Leather – Vinyl Combination on Furniture — Good or Bad Idea

When buying leather furniture, ask this question, “Is it all leather?”

Many consumers are surprised to find out that the “leather” furniture they purchased is in fact a leather and vinyl combination. They make this discovery when they notice splitting or cracking in the material. This most often occurs in the side panel of a seat cushion, or at a stress-bearing seam (outside arm, outside top of backrest, etc.).

The typical construction of a leather/vinyl combination is to use leather on those areas that come in contact with your body – the seat cushion top, the inside backrest and the tops of the armrests. All other panels are vinyl.

Here’s the problem. Vinyl is a synthetic material (and has nowhere near the tensile strength of leather). Leather is an organic material. The two materials are fundamentally incompatible when joined together along a seam. This is particularly apparent on a seat cushion where the vinyl side panel (boxing panel) is sewn to the leather top panel. Leather is porous and loses its moisture through evaporation (which is why leather should be conditioned regularly). To replace this lost moisture, the leather literally wicks (draws by absorption) oils from the vinyl where the two materials are in direct contact along a seam, reducing the vinyl’s oil content. As the vinyl loses its moisture, two things happen: 1. the vinyl loses its ability to flex. 2. it loses some of its mass (shrinks). The result is that the vinyl subsequently cracks. This is most commonly seen as fissures that start at stitch-holes and run perpendicular to the seam line. Over time, these cracks will only worsen. Once this starts, it is not repairable.

Leather/vinyl combination manufacturing strategies (sometimes referred to as leather-mate, leather-match, or other marketing terms) are a ploy by the manufacturer to reduce cost. The price is that the life expectancy of the furniture is greatly diminished — by as much as 80%, depending on usage patterns. Consumers have told us that the furniture was less than 18 months old when the problem started. Of course, as is typical in the furniture industry, the manufacturer’s warranty is for only one year. So the burden of the problem rests solely with the consumer.

Recliners, or motion furniture are commonly leather and vinyl match. One prominent San Francisco bay area retailer said that 70% of all supposed leather recliners are actually leather/vinyl.

If you expect a long, useful life from your leather furniture – be careful at the point of purchase. Ask the question, “Is the piece all leather?” If the answer is yes, then make sure that appears on your sales receipt. You can check by examining the back side of the material that you suspect may be vinyl. If it appears to be a fuzzy material or a woven fabric (usually white, but can also be gray, black, or brown), it’s vinyl. If it looks like suede, it’s probably leather.

If you already own a leather/vinyl match, pay careful attention to your conditioning regimen. If the leather is regularly moisturized, it will have less of a tendency to draw the oil from the adjacent vinyl panel. Also, when sitting on or exiting the seating area, try not to put undue stress on the seams where the arm or back pillow attached to the frame.