Artificial leather, also called synthetic leather, is a material intended to substitute for leather in upholstery, clothing, footwear, and other uses where a leather-like finish is desired but the actual material is cost prohibitive or unsuitable. Artificial leather is known under many names, including leatherette, imitation leather, faux leather, vegan leather, PU leather, and pleather.
Many different methods for the manufacture of imitation leathers have been developed.
One of the earliest was Presstoff. Invented in 19th century Germany, it was made of specially layered and treated paper pulp. It gained its widest use in Germany during the Second World War in place of leather, which under wartime conditions was rationed. Presstoff could be used in almost every application normally filled by leather, excepting items like footwear that were repeatedly subjected to flex wear or moisture. Under these conditions, Presstoff tends to delaminate and lose cohesion.
Another early example was Rexine, a leathercloth fabric produced in the United Kingdom by Rexine Ltd of Hyde, near Manchester. It was made of cloth surfaced with a mixture of nitrocellulose, camphor oil, alcohol, and pigment, embossed to look like leather. It was used as a bookbinding material and upholstery covering, especially for the interiors of motor vehicles and the interiors of railway carriages produced by British manufacturers beginning in the 1920s, its cost being around a quarter that of leather.
Poromerics are made from a plastic coating (usually a polyurethane) on a fibrous base layer (typically a polyester). The term poromeric was coined by DuPont as a derivative of the terms porous and polymeric. The first poromeric material was DuPont's Corfam, introduced in 1963 at the Chicago Shoe Show. Corfam was the centerpiece of the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair in New York City. After spending millions of dollars marketing the product to shoe manufacturers, DuPont withdrew Corfam from the market in 1971 and sold the rights to a company in Poland.
Leatherette is also made by covering a fabric base with a plastic. The fabric can be made of natural or synthetic fiber which is then covered with a soft polyvinyl chloride (PVC) layer. Leatherette is used in bookbinding and was common on the casings of 20th century cameras.
Cork leather is a natural-fiber alternative made from the bark of cork oak trees that has been compressed, similar to Presstoff.
The production of the PVC used in the production of many artificial leathers requires a plasticizer called a phthalate to make it flexible and soft. PVC requires petroleum and large amounts of energy thus making it reliant on fossil fuels. During the production process carcinogenic byproducts, dioxins, are produced which are toxic to humans and animals. Dioxins remain in the environment long after PVC is manufactured. When PVC ends up in a landfill it does not decompose like genuine leather and can release dangerous chemicals into the water and soil.
Polyurethane is currently more popular for use than PVC.
The production of some artificial leathers requires plastic, with others only requiring plant-based materials; the inclusion of artificial materials in the production of artificial leathers notably raises sustainability issues. However, some reports state that the manufacture of artificial leather is still more sustainable than that of real leather, with the Environmental Profit & Loss, a sustainability report developed in 2018 by Kering, stating that the impact of vegan-leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather.
Clothing and fabric uses
Artificial leathers are often used in clothing fabrics, furniture upholstery, and automotive uses. One disadvantage of plastic-coated artificial leather is that it is not porous and does not allow air to pass through, allowing sweat to accumulate if it is used for items that will be in continuous contact with a person's body, such as clothing and car seat coverings. One of its primary advantages, especially in cars, is that it requires little maintenance in comparison to leather, and does not crack or fade easily, though the surface of some artificial leathers may rub and wear off with time.
- Clarino: manufactured by Kuraray Co., Ltd. of Japan.
- Fabrikoid: a DuPont brand, cotton cloth coated with nitrocellulose
- MB-Tex: Used in many Mercedes-Benz base trims
- Naugahyde: An American brand introduced by Uniroyal
- Rexine: a British brand
- Kirza: A Russian form developed in the 1930s consisting of cotton fabric, latex, and rosin
- Piñatex: made from pineapple leaves
- MuSkin: made from a shelf fungus (Phellinus ellipsoideus) that is treated to become water resistant
- Skai: made by the German company Konrad Hornschuch AG, its name has become a genericized trademark in Germany and surrounding countries
- Bicast leather – a form of genuine leather coated with a plastic finish
- Bonded leather – a material made by blending scrap leather fibers with a plastic binder
- Microfiber – a material made with synthetic fibers thinner than natural silk; can be used for making synthetic suedes, like Ultrasuede
- Shaeffer, Claire (10 November 2003). Sew Any Fabric: A Quick Reference to Fabrics from A to Z. New York City: Penguin. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-4402-2033-3.
- "PU Synthetic Leather". Gofar Synthetic Co., Ltd. Archived from the original on 11 May 2005. Retrieved 11 May 2005.
- "Glossary of Bookbinding Terms P-S". Redeye.co.nz. Retrieved 18 April 2019.
- Kolodny, Lora (9 March 2018). "This leather is made in a lab, not from livestock". CNBC. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
- US EPA, ORD (28 January 2014). "Learn about Dioxin". US EPA. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
- "Vegan Leather Isn't As Ethical As You Think". Vocativ. 10 February 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
- Davis, Jessica (17 April 2020). "Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather?". Harper's BAZAAR. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
- Blesius, Jim (7 April 2014). "What is Faux Leather?". Retrieved 22 August 2018.
- "What is MB-Tex Seat Upholstery? - MB-Tex vs. Leather". www.loebermotors.com. Archived from the original on 27 February 2020. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
- "Muskin, the vegetable leather made from mushrooms". LifeGate. 21 November 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
- Faux Real: Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes, by Robert Kanigel. Joseph Henry Press, 2007.
- Media related to Artificial leather at Wikimedia Commons
Media files used on this page
Leather-making is an ancient craft, but it's met up with some state-of-the-art technology. Electron beam radiation, we've found, can replace the salt solutions now used to kill bacterial growth-much to the benefit of the environment. Not only is brine curing corrosive to equipment; it contributes to water pollution. We also found a way to reduce the number of poor-quality hides that make their way into leather processing. Laser light-scattering photometry can be used to evaluate hides according to the orientation of their fibers. High-tech detective work has tracked down a cause of shoemaking woes. One type of leather, which broke under the stress of manufacture, was found to have a genetic defect that's specific to certain Hereford cattle. It was ARS researchers who identified cockle, a seasonal flaw of sheepskin, as the work of a parasitic insect called keds. Once they realized that keds not only lowers the value of the skin but also causes sheep to grow more slowly, sheep farmers began treating their herds to control infestations.