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leather/vinyl failure

When buying leather furniture, ask this question, “Is it all leather?”.

Many of our clients are surprised to find out that the “leather” furniture they purchased is in fact a leather and vinyl combination. They make this discovery when they notice splitting or cracking in the material. This most often occurs in the side panel of a seat cushion, or at a stress-bearing seam (outside arm, outside top of backrest, etc.).

The typical construction of a leather/vinyl combination is to use leather on those areas that come in contact with your body - the seat cushion top, the inside backrest and the tops of the armrests. All other panels, including the outside back, side panels, sides of the seat cushion, and arm- and back-rest anchor-panels are vinyl.

Here’s the problem. Vinyl is a synthetic material (and has nowhere near the tensile strength of leather). Leather is an organic material. The two materials are fundamentally incompatible when joined together along a seam. This is particularly apparent on a seat cushion where the vinyl side panel (boxing panel) is sewn to the leather top panel. Leather is porous and loses its moisture through evaporation (which is why leather should be conditioned regularly). To replace this lost moisture, the leather literally wicks (draws by absorption) oils from the vinyl where the two materials are in contact with each other along a seam, reducing the oil content of the vinyl. As the vinyl loses its moisture, it also loses its ability to flex, and subsequently cracks. This is most commonly seen as fissures that start at stitch-holes and run perpendicular to the seam line. Over time, these cracks will only worsen. Once this starts, it is not repairable.

Leather/vinyl combination manufacturing strategies (sometimes referred to as leather-mate, leather-match, or other marketing terms) are a ploy by the manufacturer to reduce cost. And in this reduction in materials cost for the manufacturer, the life expectancy of the furniture is greatly diminished. By as much as 75%, depending on usage patterns.

Recliners are the most common type of furniture for leather and vinyl match. One prominent San Francisco bay area retailer told us that 70% of all supposed leather recliners are actually leather/vinyl.

If you expect a long, useful life from your leather furniture - be careful at the point of purchase. Ask the question, “Is the piece all leather?” If the answer is yes, then make sure that appears on your sales reciept. You can check by examining the back side of the material. If it appears to be a fuzzy material or a woven fabric (usually white, but can also be gray, black, or brown), it’s vinyl. If it looks like suede, it’s probably leather.

If you already own a leather/vinyl match, pay careful attention to your conditioning regimen. If the leather is regularly moisturized, it will have less of a tendency to draw the oil from the adjacent vinyl panel. Also, when sitting on or exiting the seating area, try not to put undue stress on the seams where the arm or back pillow attach to the frame.

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