Leather is either leather or it’s not, right? Well, preconceptions have been smashed after a visit to E-Leather, in Peterborough, England, where the APEX Editor’s Blog found that it’s not simply black and white.
It’s not real leather, but it’s not entirely faux leather either.
David Parkinson, head of marketing and Nico Den Ouden, sales and marketing director, teamed up to dispel the myths that E-Leather is not faux leather at all. It is composition leather. The company buys off cuts of the leather that tanneries would discard and mill it so finely that it forms the core of other stronger and more durable materials and the end result is, the two believe, “a far superior product to real leather”.
Read on to discover E-Leather’s green properties and how it’s made.
What is it?
David Parkinson (DP): “It’s composition leather and we believe its properties are far superior to real leather. E-leather is like a bionic leather, reconstructed material. It’s leather fibers that we’ve engineered into a new material. Now that we are an established player in the market we are converting that perception that it’s faux leather.
How is it made?
Nico Den Outen (NDO): “We buy the bits from tanneries that would be thrown away into landfill or burned, but we don’t want old cuts, we want the best. We don’t want a heavy polluted material. The tanneries get the leather to us as clean as possible.
“The first step is we mill it back to leather fibers done through a purely mechanical process which gives us a very homogenous raw material. Our technology is a high quality, high value product and consistent.
“The next step is forming a leather film or layer on a tissue paper, this keeps the fibers together in the rolls. We make the leather webs and we entangle the webs into the core. Using a paper process we make a layer of leather fibers and we use two of those which are sandwiched with a high performance core. We drop the leather fibers onto a conveyor belt and a tissue paper comes in and then you put a bit of pressure on it and a bit of heat to give it a bit of strength so you can transport it further into the process.
“In the aviation industry, we use Nomex® type fibers which are commonly used in Formula 1 suits and fire fighter’s overalls. The highly fire resistant material has a number of functions that gives the material its physical properties such as its strength and will stay in shape although it has controlled stretch. This is why, in service, it doesn’t bag and sag like leather would.
“In a process called hydro-entanglement the leather fibers are pushed through little holes and this web structure keeps it all together without using any chemicals which is evidence of our green technology.”
DP: “Hydro-entanglement which is very high-pressure water jets, like a jet wash which forces the fibers into that material and tangles it all up, a bit like clogging up a filter.”
How comparable is the end result to real leather?
NDO: “Airlines want an aeroplane filled with identical seats, they don’t want someone to look at [a] seat and say: “That looks a bit mucky, I won’t sit on it.”
[He demonstrates a comparison between a real and E-Leather seat cover in the same colours for the same airline]
“These are two new seat backs and they’ve never been on an aeroplane. This one [on the right - see picture above] is traditional leather, it’s brand new. It’s wrinkled, this is the soft belly, which is a stretchy soft piece of material. The belly on an animal will expand and contract. You also get a variation in hides and so you will get that in seats and the tragedy is, I have seen recently airlines with new traditional leather seats looking pretty shocking already. They’re probably only six to 12 months old and they’re starting to look old. You know when you buy a new pair of leather shoes and they look great to start with but then they start creasing up and it gets difficult to clean them? It’s the same with these seats.
“This is an E-Leather version of the same cover [see seat cover on left in above picture]. Look at the difference.”
NDO: “The material is completely consistent, there’s no variability, but there is with a leather hide so you can’t use all of the leather material.”
DP: “We’ve taken leather to pieces and reassembled it and its better. It takes away the disadvantages. Real leather will be impregnated with fire retardant and it that can fade, and it’s even worse for fabric seats because the cleaning process can take out the fire resistance.”
NDO: “We’ve got several airlines that have switched from textile to E-Leather. They wouldn’t switch from textile to leather because leather has a weight and a fuel penalty.
“Leather is almost double the weight of E-Leather. E-Leather is below 500gsm (grams per square metre), and traditional leather is 900-950gsm.
“The leather industry sees the threat from companies like us and have tried to innovate with lighter weight leathers but it becomes more stretched and reinforces the disadvantages when you do this.”
DP: “The only way you can tell is by smelling it and E-Leather doesn’t have the typical leather smell and in fact, leather gets its smell from a chemical used in the process.”
NDO: “We launched cladding, a finishing product for panels in business and first class cabins. It doesn’t require strict burn tests but has a different set of requirements.
“It hasn’t taken off in North America or Europe because cost plays a major role in the decision making process for airlines. But Middle Eastern and Asian carriers have spent a lot money on leather finishes.”
How do you set yourself apart from your competitors?
NDO: “E-Leather is a unique proposition, the way we make our material is unique. We make the leather webs and how we entangle the webs into the core, is how we’re different. It’s a globally patented process.
“Most of the faux leathers are a fabric with a coating on it. Not a drop of leather in it. The biggest difference of E-Leather is it’s durable. If it’s stretchy and less durable it will start to fail.
“Having 70 airlines in five years (the company is six years old) in a conservative industry like aviation is an achievement that speaks for itself.”