Leather is animal hide that has been specially treated, while leatherette is a synthetic material designed to mimic leather. Leather is typically cow hide that has been cleaned, soaked in lime and tanned in chromium salts. Leatherette is typically one of two popular synthetic materials: vinyl or polyurethane.
Leather is a popular consumer material in clothing and furnishing due to its flexibility, durability, strength and attractive luster. Synthetic leather is not as strong or stretchable as real leather, but it is more durable and very inexpensive. It does not retain water and is relatively easy to maintain. Vinyl is produced by melting polyvinyl chloride onto polyester fibers, while polyurethane is created by applying a flexible polymer coating to cotton, polyester or shredded leather and treating it to more closely resemble leather.
Real leather is graded based on its quality. For instance, the highest grade of leather is full grain, which shows natural animal skin patterns, while top grain is sanded and embossed to look more uniform. Split grain leather is produced from the leftovers when making full grain. For synthetic leathers, polyurethane is typically of a higher quality than vinyl, and it more believably imitates vinyl. Synthetic leather is usually uniform in appearance, while real leather has noticeable inconsistencies and a non-repeating grain.
Leatherette is the preferred term when synthetic leather is used for clothing or automobile upholstery, while faux leather is the preferred nomenclature for home furnishings.