Leather and leatherette, one name for artificial leather, are two materials commonly used in fashion and upholstery. Makers of purses, belts and shoes commonly use both materials. The auto and upholstery industries make extensive use of both leather and leatherette for seating material while the equestrian industry is increasingly producing high-quality leatherette saddles and bridles. Deciding between these two materials is easier if you know the basic differences between them.
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Leather is the hide of a dead animal that has been defleshed, dehaired and tanned in a variety of ways. Leather is usually a byproduct of slaughter, and common leathers include horse and cowhides, calfskin, goatskin, lambskin and pigskin. Leathers from different species of animals slaughtered at different ages are very different.
Leatherette or artificial leather is plastic- or vinyl-coated fabric. Uniroyal Engineered Products, which owns the famous Naugahyde brand, is one of many companies offering an entire line of products for use in such industries as medical, marine, automotive, residential and upholstery.
Ethics and Beauty
Vegetarians and vegans often avoid leather because it is made from the skin of dead animals. Leatherette is made from plants and chemicals: no animals were killed to make it.
Leatherette is made in an industrial process, so any markings are repeated at regular intervals, giving it a very uniform appearance and texture. Because leather is made from the hides of individual animals, skins sometimes show scars, brands, even veining. The finer grades can be embossed and the heavier grades carved in ways leatherette can never be.
As an organic material, leather is more vulnerable than leatherette to abrasion, water, bacteria, fungus, dry rot and ultraviolet sun damage. Some leatherette is specifically manufactured to resist these environmental factors. This is especially true for high-quality products developed for specific applications, such as car upholstery. High-quality leatherette is always preferable to cheap natural leather. It will not only wear better, but will look better.
Generally speaking, leatherette is easier to clean than leather. You should always consult the manufacturer's cleaning instructions for the specific product, but cleaning leatherette is often as simple as wiping the surface with a clean, damp cloth and a little dish soap. Leatherette is often resistant to staining, and spills can often be easily wiped away.
As an organic material, leather is far more vulnerable to staining and scratching. Different leathers must be cleaned differently and many leather goods companies suggest specific cleaners and conditioners for their products. As an organic material, leather also has to be moisturised or its fibres will crack and break.
Cost and Quality
Quality is a matter of fitness for the work at hand. In a modern medical setting, for example, leatherette is almost always going to be preferred for medical upholstery of any sort. It's easier to clean, requires less care and tolerates more abuse. Fine leather has a prestige that even the very best leatherette does not and is priced accordingly. For example, in May 2011, Bates, a quality Australian saddlery company, was selling its new Isabell leather dressage saddle for £1,754; its Wintec division was selling the new Isabell synthetic dressage saddle for £844. The two saddles are the same; only the covering is different. You can wipe the synthetic saddle down, even hose it off -- but if you show in it you will be laughed at.
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