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Leather Sofas - Buying Guide

Buying a new sofa is never something to be rushed into. They are relatively expensive items that will, with care, last years. They also take up a decent percentage of the space in your living room, and will probably be where you will spend much of your time while you’re at home. So it’s clearly very important to think carefully about what is the right sofa for you, and to understand what you are looking for and how to select the right item. That is even more the case when purchasing a leather sofa, where making the right choice will have a huge effect on the cost, how long it lasts, and whether it fits perfectly into your home and lifestyle or whether you find yourself having to replace it after just a few years.

 

How to identify a real leather sofa

It might seem obvious, but the first thing to check on before you hand over your credit card is whether the sofa is actually made of real leather. Of course, reputable dealers like Darlings of Chelsea will always make it clear whether or not a material is real leather, but when buying from other stores or particularly second hand, it may be less certain.

Futura Devil Leather Futura Devil Leather

So how can you spot real leather?

Check the label

First, of course, check the label. EU rules dictate how fabrics can be described and whether they can display the ‘cowhide’ mark. As a result you can be pretty confident that if a sofa sold in the UK has a label on it that indicates it’s real leather, then it is. If it doesn’t say anything at all about the fabric, then there’s a good chance it’s not real leather but is trying not to draw attention to that fact.

Kingly 3 Seater Sofa with Chaise in Crystal Kingly 3 Seater Sofa with Chaise in Crystal

In some cases, though, that may not be enough. A sofa may be lacking a label, or the label may be unclear, or you may be unsure about the provenance of the sofa, so you need other ways to check.

 

Look at the grain

The first thing to do is to take a close look at the grain, or pattern in the leather. Real leather, being animal skin, will have a slightly uneven and irregular pattern, and may even contain subtle marks, creases and imperfections. All of this is a good thing and indicates that it is more likely to be real leather, while a highly perfect and uniform appearance is more likely to suggest fake leather. If you can, try gently pressing and squashing the leather, and get a sense of whether it wrinkles like skin, or stays rigid and keeps its shape. The former is a quality of real leather, while the latter is more common in artificial materials.

Smell the leather

Another test to try is to smell the leather. Although discretely smelling a sofa is a little harder than a jacket or handbag, it is still a useful test as it’s very hard to replicate the authentic smell of leather. Real leather smells unmistakeable, while fake leathers may have a plastic or even chemical smell to them which makes them clearly stand out.

Natalia 3 Seater Sofa in 20RB Leather Natalia 3 Seater Sofa in 20RB Leather

Finally, if you can see an unfinished edge of the leather, such as under the sofa where the cover is fixed to the frame, look at the appearance. Real leather, when cut, shows a clear grain with lots of strands that will fray slightly over time.

How to judge the quality of a leather sofa

You may have established that the sofa you’re thinking of buying is real leather, but that’s not necessarily the final story. Leather comes in a wide range of different qualities, and it’s worth knowing what you’re buying so you have a sense of weather it’s worth the money, how long it is likely to last, and how it will wear over time.

Cairness in Hand Antiqued Leather Cairness in Hand Antiqued Leather

First things first; what type of leather is it and how has it been treated? Real leather sofas can be made from a variety of grades of leather, which generally represents how much of the hide is used for the final fabric.

 

Full grain leather

Full-grain leather comes from thick cow-hides that have not had the top layer sanded or buffed off. This make them highly resilient but also means that have the most natural variation in appearance as the grain of the leather includes any marks and imperfections on the skin of the animal that the hide came from. This gives them an attractive authentic-looking appearance and means they gain a natural patina over time.

Brompton Leather Brompton Leather

Full grain leather can be either pure aniline or semi-aniline. Pure aniline is dyed with natural, soluble dyes that soak into the leather and leave the surface soft and untouched with all of the natural markings visible. It is soft and luxurious and wears beautifully over time, but is more prone to damage and is much less stain-resistant as it has no surface coating to repel liquids.

Autumn Leaves Leather Autumn Leaves Leather

Semi-aniline leather, on the other hand, is treated with a thin top-coat that helps to protect it from scratches, spills and stains while leaving as much as possible of the natural pattern and feel of the leather.

 

Top grain leather

Leather described as top-grain is generally corrected-grain leather, which means that it is generally made from a slightly less perfect hide but has had the surface lightly buffed to remove marks or damage, and then had a grain pattern artificially applied, so will have a much more uniform appearance. It then has protective coatings applied in the same way as full-grain semi-aniline leather. This makes it very hard-wearing while still extremely high quality, but top-grain leather is typically a little cheaper than full-grain and lacks some of its authentic appearance.

Orlando 3 Seater with Electric Recliners in 20RG Orlando 3 Seater with Electric Recliners in 20RG

Split leather

Split leather is, as its name suggests, made by splitting the bottom few layers of a hide away from the rest of it, meaning that the top surface with its variation in pattern is lost, and a thinner and less hard-wearing but very uniform and smooth leather is left. Because it comes from the middle of a hide, split leather is generally used to make suede, but can also be embossed and treated to look like top-grain leather. Darlings of Chelsea do not provide any sofas in split grain leather as we find it to be inferior quality to top grain leather.

Bonded leather

Bonded leather is the cheapest type of real leather and is made from scraps and offcuts of other leather, formed together with polyurethane or latex and embossed with a leather-like surface pattern. Although these are less authentic and supple, not being made from a single hide, they are much more cost-effective and are still real leather, with some of the smell and feel of higher-quality leather types. Darlings of Chelsea also do not sell products made with bonded leather as we pride ourselves on only offering lasting quality sofas.

Construction

Aside from the quality of the leather covering itself, it’s also important, when assessing the quality of a sofa, to look at its construction. The best sofas are made from kiln-dried hardwood, which won’t warp, bend or crack, and has joints that are both screwed, glued and dowelled. Sofas constructed in this way will last a long time and stand up to years of use. Cheaper sofas are often made from plywood, in which case its a good idea to make sure it has plenty of reinforcing layers: 11 to 13 layers is best.

Belgravia 2.5 Seater Sofa in Crystal Hazel Belgravia 2.5 Seater Sofa in Crystal Hazel

Cushion filling

What material the sofa cushions are filled with will make a huge difference to how the sofa feels to sit on, so it’s well worth paying plenty of attention to this point. A 100% goose down and feather filling will feel incredibly soft and give you that ‘sinking into the sofa’ feeling, but it’s also a bit more expensive and requires a lot of maintenance. A more common and slightly cheaper option is to have a mix of foam and feather. The foam provides structure and fills out the middle of the sofa, while padding it out with feather means that it still has the soft feather-filled feeling to sit on.

Rocco 3 seater sofa in 40 Karma - 600 Cuoio Rocco 3 seater sofa in 40 Karma - 600 Cuoio

Even within this option, though, the density of the foam matters as foam that’s very dense may feel hard, but foam that’s not dense enough can fall apart within the cushion over time. A good foam density to ask for is 42kg per cubic metre, which will feel soft but still be robust enough to last a long time.

How much will a leather sofa cost?

As you may have gathered from the points above, the cost of a leather sofa can vary enormously depending on the choices you make in materials, construction, and so on. It may be possible to get an artificial leather or low-grade genuine leather sofa for a few hundred pounds. For a higher-end leather, better construction and higher quality designs, however, brand new sofas are likely to start at around £1,000 and could be rather more if they are from particularly well-known designers, are especially large, or made with very high-quality materials.

Venice Corner Sofa Bed in 10BK Venice Corner Sofa Bed in 10BK

If these prices don’t seem achievable, however, it’s always an option to go for a clearance leather sofa. These are likely to be end-of-season, returned, or ex-display sofas and can have as much as 50% off, bringing some smaller sofas down to well under £1,000 despite being made from exactly the same top-end materials as their more expensive brand new counterparts.

 

Taking care of a leather sofa

Leather sofas require a bit of care and attention, particularly aniline leather, not having a protective coating to repel liquids and prevents stains. The best advice is to regularly dust your sofas with a dry cloth, and vacuum in the gaps between cushions to prevent a build-up of dirt, dust and grit. Avoid using any cleaning chemicals, unless they are expressly designed for leather, and even then it’s best to test them in an unobtrusive area first to make sure they don’t damage or discolour your sofa.

 

It’s a good idea to use a leather conditioner every 6-12 months, but again it’s best to test the conditioner first if you’re using it for the first time.

 

If you do spill something on your sofa, the best approach is to blot carefully with a dry cloth, without rubbing. Water and other liquids can sometimes be cleaned up with a damp cloth, gently wiping from the middle of the stain outwards and using drier bits of the cloth as you move out. Grease stains are unlikely to be lifted by water, although talcum powder or cornstarch may lift them. Otherwise, for a stubborn stain, a professional clean is usually a better idea than experimenting with products that may only make things worse.

 

We also recommend keeping your leather sofa out of direct sunlight if possible, as they can be faded by sun over a prolonged period.