Leather vs. Fabric Upholstery: Which one is right for you?

by Robyn Davies, Furniture Showcase

For most people, second only to a mattress, their most important furniture purchase is a sofa. This month, we wanted to address one of our most frequently asked questions when furnishing a living room.

Leather versus Fabric Upholstery – Which one is right for you?
For families putting together a living space, one of the most frequent controversies is leather versus fabric upholstery. When you’re shopping for a sofa or a chair, one of the first things to decide is which you would prefer. It helps narrow the choices so you can focus on what you really want. At Furniture Showcase, almost every day, someone says, “I don’t know whether I want fabric or leather. Which one is better?”

Like most other decisions you will make, there can be benefits to both. From my observation working with customers shopping for living room furniture over the years, it is pretty common to have a family where one person prefers the look and feel of fabric and another has his or her mind made up that leather is the only option.
For a large room with multiple pieces of furniture, I usually recommend a mix. If you choose a leather sofa, adding a fabric chair and ottoman not only adds color to the space, but by varying the color, texture and pattern, you end up with a much more interesting room. If your sofa is fabric, leather is an easy addition because the right color of leather can go with most any room. It also provides seating for that family member who loves the look and feel of leather.

To help you weigh your options, here are a few of the pros and cons to consider when you are deciding between leather and fabric upholstery.

If you prefer a very soft, comfortable feel, or textures that are warm and cozy like your favorite blanket, you can have furniture pieces upholstered with very soft textures.
The options of color and pattern are much greater with fabric than leather. You can find almost any color or pattern to suit your style.

Where good quality leather may develop that aged leather “patina” that looks great over time, old fabric usually just looks worn out. Fabric collects more dust over time and most fabrics can absorb spills quickly. (There are many new performance fabrics available these days. I love some of the new indoor/outdoor fabrics that come in a variety of colors and are even bleach resistant.)

Leather PROS:
Think about your favorite leather shoes, purse, or belt. They go with a variety of styles, and the color is neutral. This makes leather very easy to mix with other pieces. Most leather is easy to clean and does not collect dust like fabrics can. On protected leathers, spills wipe up easily. On more natural or waxed leathers (without an impermeable coating), spills and oils from your skin can absorb into the leather, but it develops a patina or aged look that still looks good for many years. If you have both leather and fabric in a room, you are likely to want to replace the fabric pieces before the leather because the leather is neutral and wears well.

Neutral colors of leather never go out of style, and they provide an excellent base for adding color and pattern with pillows, rugs, and other accessories. Mixing leather with other fabrics and finishes adds another texture to a room without being too busy.

Leather CONS:
The number one objection we hear about leather furniture is that it is cold to the touch. Leather can have a cool feel on initial contact. Genuine leather will warm up to your own body temperature quickly. An easy solution is to use a throw or blanket until it warms to you. Imitation or cheap leathers may be less breathable and might feel more cold or hot.

The second objection we hear often is fear that dogs or cats will scratch or tear leather. Good quality leather is not easy to tear, so it is highly unlikely that they will make holes in the sofa, but they can scratch it. Some leather can be touched up with leather care products. (Think about how you care for your shoes.) Also, it depends on the animal, but some animals don’t like the feel of leather and may be less likely to stay on your leather sofa. If you have pets, consider purchasing a protection plan with any new furniture. Be sure to ask whether it covers pet damage.

Because there are so many different kinds of leather and so many imitations on the market, shopping for leather can be confusing. Visually, it can be difficult to tell the difference. Many of the imitations are a good product, but it is important to know what you are getting. Here are some very simplified definitions to the most commonly confused terms. (There are hundreds of others – these are my top four.)

Top Grain Leather – The hide of a cow is very thick and has many layers. The layers are sliced to make leather. Top grain means it comes from the top layer. This layer has a more natural appearance. You may see natural scars and marks from the animal.

Leather Splits – The lower layers are sanded, coated, and polished to give the leather a more uniform appearance. This is still 100% genuine leather.

Bonded Leather – This is the most confusing term of all. Bonded leather is a man-made material that is made from the pieces of leather that are ground into fibers and bonded together (usually with polyurethane). It is not necessarily a bad product, but it is not 100% leather. There are high quality bonded leathers and cheap bonded leathers.

Leather-Match or Leather-Touch – A product labeled “Leather-Match” is a combination of genuine leather and something else. It may be bonded leather or polyurethane on the back and sides, and leather on the parts of a sofa your body touches.

Some sofas may have a combination of top grain leather on the parts where your body touches, and less expensive split leather on the back and sides. (These are not labeled as leather match because they are still genuine leather.)

When you are shopping for living room furniture, consider a mix of fabric pieces and leather to achieve a collected look. For many families, one person may love to relax on a fabric sofa, while someone else in the family may prefer the look and feel of leather. Since this is a personal preference, a mix of both is right for the most homes.