If you're having your valet read you this as you drive your luxury or near-luxury car, at this very moment at least one of your hands is probably touching something covered in Alcantara. It's soft, it's modern, it's what you deserve. But what is it, exactly?
A common myth about Alcantara is that it's made from the skin of the wild Alcantar — a llama/ostrich hybrid from the borderlands between Peru and Greece whose massive thigh haunches are used to make those huge cones of gyro meat.
A little bit of research proves that this isn't true, since not only is the animal fictitious, but Peru and Greece don't seem to share a border. And science doesn't yet actually know where gyro meat comes from. The actual truth is far more shocking: Alcantara is basically Ultrasuede.
Yes, Ultrasuede. The name "Ultrasuede" has a sort of Disco-decadent 70s sort of feel, so it's not too surprising that luxury car makers aren't too eager to use that term in their advertising. In fact, aside from "Corinthian leather," I can't think of a seat-upholstery material that feels more '70s.
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There's a reason for that. Ultrasuede was born in 1970 to Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto working for Toray Industries in Japan. It's a synthetic microfiber fabric:
Fabric content ranges from 80% polyester non-woven (100% recycled ultra-microfiber) and 20% non-fibrous polyurethane to 65% polyester and 35% polyurethane depending on the product line. Ultrasuede feels like natural suede, but it is resistant to stains and discoloration; it can be washed in a washing machine. It has a woven fabric surface, but resists pilling or fraying because it is combined with a polyurethane foam in a non-woven structure. As with its Italian sister fabric, Alcantara, automotive grade Ultrasuede meets OEM specifications as well as FMVSS302 flammability requirements for automotive use as well as it being virtually identical on both sides, making it somewhat reversible.
Microfibers are, essentially, fabrics made from really, really small fibers. Duh. The fibers are so small that a pound of them would be enough to span the distance from the earth to the moon. These fibers are beaten around in all kinds of brutal ways, including something called "needle punching" and are impregnated with an adhesive binder. At that point, they give up and agree to become fake suede.
Now, you'll notice some interesting things in that description up there, specifically that Alcantara is referred to as the "Italian sister fabric." That's because the fundamental difference between Alcantara and Ultrasuede is that Alcantara is made in Italy. That's really it. It has a fancier name and a more automotive-luxury-seeming country of origin, but, really, your Alcantara steering wheel on your AMG is an Ultrasuede steering wheel.
Having Ultrasuede made in Italy under a more luxurious-sounding name was a great idea. In fact, it won Okamato an award:
Both materials are made in the same manner and to the same specifications with the only difference being the products color range and appearance. "After Ultrasuede started being produced in Italy under its European name, Alcantara, Okamoto would be named recipient of the Leonardo Prize, for contributing to the global luster of MADE IN ITALY."
See? Want a Leonardo award? Make something Japanese in Italy under an Italian name! Isn't that sort of what Marco Polo did with pasta?
Alcantara also has a lot more types of backing and a number of specialized lines tailored just for the automotive industry, called Cover, Formal, Compact, Panel, Soft, and Perform. Alcantara's fire-retardant qualities make it a great fit for automotive as well, which is why many F1 seats are luxuriously covered in Alcantara.
So, there you go. The next time you're looking to buy a Bentley or a Mercedes, just mentally replace every time the sales guy says "Alcantara" with "Ultrasuede" and you should be in a much better negotiating mindset.