Living with Leather Furniture

Q:We plan to buy a leather couch set, and we’re considering a lighter color like ivory. We’re worried about staining and upkeep, though, and wondering if light-colored leather yellows or changes color over time. The leather we’re looking at is top grain, not bonded. — Irena Darson, Elmsford

A: Researching your question exposed me to a nasty case of too much information, particularly about what leather workers blithely refer to as “putrescible animal skins,” including those of unborn calves. Yikes. I’ll spare you the details about tanning using emulsified oil from brains.

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Full-grain leather is the finest quality; top-grain is second best. Its surface has been sanded and buffed, which means it feels less natural and won’t develop a patina like full-grain does, but it’s more resistant to stains. Bonded leather is made of leather fibers, often scrap, bound with latex. When the term is used for upholstery, the material generally contains less than 20 percent true leather and may be mostly vinyl stamped with a grain to resemble the real thing. It’s durable, and even though it’s largely synthetic, the process by which it’s made is far somewhat on the environment than tanning. (Don’t get me started on the brain-tanning again.)

Janice, a designer and salesperson at Thomasville in Yonkers who goes by one name, says her company carries only top-grain leather furniture. Some top grains, she explains, have more of “a correction” than others, which means they go through more of the buffing process, resulting in a surface that’s less absorbent. “Natural leather will absorb oils and such and it’ll scratch up — that’s the beauty of it,” Janice remarks. “But some people don’t like the natural scarring in full-grain leather, so when it’s corrected it’s less blemished and more uniform.” Some leathers also have a protective coating, which gives them a slight sheen, she adds. Those are more impervious to the everyday hazards sofas have to endure: wine spills, coffee spills, chocolate spills. (Or at least, that’s how it is at our house.)

“You can wipe up spills with mild soap and water,” Janice says. Pets could scratch the leather, but it’s not likely to tear. If you’re keeping an ocelot or some other clawed beastie who rips the hide, leather technicians can make repairs.

Ivory leather “won’t noticeably yellow,” Janice says. “As with any upholstery, the richer or more saturated the color, the more it will fade in the sun. But with a light color, you won’t notice it.”

As for upkeep, dust the sofa regularly with a soft, cotton cloth. Every six months or so, use a mild soap and water (distilled water is best) to wash the arm rests and back where body oils may build up and discolor the leather. Rinse with clean water and buff when it’s dry. “And use a leather conditioner once or twice a year so it doesn’t dry out,” Janice advises. Conditioners also add a level of stain resistance. “Guardsman is supposed to be a good one,” she adds.

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Other tips gleaned from the Internet: Never use oils or furniture polish on leather. And don’t use saddle soap or ammonia-based cleaners. “Leather is really durable,” Janice adds. “It’s great choice for anyone with children, too.”

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