While there’s a wide choice of interior finish options for vehicle owners these days, genuine leather still remains the number one choice.

That’s according to Paul Hewitt, founder of Seat Surgeons in England and one of the country’s leading leather trimmers. In a career spanning over thirty years, Paul has seen many changes in the business – not to mention in people’s tastes. But for feel, durability and aesthetic appeal he says nothing comes close to leather. Which is why he is so proud to be still handcrafting leather interiors today and passing on his very special skills to a new generation.

Since helping out in his father’s bodyshop at the age of 13, Paul always knew this is what he wanted to do. After training as a coach trimmer at college, he went on to trim leather for everything from luxury cars to buses to speed boats. Soon he was running his own businesses in places as diverse as Malaysia and China as well as in the UK.

Leather for commercial vehicles

Today, Seat Surgeons is one of the leading vehicle interior specialists in the UK. Paul has invested heavily in state-of-the-art cutting systems, sewing machinery and embroidery tooling, and is proud that all his raw materials – apart from thread, for some reason – is sourced from the UK. Part of Seat Surgeon’s work focuses on the luxury car market – and Range Rovers in particular. But there is also big demand for high spec leather interiors for commercial vehicles. For instance, they specialise in adding sports seats to VW Transporter vans covered with tailormade leather upholstery. “Our leather interiors make commercial vehicles much nicer to drive,” says Paul, “and leather is so much more durable than synthetic alternatives especially in work situations.”

“I’m seeing car manufacturers going more and more for ‘plastic’,” says Paul, “but, ironically, we’re getting busier than ever doing leather!”

Luxury upgrades

On the luxury side, Paul has worked on prestigious upgrade projects for companies like Overfinch as well as for celebrities including boxer Tyson Fury and footballer Wayne Rooney. According to Paul, Range Rover has improved its own leather a lot in recent years so he sees fewer new models coming into the shop, but the demand from used car owners is booming with people looking to take their interiors to a higher level. “Diamond stitching is a particularly impressive way to add elegance and refinement to a leather refurb,” says Paul, who also lays claim to introducing the technique to the mass market a few years ago. Other customers simply want to upgrade from cloth or plastic seats to the feel of genuine leather.

Leather’s superior performance

Although Seat Surgeons does offer synthetic alternatives, Paul says they are nowhere near as nice as leather. They don’t have the feel, the touch that genuine leather does. “I prefer to work with leather,” he says, “even if it’s a little harder to cut and sew than man-made synthetics. As far as the end product is concerned, nothing beats a really nice grainy leather with a soft touch and nice smell.”

Performance is an issue too. “Fake or PU leather – and fabric – covers do make you sweat,” Paul says. He feels that genuine leather that hasn’t been over-corrected, on the other hand, “does seem to take the heat out of the seat even in full sun”.

Changing trends

Having been in the business for decades, Paul has seen a lot of change in the industry. In the past he would get a lot of trade from car dealers and converters looking to add value to cars before selling them on. It’s a clear sign of the high value that car owners continue to place on a genuine leather interior, and yet this isn’t being reflected in the choices car manufacturers are offering their customers right now. “I’m seeing car manufacturers going more and more for ‘plastic’,” says Paul, “but, ironically, we’re getting busier than ever doing leather!”

Today, thanks to supply chain issues and rising prices, the market for second-hand cars is booming – which is good news for companies like Seat Surgeons. Paul continues, “That’s what’s feeding our business right now. Vehicles are like clothes horses. Entrepreneurs aren’t so much selling the car or van itself but the ‘kit’ inside – that’s what people are looking for.”

Sustainability and ethics

Sustainability is also a hot topic in the car market. Manufacturers are finding ever more outlandish materials which they can position as ‘sustainable’ although, as One 4 Leather has pointed out repeatedly, many of these are plastic-based and a lot more harmful to the environment than natural, biodegradable leather. As for emissions from the tanning process, Paul’s view is that the situation is improving. Having worked extensively in China, he saw first hand how sustainability issues have become more and more important there. He recalls sitting in meetings where Chinese government officials would insist that tanneries meet ever stricter controls on emissions. If it’s happening in China you can be sure it’s happening elsewhere too.

Increasingly, animal welfare is an important issue as well. While in the past, everything was driven solely by price, today Paul pays close attention to the source of his hides. Working with companies such as Pittards and Bridge of Weir, Seat Surgeons can be sure its leather is coming from animals that have been well cared for. Gradually, Paul thinks, customers will come to understand this distinction too and embrace leather even more widely.

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