21 acres – the beginning of a dream

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There was a time that when someone mentioned Amazon, your first thought was the amazing South American rainforest rather than the global retail phenomenon. Back when Jeff Bezos was still selling books only and the self-adhesive leather repair patch had yet to be invented, Stephan and I were busy selling furniture and quickly realising the industry’s negative impact when it came to deforestation and landfills. The latter led to us to create MastaPlasta, which now, like Bezos’ Amazon, seems such a normal thing but back then was a revolution (Note from Stephan: “I’d rather have invented Amazon.” Note from Donna: “Stop kidding yourself, we have much more fun than Jeff Bezos!”)

Our concern for deforestation led us to buy 21 acres of Amazon rainforest to donate to indigenous tribes via the World Land Trust (patron: Sir David Attenborough no less). It is something we are really really proud of. While MastaPlasta has its favourite charities now – among them CentrePoint and UK anti slavery and human trafficking charity Unseen  – we have decided to resume our old relationship with World Land Trust. So you can be assured that a little bit of your purchase price will be going to some really great causes – causes that I think every customer of ours would be just as proud as we are to be able to help.

Picture: Diego Gavilanez

Lockdown Diaries – Part 3

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WE ARE just sparing a thought for this year’s recipients of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise who, amid the lockdown, will be denied the trip to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen which was such an incredible experience for us when we were named winners of not one but two of these awards in 2017. These awards are rare accolades indeed in the UK, where they are have been awarded by the Government on the Queen’s birthday for more than half a century.

Each winner has their businesses, their accounts and their principles scrutinised before they are deemed worthy of  the “UK’s most prestigious business awards, designed to recognise and encourage the outstanding achievements of UK businesses”. Those are the government’s words, not ours. The scrutiny is extra tough because the award is not just for the year in which it is handed out, but for 5 years. Winners are allowed to fly the Queen’s Awards flag at their offices, given a Grant of Appointment and a trophy. It is a big deal!

About 200 businesses win the awards every year, of these 5 or so will win two. We were one of those – winning for both Innovation and International Trade.

For the winners who will not get to meet the Queen this year due to the Covid crisis, we can only wish you as wonderful a presentation ceremony as we had. This comes later in the year, when each winner is officially presented with their trophies and certificates. For us, with our friends, families and associates by our side, it was as special as the trip to the Palace, as these photos hopefully show.

The London Council of Enfield gave us permission to use the beautiful lakeside bandstand in an amazing Victorian park near our offices. The Queen’s Representative Deputy Lieutenant Ann Cable MBE, the Mayor of Enfield Christine Hamilton  and the council’s Chief Executive Ian Davis all turned out for us –  and in such good spirits! Speeches were made all round. We praised the positive energy of London flowing through our trophies and everyone who had helped us turn an idea into a thriving reality.  It makes me smile just writing this – what a day it was!

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Vegan Leather – What! And Why?

We worked with leather hides for years in the furniture industry. As furniture designers, we had stores in Shoreditch (Spitalfields and Colombia Road), Covent Garden, Notting Hill and Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Trust us, we know a lot about leather (there’s a post on the different types below). And we appreciate that it holds a certain allure for many people but we have come to question that. Here’s 10 reasons why :

  1. Unless it’s aniline leather, pretty much all other leather has some kind of polymer coating on it and/or is saturated with pigments. So-called semi-aniline leather is the industry’s great mis-selling opportunity as there is no real clear definition  – the hope is when you buy this that you are getting the top layer of a hide with only a thin pigment coating, allowing the natural surface and tones to show through, evening out imperfections and offering some protection. I’ve seen it compared with putting a sheer wood coating on your decking. The leather industry has done a really good job of selling us chemically-coated leather that can completely mask any natural finish but goes on to sneer at leathers at the cheaper end of the market for having chemical coatings – by dismissing coatings in one breath and promoting them in another the industry has already made it’s case against most of its output. What I’m trying to say is that there is very little natural about the leather you are sitting on apart from the fact it came from an animal.
  2. For some reason the leather industry seems to have taken ownership of the word “genuine”. It’s like saying you are buying a “genuine” LED screen TV or a “genuine” apple pie. I think it is something we haven’t really stopped to question but it is something that has successfully made people think they are getting something natural and real, as if they are buying an apple fresh off the tree rather than a KFC drumstick coated in breadcrumbs, which would be a better analogy.
  3. The best leather wholesalers will have books of samples that make you ooh and ahh at the softness and suppleness of their wares. But believe me, the best faux leather producers will having you oohing and ahhing just as enthusiastically. Both markets are filled with the good, the bad and the intensely moderate.
  4. Dive into the good end of the “vegan leather” market and armed with knowledge of production techniques, you don’t feel like you are missing out on anything “genuine” or “natural”. We have visited the production centres of  manufacturers of vegan leather – they are full of light and airiness, staff in white coats, laboratories and scientific instruments testing every element of the processes, and libraries full of samples from every batch made to reference against. The rub and stress tests on these fabrics are equal to the best of leathers – more than 100,000 rubs on the martindale scale (just 30,000 rubs is recommended for heavy duty wear).
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5. Can you honestly tell the upholstery in this restaurant is not “genuine leather”. Yup it’s vegan leather! You will have to take my word for it that you can’t tell even by sitting on it.

And those beautiful leather seats you luxuriated in when you flew First Class that time, well I hate to tell you…

6. After years of handling hides, we began to feel a little ghoulish about it. We’ve been immersed in fabrics for a long time and had met some incredibly innovative “vegan leather” producers. We knew we wanted to work in their world rather than cutting up thousands of hides. We knew we could produce the perfect “vegan leather” for our patches that would make this decision a no-brainer.

7. While you are being sold your “genuine” polymer-coated leather sofa which is “going to last so much longer than less expensive leather sofas because it is so hard-wearing”, just take a look at the landfills. Some 85% of sofas bought between seven to 15 years ago are here – regardless of what they were made out of. And  the percentage goes into the 90s when it comes to sofas over 15 years old. Styles change, your old sofa is just so heavy and cumbersome to try to find a future for when you have its replacement arriving tomorrow – easier just to get the delivery men to take it away and throw it in the landfill for you.

8. The fact is, any sofa, whether it’s the best aniline leather or the toughest-wearing commercial grade (think train seats) fabrics can get damaged. And fairly easily too. That’s where we come in. So  you really don’t have to fear that one of our non-genuine leather patches is not quite worthy of  fixing our aniline sofa – it definitely is :)

9. The term vegan leather may seem a bit of an oxymoron, but we want to communicate to our customers that our patches possess all the desirable qualities as those attached to “genuine leather” – it feels like leather, looks like leather and acts like leather. It is breathable, supple and tough. What is more, 99% of solvents used in the production is recycled and you will most definitely not find any formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds here.

10. We now love to say: no animals were harmed in the making of this company :)

Some repairs definitely look better than others. #NuffStuff.

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The before

How can I tell what leather my sofa is made from?

It’s generally only when you need to clean or mend your leather sofa that you realise that you are not really sure what kind of leather it is. And looking at the receipt – if you kept it -probably won’t help. Every furniture store has a tonne of names for its leather ranges that mean nothing outside of that shop and won’t help you know how to treat it.

The next thing you will probably do is Google “types of leather”: maybe it will even lead you straight here! If not, you will find a whole lot of information out there but even once you have closely studied and researched leather types and the manufacturing processes, it still won’t help you know what you are sitting on. I’m going to try to keep it simple.

So No 1 of leathers is aniline – it’s the most expensive anyhow. Basically it is named after the dye – aniline dyes are waxy and transparent and are used on the top surface of the hide. Yes – hides are split into at least two layers, with the lower layers also being happily used to produce “genuine leather” goods, although it’s unlikely the label will explain you are getting the bottom half.

People argue that only the finest hides can be used with aniline dyes – hence the premium price. But that is debatable. My all-time favourite aniline hide was a chunky buffalo hide we used – it showed lots of scars, textures and even branding marks and that’s why I loved it. In fact I’m sitting on a sofa we made out of it right now and it’s just so cool. At 15 years old, it’s also 5 years above the average age at which sofas find themselves headed to the landfill, whether they be made of leather or fabric.

In my opinion, the most perfect aniline hides can look as anonymous as the “corrected hides” that follow it down through the leather heirarchy. This is where a “printed” grain is applied on top using polymer coatings to give it that bland (my personal opinion again), homogenous finish. The difference here is that if your aniline looks bland to start with, it should lose that with age –  a patina will develop with wear. The story of a spilled cocktail will forever be told upon its surface and your favourite spot will smile at you from a distance.

People are over-protective of aniline because these clear dyes provide no protection for the leather. However, the point of it is to age. If something spills, just use a damp cloth (wetted with water only). It will look frightening at first as the leather will darken where you wet it. But it will dry, and then the excess of the spillage will be cleaned up and your leather sofa has just got a bit more character.

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A few of our customers back when we were making furniture instead of saving it :)

So is your sofa made of aniline leather? Rub your fingernail gently along a hidden bit of the leather. It should leave a superficial rough scratch. Then just rub that scratch – the waxes and oils in the leather should make it disappear. If you do this to a corrected leather, chances are no scratch will appear (i am talking a gentle scratch rather than the kind of thing that passes off for fun at an S&M parlour…)

Actually I need to mention something else here. It may be worth daring to do your scratch-test a bit less discreetly. That corner of the sofa where you’ve just scratched might not be aniline even if your receipt clearly says it’s an aniline leather. Often, the obvious bits can be full aniline leathers, and then split leather hides will be used on the side or back panels. This leather-matching can also frequently involve faux leathers, in both the car and furniture industry. It is almost standard practice. If you have checked out our Peta-accredited patches, you will know we are fans of faux leather – but it’s not the same if you think you are buying one thing and getting another. I think I will save the story of why we ditched the cowhides for vegan leather for another blog – but I will just say here that when you have handled a lot of hides it can suddenly turn a bit creepy. And when you handle some of the beautiful vegan alternatives (not the cheap vinyls!),  you begin to wonder why you need to start cutting up hides again.

Anyway, back to leather sofas! The further you move away from aniline leather, the more you move away from the real surface of the hide and the more processing involved – with heavier pigments used and thin polymer coatings added to apply a grain finish. What you get is a sun-resistant sofa that does not absorb spillages and withstands scratching.

Split leathers can be treated with these same non-aniline finishes – but this kind of leather is when the lower levels of the hides are used. Some split leathers will be coated with a thin polyurethane layer. This technique moved from the shoe industry into the furniture industry and was initially seen as a fabulous breakthrough in providing good-looking leathergoods at cheaper prices. These “bycast” hides have a lovely polished vintage look and are in widespread use – if your sofa was really good value and has that polished finish this is probably what you have. Unfortunately some low-level producers just have to take advantage – they will mask thin, weak splits of hides using this technique and they are also probably what you are looking at if you see a sofa where the surface is peeling.

It is still a far cry from bonded leathers. These are pretty much the scrapings off the factory floor which are ground up by machine and stuck together with a thick layer of polyurethane. The end product comes on a roll and is legally allowed to be as much as 83% polyurethane. It is often designed for the kind of market where the salespeople are not going to tell you that. But don’t panic if that’s what you’ve got. You bought it for a reason – or two: generally looks and price govern all our purchase decisions! So enjoy it and let’s ditch all furniture snobbery here!

The thing is with all this, the bottom line is, that whatever leather you are sitting on – a damp cloth is the best way to go for spillages. And never use normal leathercare products on aniline leathers. You need to look for a specialist aniline product, if you really need it.

And if you have a hole in your sofa, well there’s really only one sensible solution for that too – our MastaPlastas of course!

MastaPlasta: The Lockdown Diaries Part 2

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Sometimes we play spot the patch when a repair is virtually seamless. But on a trip to World Heritage Site Angor Wat in Cambodia, long before quarantines, lockdowns and social-distancing, we found ourselves playing Spot the Gnasher – Gnasher is of course the cartoon strip dog of Dennis The Menace. You didn’t know! Both Gnasher and Dennis seem to have become our mascots over the two decades and counting that we’ve worked together.

In each of the photos below, Stephan’s Gnasher pin gets a little harder to spot… It’s curiously fun!

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The art of sofa repair

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Sofas are literally a big issue for landfills. Only 15 % of sofas enjoy a second life – 85% of households in the UK tipping their sofas into landfills every decade!

As furniture makers, we set about creating a way to make it easy to repair sofas. That was a dozen years ago. Since then MastaPlasta has prolonged the life of many thousands of sofas, but the overall picture has not improved. Fast fashion exists in the world of interiors. The sofas get cheaper and flimsier, while our consumer buttons are pressed like the keys of a piano in a Rachmaninoff symphony by a stream of delicious images of how are lounges should look this season.

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The sad thing is that even a little hole makes a sofa look down at heel – with grubby yellow foam erupting from the crevices. The insides of sofas just ain’t pretty! So it’s easy to see why people take one look at the cost of reupholstering and decide to go splash out on a lovely new sofa from Ikea for a couple of hundred pounds.  Not many people want to spend the same or more on getting it reupholstered, unless it is a designer piece.

That brings us to another problem  – very few sofas have hand-me-down appeal. There are plenty of people out there who can’t believe that no one wants their old sofa, even for free. Personal taste, decor, space and fashion all play a part.  There is also that kind of personal-space element, the same thing that means second-hand mattresses are not objects of desire. It all means that second-hand furniture stores are not go-to places for sofa-shoppers.

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Recently there has been some progress within the industry – step up for a bow DFS.  They are working with Clearabee.co.uk, who promise to dismantle old sofas, recycle the usable bits and generally strive to keep it out of landfills. This service cost about £100 – unfortunately enough to be a deterrent to many people.

So please don’t give in easily. A sofa with holes, rips, cigarette burns and worse can survive with some well-placed MastaPlasta patches and even look cool –  it is not just an easy option, it’s a great option. And you know what, your sofa will feel all the more comfortable for it.


MastaPlasta: The Lockdown Diaries Part 1

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MastaPlasta: The Lockdown Diaries Part 1

A shout out to those customers enjoying the sartorial freedom of lockdown – the wardrobe mash-ups, the daring combinations of blues and greens that should never be seen – and let’s face it, no one will – the donning of that ballgown that was destined to be worn once only until now when breakfast in a ballgown seems perfectly acceptable as there’s no one judging. We are all hoping for new beginnings after lockdown and maybe we will emerge feeling a little freer within ourselves, less obliged to conform to peer pressures and norms. That’s the fuel of creativity. When we started out, a lot of people we encountered thought it was somehow taboo to have a patch on a sofa – patches were for embellishing or mending clothes, not furniture.  That was more than 10 years and nearly a million patches ago! It just goes to show that what you are dreaming up today in the homes that have lately become our universes could go changing the universe tomorrow.  So here’s to our quarantine eccentricity and creativity – and a world where we try to make the most of the stuff we already have. #NuffStuff :)

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