Fixing a scratch on a vegan leather piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repair kit. Since vegan 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 Vegan Leather
Tears in vegan leather are harder to fix than scratches. Since vegan 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 Vegan Leather
Vegan 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 vegan 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 vegan 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.
Vegan leather offers an astounding array of material options with different colors, textures, finishes, and opportunities for use. If you’re looking for a material that is not made from animal hides, vegan leather is surely worth a look.
Is PU Leather Vegan?
Yes, PU leather is a vegan leather. Since vegan leathers do not use animal hides, they use alternative substances such as plastics, fruits, or plants. The most common types of vegan leather are plastic-based, and include PU leather and PVC leather.
Is Vegan Leather expensive?
Common PU or PVC vegan leather 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 vegan leather would cost around $12.