Understanding leather & vegan leather

This blog is designed to give you a much greater understanding of automotive leather. We have fallen down the rabbit hole and retrieved all the information, so you don't have to...

It’s no secret that your leather will dry, crack and fade over time if it’s not properly cared for. Thankfully lots of great brands have taken this into consideration and created a selection of products & methods to help you keep your luxury leather in fantastic condition!

Why does leather crack and fade over time if not properly cared for?

All leathers will dry and crack over time if not properly cared for, but in the more recent years car leathers have advanced rapidly in how they are dyed, painted and protected.

Picture an old Bentley with the finest top-grain semi-aniline leather. It’s factory fresh and looking incredible. Two years go by and you can see the leather across the dash is starting to get ever so slightly tighter. You don’t think much of it, another three years go by without treatment and all of a sudden the leather is looking very tight on the dash and it is pulling considerably. One more hot summer goes by and the leather pigments are starting to crack and it’s looking very worn...

This is all thanks to the sun’s heat & UV rays, causing the accelerating deterioration of the leather which is rapidly changing its spritely appearance. That’s because all of the natural oils, proteins and collagens are breaking down over time leaving the leather looking lacklustre. The main component of leather is collagen, there are more than 28 different types of collagen existing in leather and just like our skin, leather needs to be looked after in order to keep it in great condition.

Oxidisation & hydrolysis are the two main causes of the deterioration of leather. Be careful of harsh oils, liquids, UV, and heat.

Why does some leather have texture and others not?

Let’s take two examples, Audi has smoother leather in appearance and to the touch, whereas Aston Martin has blemishes running throughout, almost like you can see the cows skin and the life it’s lived without perfect symmetry. Aston Martin definitely has the highest quality full-grain leather.

Audi is less likely to be using a full-grain leather but rather split-grain from the cattle they choose from Europe, as there are fewer blemishes and it’s very smooth, with a consistent texture. This is known as corrected grain leather. Corrected grain leather is heated, heavily protected and embossed to give the impression of top grain full aniline leather.

We have personally never seen a modern ( year 2015+ ) Audi leather dye fail or have wear marks, indicating it has thick protectants and painted layers. This is a perfect example of when modern advanced leather protectants come into great use, but the flip reverse is we are starting to move away from the luxury of the pure form. It’s a balance and the leather is made with the intentions of the use of the car.

Aston Martin leather...we absolutely love it!

Aston Martin chooses, and I’m sure pay a pretty penny, to use Highland Cattle hide, supplied by Bridge Of Weir situated west of Glasgow. You have a dizzying array of choices when fitting out your dream machine thanks to the partnership with arguably the worlds best hide suppliers.

The reason they choose Highland Cattle is that they are well protected from the elements with incredibly thick hair that is long and oily. These majestic beasts boast the longest hair of any cattle breed. I’m surprised they don’t call them scotch-cow. To put it simply the long, oily, thick hair protects the hide underneath giving it an incredible full grain natural texture with very little scarring from insect bites, branding or bruising. We could only imagine every luxury car brand across the globe would love to use this top grain leather.

If you have driven the north coast 500 you will appreciate just how stunning these animals are standing on the west coastline of the highlands just on from Applecross braving the bitter winds and heavy weather fronts. It’s important to note that leather is a by-product of the meat industry and we are not killing these majestic animals in vein purely for our luxury leather.

The new leather smell

The new leather smell is natural and earthy! It will differ from car brand to brand as some manufacturers will choose to use much harsher processes, protectants and dyes on the leather that can affect the smell and or reduce the natural amount of smell breaking through the protective and painted layers.

We all wish we could keep that new leather smell but sadly it will fade over the months and years however good leather care will keep it for longer.

We are in luck as you can choose from a selection of products that will add the leather scent back into your car. Chemists are incredible at what they do and they have advanced fragrances that are so amazing, that it's hard to tell a natural scent from artificial scent. If you want to retrieve the leather smell via products they will differ massively in quality - so check before you apply any products or scents. Balms with added scents are a great way of bringing that leather smell back for a new car fresh feeling.

Different types of leather

Pure Aniline - Aniline leather is a type of leather dyed exclusively with soluble dyes without covering the surface with a topcoat paint or insoluble pigments. This is the purest form of leather and absorbs moister very easily. It needs to be treated with a high amount of care.

Semi-aniline leather - This sits between Pure Aniline and pigmented leather, offering chartists from both. The protection isn’t so thick that it detracts from the leather needing to apply a pattern but equally offers some forms of artificial protection.

Pigmented Leather ( protected leather ) – The most common & most durable leather, that’s fully painted and protected. The leather may be buffered and sanded to remove scaring, branding & veining then a new texture may be applied to give the impression of natural top grain leather. This is easily visible in the BMW models roughly dating 2000 - 2015 with an almost perfect leather pattern. This is a split-grain embossed ( bottom of the split ) rather than a top grain semi or full aniline leather.

To understand automotive leather, we need to understand the protection and paint applied from the tannery...

The car manufactures order the leather and they are just assembling the leather that’s being created by the leather tanneries. The tannery is the manufacturers of leather.

Let’s take Range Rover as an example, a buyer from Ranger Rover will source the leather from a tannery and provided the list of requirements for the leather. i.e quality, grain, split, colour, durability, texture. No doubt cost is a factor also.

It’s then down to the tannery to meet these requirements and they may choose from a variety of tanning cycles/methods. After tanning, they will then go on choosing the protective and painted layers and will choose from a wide variety of chemicals and methods. This will determine the durability and naturalness of the leather. One of the last steps in the process from the tanning manufacture is embossing under heat. This determines the leather pattern.

Vegan leather?

Pleather or Vegan Leather is a term coined by the sales professional when selling a new electric car. This positioning of the vinyl material makes you feel it has the same comparable luxury as the leather they have been selling for decades. It does have it’s advantages as it lasts easily over a decade without much care needed. You can apply a Gtechniq leather guard to Vegan leather in order to protect the material further and help with further cleaning and stain prevention. The only real downside to the new “Vegan Leather” is you loose the leather smell we all love so much. Is it a luxury? This is a question you personally have to ask... leather definitely has more scarcity and range of quality.

There is an impact on the environment that needs to be taken into consideration with the use of PVC & phthalate but it is considerably lower than traditional leather in regards to emissions and natural resources, however, we do have to question the use of more plastics and the process of creating PVC with plasticisers. Often the case when an industry is pushing a new material they bury the bad under the good and the negative damages only come to light years later once the sales marking efforts have slowed. A perfect example of this is diesel cars.

Top tips for looking after your leather:

  • Use a heat screen shield and keep the interior temperature below 70°C - the leather will suffer quicker shrinkage above these temperatures

  • Modern pigmented leather ( protected leather ) is incredibly well protected from factory and may not take balms easily if the is a very durable layer of protectants and paints. Modern advanced leather protection may be more suitable for prevention.

  • Before applying any balm always clean the leather fully as the balm will draw any dirt back into the leather deeper.

  • If the leather is drying and cracking you can use balms to rehydrate the leather that will penetrate below the dyes and protectants. Wipe off any excess balm as it will sit on the surface and become sticky. Give the leather 12 hours to absorb as much balm as possible, you may wish to apply two coats if severely dehydrated.

  • Do not use common oils and balms to rejuvenate leather, use leather specific products that have been formulated by chemists specifically for leather care within the automotive industry. It’s been designed to work with protectants and pigments found in the automotive sector.

Products we recommend & why:

  • Gtechniq Leather Guard - fantastic for modern leathers and will help protect the leather going into the future. This is an advanced formula that will act as a durable ultra-thin barrier against light leatherwear and standing liquids and oils. Link to Amazon

  • Autoglym Leather Balm - perfect for older and dried leather. This balm will help rejuvenate tired-looking leather and drastically improve the comfort of protected leather. Link to Amazon

Visual references:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxuUP-9MoOQ&t=602s Time - 3:43 - A YouTubers look at Aston Martin leather

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cu6wGtT-lSo A very raw video giving a great insight into the leather process from start to finish for protected leather.


Understanding the difference between full aniline leather, semi-aniline and protected leather