What Is Nappa Leather?

Nappa leather seats on a 2018 Audi TT RS 2018 Audi TT RS | photo by Brian Wong

Nappa leather is top-quality leather that undergoes a unique tanning process and is softer and more pliable than most hides.

It was named for the Napa Valley in California, where the tanning company that developed it was located. Nappa leather is often used in upscale vehicles.  However, you might also see it used on lower-grade leather products and even synthetic leather to denote softness — so the name has been stretched and sometimes misused.

Related: What Are the Pros And Cons of Leather and Leatherette?

Nappa leather — the real stuff — is full grain, meaning that the surface hasn’t been modified except to remove hair, so it retains its original texture and markings. Lesser grades of leather often are “corrected” to make the surface smoother and more uniform. Like all types of leather, Nappa can be dyed to different colors.

Leather experts say that a unique tanning process that uses sulfates increases the softness and durability of Nappa leather, and the use of water-soluble dyes makes it more resistant to fading.

Similar to beef tenderloin in the meat world, Nappa is a prime cut of animal hide, so it is more expensive than most types of leather. Most of it comes from cows, but it also can come from calves, lambs or goats, and it is the top layer of hide that is softer than other layers and more durable.

Lesser grades of leather, such as “top grain,” often are sanded or buffed to make the surface smoother, and they typically aren’t as soft or durable.

Real Nappa has been offered only on expensive brands such as BMW, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and the like. The leather in all models of those brands might not be Nappa, and even on models that do have it, all interior surfaces may not be covered in Nappa leather. 

In addition, Nappa isn’t the only high-quality leather available in vehicles. BMW, for example, has used Merino leather, another premium hide, on some of its high-end models.

A growing number of brands, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Tesla, also offer synthetic leathers because some buyers are more concerned about the treatment of animals from which leather comes than the quality of seat coverings.

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