My Confusing Hunt for a Leather Couch

Plenty of furniture is labeled as leather, but not everything called leather is exactly that. What are you really sitting on?

| Patrick Flood

Few things declare uncompromised masculinity as effectively as a couch wrapped in the chemically treated skin of an animal. “Here I am,” a leather couch announces to all, “the master of my abode and these flayed cattle.”

But for those of us in search of a couch to furnish one’s sweet bachelor pad – as I am currently, and sweet this bachelor pad shall be – we quickly learn that not all furniture advertised as leather is exactly that. My search has revealed some tricky labeling. Here are a handful of blends that are labeled as leather:

Bonded Leather:

Bonded leather, which emerged on the furniture market in 2006, is made from leather scraps and polyurethane that are glued, or bonded together. A top layer of polyurethane is then pressed to resemble the surface of genuine leather. The end product looks and smells like leather, but can be produced at a lower cost because it’s only one-fifth leather and four-fifths plastic. Bonded leather is often advertised on websites and in stores alongside genuine leather, without anything to distinguish the two.

Bonded leather was the only sort-of leather I knew existed before I started searching for a couch. But then down the rabbit hole I went. Turns out there are more.

Leather Match:

Leather furniture advertised as “leather match” or “leather everywhere the body touches” is also (surprise!) not made entirely of leather. So while the cushions are upholstered in leather, the sides and back of your couch will be vinyl. This is another useful way to cut down the amount of leather used, saving some cows their hides and you some money. But claims such as “leather everywhere the body touches” or “100% genuine leather match” can be confusing for consumers who aren’t cowboys or leather tannery operators in their spare time. I am neither. Yet.

Cat Leather:

Don’t worry; it’s not a real thing. Moving on.

Split Leather:

This material is sometimes also known as bicast or bycast leather. Bycast is made by bonding polyurethane coating to split-hide or composite leather. Furniture made from split leather has a real sheet of leather in there somewhere, but only underneath a layer of plastic.

Top-grain Leather:

Most leather clothing and shoes come from this one. As above, top-grain leather is made from leather that’s been split into thinner sheets, but top-grain leather is only the top layer. There’s no plastic involved here, just good, wholesome dead animal.

Full-grain Leather:

This is the real deal, and therefore the most expensive type of leather. Full-grain leather is the full hide of an animal.

This covers the leather I’ve so far encountered on the great couch hunt of 2013. All I ever really wanted was to sit on something flayed.

Patrick Flood

Patrick was a former project associate who helped with's social media efforts and wrote for the website. He holds a B.A. in Classical Languages from Wesleyan University.

You Might Be Interested In