Leather furniture is made using many different types of leather that are created using different processes. This is what accounts for the different look, feel and quality of leather furniture, and ultimately even how to clean it.
Leather comes from many different sources. Some are obvious, such as cattle, sheep and pigs, and some not so obvious, such as stingrays and ostriches. However, it is how leather is processed that determines which of three main categories it falls into: aniline, semi-aniline, and protected or pigmented leather.
Aniline leather is highly prized for the way it looks. It is the most natural-looking type of leather and retains unique surface characteristics like pores scars. Aniline leather is dyed by immersing the hide in a transparent dye bath, but the look of the surface is retained because it is not coated with any additional polymers or pigments. Only the very best hides, about 5 percent or so, are used for aniline leather because all surface marks remain visible. This is also the reason it is often referred to as "naked leather."
Advantages: Aniline leather is comfortable and soft to the touch. Since it retains all the unique markings and characteristics of the hide, each piece is different from any other one.
Disadvantages: Since it is not protected, aniline leather can be stained easily. It is not recommended for use in furniture for young families or in high traffic areas for that reason.
Semi-aniline leather is just a little bit tougher than aniline leather because its surface has been treated with a light coat that contains some pigment, which makes it more soil- and stain-resistant. That makes the effect of dyeing a bit different because even the slightest bit of change in the process creates a different outcome.
Advantages: While it retains the uniqueness of aniline leather, semi-aniline leather has more consistent color and is more resistant to stains. It can stand up to tougher conditions and isn't damaged as easily. Pieces upholstered in semi-aniline leather might also be a bit less expensive.
Disadvantages: The markings are not as apparent and therefore the piece does not have the unique appeal that aniline leather does. If you are a fan of the more natural-looking aniline leather, then this is not for you.
Protected or Pigmented Leather
Protected leather is the most durable type of leather, and for that reason, it is the most commonly used leather in manufacturing furniture and car upholstery. Protected leather has a polymer surface coating containing pigments, making this the toughest of these three types.
Protected leather has variations in the surface coating, but by adding it as part of the process the manufacturer has more control over the properties of the leather. The coating also adds more resistance to scuffing or fading.
Advantages: Protected or pigmented leather is easy to maintain and stands up to different conditions and uses. There are different levels of protection, and you should be able to find a type that fits your needs best.
Disadvantages: This type of leather does not have the uniqueness of aniline leather and looks less natural. It can be hard to tell one kind of grain apart from the other because the surface is coated and embossed.