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Shopping for Leather

Choosing the Right Leather Sofa



I receive questions all the time from clients who are completely confused about how to choose and purchase furniture.  For most of us, years go by between purchases of this nature.  Prices change.  So, to our sticker shock we often add a good dose of naivete and a dollop of denial.  Common logic is often abandoned when a bargain beckons.  We all want a good deal.  We all want to play it smart.  And we tend to think it’s smart to go for the lowest price out there.




Why is one leather sofa priced at $899, while the one down the street is going for $2999?  And how about the one at the next store with the $9,000 price tag??  They all look alike.  They are all about the same size. 




What’s going on?




Weeding through the confusion can indeed be daunting.  Often, important differences between a sofa from one price range and one from another are not immediately obvious.  Just as a cake purchased from the supermarket is generally not of the quality of the one produced by a fine French bakery, we have to look factually and honestly at the quality of the ingredients – the methods, materials, and the construction – that set one piece of furniture apart from another.




Leather furniture can be especially deceiving.  There is much hype out there by low-end retailers, about their “100% leather” bargain sofas.  There are times when that “leather” is a concoction of leather by-products and scraps, all ground up and mixed with binders and glues, then rolled out and embossed into an engineered facsimile of leather.  Other times, that “100% leather” is, in fact, a “split”, one of the under-layers of the hide, which by nature will never have the tensile strength or suppleness of top grain leather. It is then pigment-painted, and embossed to make it look convincingly like the real thing.   Still, it can legally be labeled “100% leather”.   




And, to make it even more confusing, there are times when that retailer really is selling you a sofa which is made of top grain leather… but, not so fast… at $899, logic tells you that somewhere along the assembly line a corner was cut in order to be able to offer you a leather sofa at that price.




This is no time to hide from this simple fact: $899 is an extravagant sum of money to put out for a product which will need to be replaced fairly soon.




The best defense against being taken in is knowledge.  When you know what questions to ask, what to look for, and most importantly, when you understand that there are no free lunches, you will be prepared to make an intelligent decision on the purchase of your sofa.




Leather is an expensive commodity.  It’s the most costly material you can put on your sofa, but it’s also the toughest and longest lasting.  As leather prices climb, some manufacturers are sacrificing quality to keep prices low.  Others, unwilling to lower their quality standards, have had to raise their prices.  In spite of this, leather prices are as low as they ever will be.  The time to purchase is now, before prices climb again.




Quality leather is a lifetime purchase.  It is the toughest natural material available, able to withstand wear and tear that no woven fabric can.  And since leather breathes, just as your own skin does, it is cool in the summer, and it will warm to your body temperature in the winter.  The popular myth that leather is cold in the winter and vice versa, is just that… and was probably started with reference to imitation leather, or vinyl.




There are only two deterrents when purchasing leather: sun and pets.  The first can be remedied by using a UV Ray-blocking film on your windows, or by pulling the shades down during the hottest hours of the day, or by putting your leather pieces in a room that does not get hot sun.  The latter, your pet, is a more difficult challenge.  Scratch posts made of tree bark, or other scratch-friendly materials can provide a solution.  If your kitty or pooch insists on using your furniture, you may not be a candidate for leather.  Although our fur friends can wreak havoc on fabrics as well, at least fabric does not represent the investment that leather does.




Otherwise, leather is generally easy to care for, and unlike fabric, gets better with time.  If you want leather that can be wiped free of spots or smudges, request a protected one.  Suedes, Nubuks, sanded surfaces, and un-protected leathers have a soft, porous surface, and cannot be wiped off.  Grease, smudges, and stains will then become part of the over-all “patina” of your leather furniture, a look generally preferred by Europeans.




When you come across those two sofas that look alike, but are priced hundreds of dollars apart, it is fair to conclude that with investigation you will find major differences in quality somewhere along the line.




Here are some questions that need to be answered truthfully in order for you to know exactly what you will be receiving for your money:




  • Is this a premium, top-grain, aniline-dyed leather?




  • Is this entire sofa upholstered in top-grain aniline-dyed leather, or are the sides and back an embossed vinyl-match or leather split?  (A note here: this is a common manufacturing practice, done to bring the price of the item down considerably.  There is nothing wrong with the practice, as long as you are aware of it.  Always ask.  Often the sofa is available in all top-grain leather at a higher price-point.)




  • Is this piece of furniture constructed of kiln-dried, cross-banded, multi-ply hardwood?  Is the frame digitally interlocked and corner-blocked?  If not, how is it constructed?  (“Bargain” sofas are often constructed of thin pine plywood, which is not kiln-dried.  The frame is likely to warp or split in a short time.  Beware of strange names such as “fiber wood” and “engineered wood”.  These are low-cost substitutes for a real wood frame, designed to bring down the cost of the final product.  Lower price, shorter life.)






  • What is the coil system in the sofa?  These days there are many respectable alternatives to the classic “8-way hand-tied” coil construction.  Many excellent sofas have rubber webbing, others use a steel-tied drop-in coil construction, and others offer sinuous coil.  All are legitimate, and are usually chosen to support the look and style of the sofa.




  • What kind of filling do the seat cushions have?  The pillow backs?  High-density foam costs more than the lower quality foams (in which there are bigger, more easily collapsible air bubbles).  It holds its shape and loft for years and will not “pancake” quickly the way the cheaper fillings will.  Look for high-density foam in your sofa and chairs.




  • What is the warranty on your sofa?






Sadly, there are some unscrupulous retailers who avoid giving you truthful answers to these questions.




Your best defense is your common sense.  Choose a reputable retailer, one known for integrity and quality.  Don’t allow yourself to succumb to the false notion that you are getting a bargain by purchasing a “cheap” sofa.  What you’ll be getting instead will be the opportunity to buy another one in a couple of years.








-Karen Saloomey


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