Why is automotive leather different from other leathers?
Most consumers are not aware that there is any difference between the leather of their shoes, sofa, or car seats. Leather is leather (unless it isn’t), but closer inspection reveals that there’s a big difference between the materials used in fashion or upholstery and the ones used in your car. Automotive leathers are an entirely different product, highly engineered and designed to meet the most stringent performance, aesthetic and environmental requirements, and customer demands.
Quality and performance
Leather is a natural product, which means there’s a certain level of variety. Normally it’s the grain that tells us something about the quality. Yet, like with every product, you need to find the right balance between quality, performance and application. Some examples in different kinds of leathers are: An upholstery leather will need to be softer and more malleable than shoe upper. Fatliquors are used to make the hide fibres soft. Belts, bridlery and saddles have a focus on appearance but are working items that need more firmness and may have less softness. Chamois leather used to dry your car uses fish oils.
Why are all these leathers produced with different properties and not just treated to have the best on all fronts? Different ways of making leather result in performance tailored for the purpose. Unlike the leather for your jacket or shoes, automotive leather would be too firm. Compare it to fabrics: the material that would be beautiful for a wedding gown is a horrible choice for hiking gear. Another example is denim shirts, which are a much softer, thinner denim than is used for your jeans. More and different performance qualities than needed would simply be wasted and use more resources than needed. Automotive leather is a peculiar case in that regard, as it is one of the leathers that needs to do a lot. Its property is not singularly focused on either hardness, flexibility, resistance, or touch. It’s all of these properties. Let’s not forget that automotive leather also needs to be, free from and as light-weight as possible. Let’s have a closer look.
Automotive leather – Thickness
One of the differences is in the leather thickness. Weight reduction in car interiors is a focal point and has been for some years, especially with the increase of electric car mobility. Other mobility sectors face the same challenge because less weight means a reduction in fuel consumption. The thickness of leather, though, determines how strong and resistant it is to damage. Car leathers are commonly less than 1.4mm thick, with surface coatings less than 50µm thick.
To achieve this thickness, the hide is shaved. The thickness is always quoted as a range by the tanner as it will vary by as little as 0.1 mm (one-tenth of a millimeter).
Automotive leather - performance
Another major difference between automotive leather and other leather types are performance standards. Consumers expect higher expectations from car leather compared to other leather types. After all, car interiors are subjected to heavy use, high temperatures, sunlight (UV), staining, and soiling. Many of these issues are already dealt with by the natural properties of leather. Standards continue to improve, and coatings enhance the natural qualities of the materials. Lightfastness, rubfastness, (chemical) resistance, and flexibility help car seats to withstand the daily wear, tear, scuff, stain, and soiling. Temperatures in vehicles can go up to around 100°C, so stopping the leather from shrinking or cracking is vital. This is one of the reasons why high specification leather is the preferred choice for mobility interiors outside of automotive. Seating in aviation takes a heavy beating day in, day out, especially with regard to soiling. Leather only needs occasional wiping down.
Obviously, these properties are not unique to automotive leather, but combining high-resistance levels with a pleasant touch and feel qualities is where it stands out.
Automotive leather - Look and touch
Leather gets a lot of additional properties during the finishing stage. It determines resistance levels, but also the final look and feel of the material. Automotive interiors demand perfection, so every leather is finished in such a way to create an equal surface and even cut. It needs to be flexible as well, move with its user, but bounce back afterwards.
Special colouring using dyes and pigments add a unique appeal, often with a matte look effect. This serves both aesthetic and safety needs, as sunlight should not be reflected from the surfaces. Special coating technologies help realize this, but also add a unique feel to the material. Milling leather in the dry milling, enables tanners to add specific textures, which add to the interior appeal.
Car interiors need uniformity, so everything is reproducible. The texture and even the feel of the material. The handling can be vastly different. The final feel may be waxy, silky, slippery, grippy, or talc-like – or even combinations of these.
Automotive leather is built to last
It probably comes as no surprise that automotive leather is made to last for many years. Little special care is needed, as the leather is made to withstand its use and most frequent forms of damage. Most impressive though is the type of treatment the leather has had. Any material we touch frequently, in a space we spend hours in, should be safe. Most of the treatment of leather, the finishing, and aftercare products are water- or bio-based. If you also wonder about the ‘new car smell’ being gone from many cars, it’s because interiors are more and more VOC-free. Meaning, no volatile organic compounds in the in-car air.
Considering this, it is clear automotive leather is not just leather.
Did you know leather is the favorite upgrade for car interiors? Discover the fact.