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A New Look at Leather

Martha Stewart Living, May 2006

Leather gets better with age, acquiring a patina and a character that no textile can match. But too often leather's timeless appeal makes it a candidate for familiar (and sometimes stodgy) furniture, and in the sea of black and same-old brown, we forget that the material can be bright and fresh. Just a dash of it can give a room a signature style.

Buying
First, a brief education in the buying process: Unlike most other materials, leather is usually priced by the square foot; it is sold by the complete or half hide at leather retailers and some fabric and crafts stores. Expect to pay $2 to $10 per square foot for cowhide or lambskin. Thick, durable cowhide, commonly used in upholstery, is good for stamping; a single one is usually 20 to 60 square feet. Lambskin, or garment leather, is available in smaller sizes (five- to 10-square-foot skins); because it tends to be thin and pliable, you can stitch it on a home sewing machine.

Quality
To determine quality, touch the leather before you settle on one. Ask the shop owner about the distinction between full-grain and top-grain hides. "People assume that top-grain is best because of the word top, when actually full-grain hides are the best quality," says Robert Wright, president of the American Society of Interior Designers. Full-grain hides tend to be more supple and have a natural feel. Bring a white cloth to the shop with you and lightly rub it on the finished side of the leather you wish to purchase. If color appears on the cloth, the leather is crocking, meaning the dye is rubbing off -- so it's a piece you'll want to avoid.

Care
Once you've turned your chosen leather into something for your home, give it proper care. Leather requires minimal maintenance, just a regular dusting with a dry cloth or a vacuuming with a brush attachment. If you spill something on it, use a clean absorbent rag to blot up the liquid immediately, being careful not to rub the leather, which might worsen the stain. A damp cloth with a drop of saddle soap is safe to use on tough spots, but test it on an inconspicuous place first. When in doubt, consult a professional leather specialist.

Working with Leather
Leather Decorating Projects