If you’re looking for a great value alternative to expensive leather, you should check out imitation leather, also known as faux leather, leatherette or pleather. In the following guide, we’ll show you what you need to keep in mind when working with imitation leather:
What is imitation leather?
Also known as faux leather or pleather, imitation leather is a fabric that replicates the look of real leather. You will therefore see it being called “imitation” or “faux” leather. These “vegetarian” alternatives are also a good option from an animal welfare point of view.
As leather is an expensive natural material, and scars and damage to the leather as well as an irregular grain on a hide of leather result in high waste costs, finding a suitable alternative to replace leather has long been an important task.
Generally, imitation leather is a combination of a textile fabric and a plastic coating e.g. polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The fabric can either be made from natural or synthetic fibres, or a blend of both, and is then coated with soft PVC or other coatings. The surface is usually given a grain design so that the finish is similar to that of real leather.
An alternative to leather
The use of imitation leather instead of genuine leather is based on a range of reasons. PVC-based imitation leathers are cheap and robust, and polyurethane leathers can be machine washed and dry without hardening, unlike real leather. That’s why it’s often used for sports shoes. Imitation leather can be used in almost any area where leather used: clothing, furniture and vehicle interiors. Imitation leather is especially suited to covering dining chairs and other seating because it’s so durable. It’s mostly stain-resistant and can simply be wiped with a damp cloth if you spill anything.
In contrast to genuine leather, you can buy leatherette by the metre, making cutting out so much easier. There is no difference in quality, but the production process is significantly shorter as no time-consuming tanning is necessary. What’s more, imitation leather is not dependent on the availability of certain kinds of animal hides.
As with genuine hides, you can buy imitation leather either in leather or suede effects. Faux leather is generally characterised by a textile wrong side and smooth plastic coating with a grain effect. Real leather has an irregular grain, whereas faux leather is made using a machine, which creates a more regular finish. Faux leather melts at high temperatures and can burn, whereas leather will only glow and harden without catching flame.
Coated leatherettes only feature limited breathability, in contrast to breathable leather. You might have noticed yourself: you’re more likely to sweat in wellies than in leather shoes. But imitation leather can be micro-perforated, which allows them to let water vapour through.
Faux leather is also UV-resistant and does not bleach when exposed to sunlight. That’s why it’s ideal for car, caravan or boat interiors. You can also buy quilted imitation leather. This looks especially elegant on car seats and panellings.
- Imitation leather recreates the look of leather, and is made up of a textile laminated with a coating on one side
- It’s generally a cheaper alternative to real leather
- No difference in quality compared to natural leather, but you can buy faux leather by the metre
- Limited breathability and flammable
Helpful tips for working with imitation leather
The main benefits of faux leather are its water-resistance and durability. The edges don’t fray, so you don’t need to finish your seams. You don’t have to keep an eye on the grain when cutting out your pattern pieces, as the fabric is laminated.
When sewing, you should use leather needles with an arrow head, so the fabric doesn’t tear. We recommend using a high-quality polyester thread. In contrast to cotton thread, it’s tear-resistant.
To make sure that the seams aren’t perforated too much, and to avoid ripping later on, you should use a long stitch length (3-4mm).
You should avoid using pins as much as possible. As with real leather, pins are not the best way to secure this fabric. Instead, use clips like Wonderclips.
Laminated fabrics like faux leather can sometimes stick to your presser foot, and it can be hard to move the fabric through the machine when sewing on the coated side. You can remedy this by using a Teflon presser foot. You can also simply stick some washi tape to the bottom of your regular foot. A third option: Take a piece of tissue paper and place it between your fabric and presser foot then simply sew over it and remove it afterwards. This way, you can guarantee the faux leather will move through your machine and get an even seam.
- Water-resistant and durable material
- Doesn’t fray so you don’t have to finish your seams
- Use a leather needle and a long stitch length
- Use Wonderclips instead of pins
- Tissue paper and Telfon presser feet can help to move the fabric through your machine
Caring for imitation leather
As faux leather can be made from a range of different materials, your finished projects may require different care.
PVC is the most long lasting, but you have to keep in mind that the softeners will become weaker over time, and the material will become brittle. Other faux leathers don’t experience this process, but you can presume that some stress cracks will appear eventually.
What cleaning products are suitable for imitation leather?
As PVC is very sensitive to oils and fat, you should never use leather care products for imitation leather; it will accelerate the aging process.
Make sure that your imitation leather care product doesn’t contain any oils, but offers a protective layer against wear, stains and other damage. This will not only make your leatherette retain its lustre for longer, but also make cleaning much easier. It’s makes sense to care for high-quality, fragile or worn faux leather. However, it’s not usually necessary to regularly care for faux leather that is not overly fragile or strained.
Make sure you don’t use any solvents or alkaline cleaning agents. To remove dirt in the grain, you should use a soft brush.
Some imitation leathers are machine washable. In this case, we recommend using a laundry liquid suitable for delicates and using a delicates cycle on your washing machine.
But beware! Never spin or tumble dry imitation leather! After washing, simply lay the imitation leather flat - don’t wring it out - and let it dry.
Our tip: To avoid creases, it’s best to store your finished faux leather project rolled up. If your material is already wrinkled, you can carefully iron it from the wrong side - place a damp cloth between your iron and your faux leather. Make sure your iron is set to a low temperature. Never let the coated side touch your iron! Alternatively, you can try using a hair drier.
- PVC is durable, but tends to harden and become brittle eventually
- Never use oil-based leather care products on faux leather!
- You can remove dirt from the grain using a soft brush, otherwise a damp cloth is the best way to clean faux leather
- Machine washing may be possible, but only use a delicates cycle and laundry liquid suitable for delicates
- Never wring out or spin/tumble dry faux leather: let it air-dry
Sewing ideas for imitation leather
Imitation leather is great for a wide range of creative sewing projects. Robust bags, small purses, practical rucksacks or unique clothing projects are just some ideas that would be great for faux leather.
Its UV-resistance means that faux leather is ideal for car interiors.
Its washing and drying properties make this fabric much easier to handle than real leather. Elegant leather-look leggings have been on trend for a few years now: you can pair faux leather with a wide range of different fabrics. For example, it adds a stylish touch to any garment when you use faux leather to create an accent by replacing certain pattern pieces. You can accentuate shoulders with faux leather inserts.
To sum it up...
If you don’t want to use real leather for animal welfare reasons but you want similar properties for your project, synthetic leather is a great alternative. Here’s a short summary of what you need to keep in mind before you buy:
- It’s generally a cheaper alternative to real leather
- It recreates a leather look
- Sewing process similar to leather
- Very easy to care for, but not as long-lasting as real leather