Composition leather is made from recycled leather off-cuts, trimmings and shavings that would normally be sent by the leather industry to landfill. The type of leather specifically used in the manufacture of composition leather is called ‘wet blue’. This raw material, which is duck-egg blue in colour (hence the name), comes straight from tanning. The shavings are bonded to a fabric layer commonly using a process such a hydro-entanglement to force the leather dust into the fabric layer. The product is then finished, typically with a polyurethane based system to give a resemblance of leather. The amount of leather shavings within the final product typically constitute less than 50% of the product.
Composition leather claims to enable a higher cutting yield than leather. This is because the material is man-made from leather fibres, produced in rolls 1.4m wide and is not derived from leather hides, as in traditional leather. However, composition leather has stretch characteristics along its warp and weft which it inherits from its fabric substrate. Consequently it stretches more in one orientation than the other. When orientation is considered, the yield of composition leather is comparable or worse than real leather.
A leather hide at its widest point is 914.4mm (36”) and 2,286mm (90”) long, whereas composition leather is available, cut to length, from a roll width of 1.4m (55”). This in turn results in less wastage and reduced material costs.
Composition leather gives a uniform finish with minimal batch-to-batch variation. It has no natural defects that are associated with real leather made from leather hides (which will always bear the marks of its natural origin). While composition leather has uniformity benefits, it must be remembered that these benefits come at a cost, which is that composition is a manmade product and is not leather. Composition leather cannot be classified as leather.
The characteristics of leather from hides can show up as:
- Healed scars: Resulting from barbed wire damage or by the horns of other cattle.
- Growth marks: Quite pronounced in the neck area.
- Grain variation: Varying from being loose in the belly and flank areas to relatively tight across the backbone.
- Shade variation: Each hide is different with varying grain structure, which means the dyes and finishes used penetrate to differing degrees. This means that uniformity is not always possible.
Composition leather is up to 50 per cent lighter than traditional leather and can be up to 30 per cent lighter than moquette. For commercial transport companies such as those operating bus or coach services, this weight reduction allows them to save on fuel consumption.
Composition leather is increasingly being adopted as an alternative to traditional leather for footwear, leather goods (including document folders, bags and wallets), airline seating, taxi seating, car upholstery, marine upholstery, commercial upholstery and domestic upholstery.
It must be remembered that composition leather is not genuine leather and cannot legally be marketed or suggested to be the same as leather. The method of manufacture of composition leather is similar to bicast leather and has similar problems with delamination and poor aesthetic qualities associated with plastic or synthetic leather. The unique properties of skin which are transmogrified into leather (breathability, strength, elasticity, retention, flexibility, softness, durability) are the result of the interwoven helix created by collagen fibres. These elongated fibrils give leather its unique characteristics and fundamental attributes. If you grind these fibres into a powder (as practiced in composition leather) you lose all of the natural characteristics and attributes of leather. It can be argued that composition leather whilst having some matter that originated in skin, does not exhibit any of the useful properties of leather that gives it its unique qualities.
Composition leather is also known to have poor heatgunning properties, in that it does not shrink. When heat is applied to the surface, it typically absorbs heat until it burns unlike leather which can be shrunk to fit. Heat gunning is commonly used finishing technique in upholstery.
- Classifying miscellaneous leather or composition leather items: http://www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/detail?itemId=1080282147&type=RESOURCES
- The 2009 World Forecasts of Composition Leather with a Leather or Leather Fiber Base in the Forms of Slabs, Sheets, or Strip Export Supplies: http://www.researchandmarkets.co.uk/reportinfo.asp?report_id=665665
- The 2009 Import and Export Market for Composition Leather with a Leather or Leather Fiber Base in the Forms of Slabs, Sheets, or Strip in the United Kingdom: http://www.researchandmarkets.co.uk/reportinfo.asp?report_id=1077554
- Imports of Manufacturers of Leather or Composition Leather (Saddlery and Harness): http://www.craftsintheenglishcountryside.org.uk/pdfs/Table%2013.pdf