Automotive leather, a pinnacle of luxury and sophistication in vehicle interiors, exemplifies the fusion of aesthetic elegance with functional durability. Automotive leather undergoes rigorous processing to meet the stringent demands of the automotive industry.

Renowned for its softness, suppleness, and resistance to wear, automotive leather enhances the tactile experience for occupants and withstands the rigours of daily use and exposure to varying environmental conditions. Its ability to age gracefully, developing a unique patina over time, adds a touch of timeless charm to the interior ambience.

Whether adorning the seats, steering wheel, or dashboard, automotive leather embodies craftsmanship and refinement, elevating the driving experience to new heights of comfort and luxury.

How leather is made

A Rich History

Leather, one of humankind’s oldest and most versatile materials, holds a rich history deeply intertwined with human civilization. Renowned for its durability, flexibility, and aesthetic appeal, leather has been used in automotive interiors since the first automobile was introduced in the late 19th century.

The cattle hides used in the production of leather are by-products of the meat and dairy industry. The meticulous process involves several stages of treatment to transform raw hides into the supple, refined material we recognise.

Scroll down to find out more…

How leather is made: Stage 1/4

Cleaning

The are a number of steps in the process of cleaning the hides, which is also known as the ‘beamhouse.

Soaking: The hides are submerged in water to remove dirt, blood, or salt residues, which also rehydrates them.

Liming: hides are treated with a chemical solution to loosen hair and epidermis from the hides.

Fleshing and Trimming: excess tissue and hair are removed from the hides.

Deliming and Bating: the hides’ PH is neutralised, and enzymes are used to break down proteins.

Pickling: hides are treated with a mixture of salt and acid to prevent bacterial growth and stabilise the collagen fibres. Pickling also prepares the hides for tanning.

Lastly, the hides may be split to produce the top or grain layer, used to make full-grain or nubuck leather, and the bottom layer, used for split or suede leather. The thickness of the leather is set per the OEM spec.

How leather is made: Stage 2/4

Tanning

Tanning is the process of changing the hide’s protein structure into a stable material: leather. Tanning the hide protects against swelling, heat, microorganisms, and other decaying factors. Though leather is a long-lasting material, it is still a natural material that can eventually be broken down and fully returned to nature.

Until recently, there were three main tanning methods: vegetable tanning, wet blue (chrome) tanning, and wet white (commonly glutaraldehyde) tanning. Recently, biobased tanning agents, free from chrome and heavy metals, have been introduced.

After tanning, the leather is graded according to the quantity and location of natural characteristics and any man-made faults such as knife cuts. The best quality leather is reserved for aniline or nubuck, followed by semi-aniline, with the rest being used for corrected grain or embossing.

How leather is made: Stage 3/4

Retanning

After tanning the hide, what you have is leather. However, it isn’t yet in the condition where it can be used, so it needs a lot of mechanical processing at this phase. Water is removed from the leather through sammying, which is essentially a process involving large rollers that press the water out of the material. Finally, the leather is shaved and trimmed to create an even, neat-looking material.

The leather goes back into the tanning drums to give the leather its defining characteristics. Fat liquoring improves the softness and strength and adds waterproof qualities to the material. The leather is also coloured, dyed, and treated with other chemicals to prepare it for its final use. Automotive leather must meet exceptional standards on all fronts, as it will have to resist staining and soiling, as well as many environmental factors and daily use.

How leather is made: Stage 4/4

Finishing

Various techniques and chemicals are applied to achieve the desired characteristics in the finishing stage. First, the leather may undergo dyeing to impart colour. Following dyeing, the leather may undergo further treatments such as embossing, buffing, or brushing to create textures or patterns.

Next, oils, waxes, and resins are applied to the leather surface to provide protection, softness, and sheen. These finishing agents can be applied using spray guns, rollers, or brushes and are often cured through heat or air drying to ensure adhesion and durability.

The final step in the leather finishing process involves inspection and quality control. Finished leather is carefully examined for any defects or inconsistencies in colour, texture, or finish and to ensure it meets OEM manufacturers specifications.

Automotive Leather Facts

Click on the statements below to learn the true facts about automotive leather…

Cattle are not raised to turn their hides into leather. Their primary purpose is to feed the growing world population, and all the leftover hides would go to landfills if not used to make leather. The value of the hide is between 1-2% of the value of the animal; no farmer can afford to raise cattle to make leather.

Significant legislation is already in place, and with the introduction of the European Union’s Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) in June 2023, to ensure that hides being used to make automotive leather are not sourced from any area where forests have been destroyed. Furthermore, the leather industry certification schemes have stringent sections concerning hide sourcing and no risk of deforestation, which tanneries must comply with to pass.

Leather is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, confirmed by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) in 2022. The farmer receives just 1%-2% of the total value of the cattle from their hides, which indicates that cattle are not raised to make leather, it wouldn’t be financially viable.

We have been making leather for many thousands of years. Animals were hunted for their meat, and all parts of the animals were used for survival and improved living. The hides were tanned by smoking, drying in the sun, and using animal fats, which were then used as shelters, blankets, clothing, or footwear.

If animal hides weren’t used to make leather, they would be sent to landfills where they would rot and emit CO2. If the automotive industry stopped using leather in cars, an extra 644 million kg of CO2e would be emitted annually, but if they increased the use of leather in cars by just 10%, it would prevent 3.5 million hides from landfills, that’s a saving of over 64 million kg of CO2e.

Automotive leather comes from a sustainable, naturally renewable raw material in cattle hides, which are by-products from another industry which prevents millions of tons of waste from going to landfill each year.

Leather is part of the circular economy, where every part of the cow is used, and nothing is wasted. The hides are upcycled into leather, a natural material with a biogenic carbon count of over 80%. Upon reaching the end of its life, it can be composted to enrich the soil. This, in turn, nurtures the growth of grass, providing sustenance for the very cows that initiate this regenerative cycle all over again.

Leather is naturally biodegradable. A rawhide will decompose very quickly, and a tanned hide will take between 10 to 50 years, depending on how it is processed.

When you compare this to ‘vegan leather’, it’s a fraction of the time. With no current viable option but landfill, these plastic and fossil-fuel-based synthetics will still be around in 500 – 1,000 years, emitting dangerous gases and microplastics that are harmful to the environment and human health.

Cattle hides are a natural material that is 100% biobased. After transforming the hide into finished automotive leather with a minimum 80% biobased renewable content, and with recent tanning developments, many are now 90%+.

Compare this to leather alternatives, or “vegan leather,” which typically have a 10%—30% biobased carbon content and predominantly fossil-fuel-based carbon.

Performance automotive leather is high quality and made to last and, in most cases, will last longer than the car; many classic cars still have the original leather interior that was fitted decades previously. Interiors are subjected to many external factors during use, such as people sitting on them, getting in and out, sweat from our hands on the steering wheel, high/low temperatures, sunlight, staining and soiling.

Automotive leather manufacturers must produce products to meet the exacting standards of the OEMs to ensure leather can withstand all these factors and more and look as good as it did on day one.

Very little is needed to keep automotive leather looking fantastic. Its anti-soiling properties mean spilt coffee, muddy dogs, or children’s snacks won’t stain, smell, or ruin your seats.

Regular vacuuming and wiping the seats with a damp, light soap solution will keep them clean and fresh. Once or twice a year, use an approved conditioner to ensure they remain in great shape.

Passenger wellbeing is high on the agenda of modern car design, and given the amount of time we spend in a car, it’s important to be comfortable.

Automotive leather feels great and has a natural flex or give, making it very comfortable on long (and short) journeys, unlike PU/PVC alternatives, which are generally rigid with no flex. The natural characteristics of automotive leather mean it will wick away sweat on a hot day, and modern perforated leather allows cooling systems installed in the seat to help. On cold days, the leather works well with

Leather seats are near the top of the list of many people’s ‘must haves’ when they are looking at buying a premium second-hand car and are in demand with a higher perceived value that is often associated with luxury.

Whether you keep your car for 1, 3 or 5 years before selling it, a leather interior will retain its look and feel due to its durability and ensure the residual value of your car remains high, giving you a better return on your investment when compared with alternative PU/PVC based materials that will not perform or look the same.

It’s believed that cattle are the main contributors to climate change as they belch methane, which is a greenhouse gas, but it is part of the important natural biogenic carbon cycle.

After about 10 years, methane breaks down into natural CO2 and water. Grass absorbs the CO2 through photosynthesis, which is then eaten by cattle, and so the cycle begins again.

The biogenic carbon cycle is relatively fast. Compare that to CO2 from fossil fuels, which remain in the atmosphere for 1,000 or more years.

Leather is defined as “treated animal skin which is used for making shoes, clothes, bags, and furniture” so how could leather be vegan?

The term vegan leather has been commonly used to greenwash and trick consumers into believing that PU or PVC leather alternative materials are more sustainable than genuine leather when that’s far from the truth in most cases.

Types of Leather 1/6

Full Grain

Full grain leather is considered the highest quality grade of leather, prized for its natural beauty, durability, and authenticity. It is made from the outermost layer of the animal hide, where the grain remains intact. This layer retains the natural markings, imperfections, and inherent characteristics of the animal, such as wrinkles, scratches, and variations in colour. Because full-grain leather retains its original texture and integrity, it is exceptionally strong and resilient, making it highly resistant to moisture, heat, and abrasion. Unlike other types of leather, full-grain leather typically undergoes minimal processing, allowing its natural features to shine through. This results in a luxurious and distinctive appearance that only improves with age, developing a rich patina and enhancing its beauty over time.

Scroll down to find out about other types of leather…

Types of Leather 2/6

Top Grain

Top-grain leather is a type of leather that is derived from the top or outermost layer of animal hide. Unlike full-grain leather, which retains the entire outer layer of the hide, including any imperfections, top-grain leather undergoes a process where the outer layer is sanded or buffed to remove blemishes and achieve a more uniform surface. While this process may slightly diminish the natural grain pattern, it results in a softer, more flexible leather, and less prone to developing marks over time.

Types of Leather 3/6

Corrected Grain

Corrected grain leather is a type of leather that has undergone a process to alter its surface appearance. This process typically involves buffing or sanding the surface of the leather to remove any imperfections, such as scars, scratches, or blemishes. Once the surface is smoothed, an artificial grain pattern may be embossed onto the leather to give it a more uniform and aesthetically pleasing appearance. While this process enhances the leather’s visual appeal and consistency, it also removes the natural grain layer, resulting in a less authentic texture than full-grain or top-grain leather. Corrected grain leather is commonly used in applications where a flawless and consistent appearance is desired

Types of Leather 4/6

Aniline

Aniline leather is a full-grain leather that is selected from the best grades and is coloured using natural dyes without any surface coating or pigment layer. This process allows the natural grain and markings of the leather to remain visible, showcasing its inherent beauty and character. Aniline leather is highly prized for its soft, luxurious feel and its ability to develop a rich patina over time, enhancing its aesthetic appeal.

Types of Leather 5/6

Semi-Aniline

Semi-aniline leather is a type of leather that combines the natural look and feel of aniline leather with a protective coating for added durability. In the production of semi-aniline leather, the hides undergo a dyeing process where the dye penetrates the leather, imparting rich colour while still allowing the natural grain and characteristics of the hide to show through. Unlike aniline leather, which has minimal protective treatment, semi-aniline leather receives a light topcoat or finish, providing some protection against stains, spills, and fading without completely masking the leather’s natural texture and appearance.

Types of Leather 6/6

Nubuck

Nubuck leather is a type of top-grain leather that has been buffed or sanded on the grain side to create a velvety, suede-like surface. This process gives Nubuck its characteristic softness and luxurious texture. Unlike suede, which is created from the underside of the hide, Nubuck maintains the grain side of the leather, albeit with a finely textured finish. Nubuck leather retains the inherent strength and durability of traditional leather while offering a more tactile and visually distinctive appearance.

Subscribe to our newsletter

    Your e-mail is only used exclusively for our newsletter and will not be shared with third parties.

    Articles

    Contact us