You’re probably already familiar with terms like pleather and faux leather. But what is PU leather, split leather, bi-cast leather, or any of the other leather replacements currently on the market? For that matter, what exactly is leather? And what’s the difference between PU leather and faux leather and all those others terms?
Not to worry, things aren’t as confusing as they may look at first sight. The world of synthetic leather can be difficult to navigate, but as long as you understand the main differences between the genuine thing and its multiple replacements, you should be able to make better shopping decisions in the long run. Here’s a quick rundown of all the leather-related info you should be familiar with moving forward.
What Is Leather?
Leather is a flexible, durable material made from the tanned rawhides and skins of different animals. Most frequently, manufacturers rely on cattle hides to make leather. The material is used in a variety of goods, including footwear, clothing, furniture, bookbinding, and more.
Leather has been around for a while – the earliest artifacts date back to 2200 BC. While approximately 65% of the leather currently available is made from cattle hides, other animals like sheep, goats, and pigs are also used. Less often you may stumble upon leather made from deerskin, horse hides, or reptilian skins. The top countries known for producing leather include China, Italy, India, Brazil, Korea, and Russia.
How Is Leather Made?
The leather manufacturing process is divided into three distinct steps, with an optional fourth: preparatory, tanning, and crusting. The last step is surface coating, but not all leather is subjected to it.
In this first step of making leather, manufacturers prepare the animal hide for tanning. This step includes multiple activities:
- Hair removal
Next, tanning helps stabilize the proteins of the rawhide so that it does not begin to rot and putrefy. A properly tanned hide will become flexible and won’t suffer any damage if it becomes wet. Tanning is done via a variety of methods – the most common being chrome tanning and vegetable tanning.
During this step, manufacturers thin the leather, then re-tan and lubricate it. The process also involves coloring, as well as drying and softening operations.
A final, optional step is surface coating, also called finishing. This generally involves oiling, glazing, embossing, waxing, or other similar procedures meant to give the leather the desired result in terms of appearance and feel.
What is PU Leather?
While leather comes with several advantages, manufacturers are always looking for more ethical methods to obtain materials with a similar feel. That’s the basis behind PU leather, a leather substitute invented in the early 20th century. It became a widespread commercial product in the 1960s thanks to advances in the manufacturing process.
PU – which stands for polyurethane – is a widely used synthetic leather. The material is usually made with a split leather backing covered with an embossed layer of polyurethane. This coating makes the synthetic leather a much more breathable product for wear. After applying the coating, manufacturers further treat the PU leather to make it look like the genuine thing by adding pore patterns and dye, giving it a more natural look. As a general note, split leather is a layer removed from the cowhide. Some PU leather is 100% synthetic.
PU leather should not be confused with PVC. PVC – also known as polyvinyl chloride – is a type of leather substitute made by adding plasticizers and dye to PVC resin in order to manipulate its texture. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, the materials are different. PVC, for instance, isn’t as breathable and flexible as PU leather. That’s why it’s used more for car interiors and upholstery and less for actual clothing.
On the same note, PU leather is also known as bicast leather, which is another type of faux leather. This kind of material is made out of a combination of polyurethane and low-grade leather, or polyurethane with cotton backing. Generally speaking, people also refer to PU leather when they use terms like faux leather, pleather, and vegan leather.
Is PU Leather Vegan?
Vegan leather has become a buzzword in recent years, as far as the fashion community is concerned. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, vegan is used to describe a product that does not contain any animal product or byproduct in it.
To put it simply, 100% synthetic PU leather is indeed vegan. Bicast leather, however, can contain actual leather, which means that it’s not vegan. On the same note, some products that are made from PU leather aren’t 100% vegan either, since they use split leather as a base. To avoid confusion when shopping, opt solely for products that are specifically advertised as vegan – by using terms like 100% synthetic materials or vegan leather.
Comparing Real Leather to PU Leather
There are many qualities that set real leather apart from PU leather. Most importantly, the genuine thing is extremely durable. A leather clothing article can last you up to 20 years if you properly care for it. They’re known as luxury items for a reason. Leather articles are also more breathable and more difficult to puncture or tear. Additionally, real leather is more biodegradable than its artificial counterparts. However, leather production and the tanning process use several toxic chemicals that damage the environment – something to keep in mind if you’re interested in buying more eco-friendly products.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: no animals are harmed during the process of manufacturing PU leather. If that’s a concern to you, you’ll be happy to know that the faux leather industry has made immense strides – so much so that a faux leather item will look as close to the real thing as possible. But, artificial leather comes with downsides as well. PU leather is not as durable. Clothing or items made from PU leather can start to show damage in only a couple of years, even less if you don’t care for the products properly. However, they are easier to maintain, since you can usually clean them with a damp cloth or dry clean them. Genuine leather requires a special leather cleaner and conditioner.
Another thing to keep in mind – PU leather is considerably less expensive than the real deal, which makes it a popular choice for budget-conscious shoppers. It can also be produced in a variety of colors, while genuine leather only comes in a limited amount of shades. Polyurethane leather is cleaner to make but isn’t as biodegradable.
All in all, both genuine leather and PU leather comes with pros and cons. When shopping around, it’s important to consider your budget and ethical views to make sure you purchase a product you’ll be completely satisfied with.