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What is Suede Leather?

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You probably know suede leather, with its unusual name, luxurious feel and incredible flexibility, it is one of the most iconic types of leather. But do you really know this leather? To answer this question you first need to understand what suede leather is. 

What is Suede Leather?

Suede is a leather often highly valued for its softness, flexibility and breathability. It is made from the underside of the animal's hide (the flesh side) unlike most leather which is made from the hide side. This is one of the reasons why suede is softer and more flexible. Its softness is also explained by the skins used, generally, younger animals are used to make suede because their skin is more malleable and smooth.

But what suede gains in flexibility, it loses in strength; flexible often means thinner, and therefore less strong. In addition, traditional full-grain leather is often made from cattle hides, which are strong and very durable, whereas suede is often made from finer hides such as lamb. However, there are suede leathers made from calf, lamb, kid etc. 🐑

Suede leather enthusiasts are not overly concerned with the strength of the product as unlike most other leathers, this is not an important factor in identifying the quality of the finished product. The quality of a suede leather is determined mainly by 3 factors, the first being the age of the animal. As you know by now, a younger hide will give a better quality suede. In addition, the raised fibres on the surface of the suede are harder on the hides of older animals. 

On the other hand, the animal used has a great influence on the quality of the finished leather. For example, a cattle hide is not very desirable for suede, whereas lambskins are very desirable. The final factor that determines the quality of a suede leather is whether it is split. An unsplit leather will be more durable and resistant but will not be as soft and supple. 

The characteristics of suede leather make it ideal for use in clothing and furnishings. It is also used as a lining for other leather products. It is, however, less suitable for products that are often exposed to mud, dirt or potential damage due to its fragility and difficulty of maintenance. 🧹

Although suede is now one of the most iconic leathers, this was not always the case. How did it go from being a niche leather to the iconic velvet leather? 

Where Does Suede Leather Come From?

It is difficult to identify when exactly suede leather was invented, but the first references of the name are found in the second half of the 19th century. Around 1859, soft, thin leather gloves were being produced and imported from Sweden. The French therefore simply called them "gants de Suède", which, translated into English, means "gloves of Sweden". 

Suede began to be really popular in the 20th century, the name "suede" spread with the product until today. The term suede is used by many to describe any soft leather with small raised fibres. In this article we are talking about suede leather specifically, not all velvet leathers which can be very different.

It was during the 20th century that suede became a symbol of luxury, especially in the clothing industry. It was during this period that the leather industry as a whole evolved enormously with the arrival of new alternatives such as synthetic leathers for example. Suede has become a major part of the high-end leather industry thanks to its many qualities and its appearance in popular culture. 

Performed by Elvis Presley himself, the music "Blue Suede Shoes" marked the beginning of rock-n-roll, released in 1956, only 2 years after the King of Rock's career began. 🎸

Another notable appearance of suede was in the now cult series Seinfeld. In the episode "The Jacket", a particularly expensive suede jacket is at the centre of the plot. 

Suede is an iconic leather for its softness, to achieve such a pleasant feel, a specific manufacturing method must be followed. 

How is Suede Leather Made?

Before we can even talk about suede leather, the hide has to be transformed into leather, this complex process is called tanning. Depending on the tanning method used (chrome tanning, vegetable tanning, oil tanning, etc.) this stage can last from a few days to a few months. All tanning methods can also influence the price, smell, ecological impact or other. The most common tanning for suede is chrome tanning, which is popular for producing soft and visually beautiful leathers. 🤩

Now that we have leather, the transformation to suede leather specifically can begin. Some manufacturers simply turn the hide inside out so that the "flesh side" is the one visible on the finished product. It is therefore not technically suede as it has not been sanded. Since it is a traditional full grain leather except that it is inside out, it is less supple and more durable. 

To make "real" suede, the thick leather is cut and divided into several thinner layers. These thin layers are then sanded, and it is at this stage that the fibres (the little hairs on the surface) come out. Some products require sanding on both sides of the leather, this is called "double sided suede"

From this point onwards, the leather is called suede and can now be sold, unless the manufacturer decides to colour it for example. It will probably be sold to a manufacturer/seller of clothing, fashion accessories or shoes. But by the way, what are the most common uses for Suede leather? 🤔

What are the Most Common Uses of Suede Leather? 

Suede is particularly popular for items that need to be breathable, soft or thin. For this reason, the most common uses are in clothing and in the lining of more robust leather goods. Here is a non-exhaustive list of products where suede is frequently used: 

  • Gloves 🧤
  • Shoes, boots, sandals 
  • Handbags, backpacks 
  • Luggage, travel bags 
  • Jackets, dresses 
  • Key rings, wallets, pouches 
  • Belts, watchbands 
  • Car upholstery, furniture upholstery
  • Briefcases, laptop covers
  • Cushions
  • etc. 

How to Care for Suede Leather? 

Care 

Suede is notoriously difficult to clean, it is true that it is not the easiest leather to care for but trust me it is not that complicated. 

The first thing to do is to look at the label on your suede product, the instructions will be specific to your product. This is always the first guideline to follow, if there is no label or the advice didn't work, you can follow its advice at your own risk: 

If you just want to do a little routine cleaning, a clean, damp (not soaked), lint-free cloth is often sufficient. Rub the surface gently in a straight motion, the suede will darken slightly with moisture, this is normal. To restore its original colour, leave it for a few hours in an open air room. 💨

For a thorough cleaning, start by dusting your product, you can gently scrub your item with a soft brush like a suede brush or even a dry toothbrush. Make sure the brush does not damage your product but if the brush is soft this is unlikely. It is important to dust before applying your conditioner so that no dust remains in the leather.

Use a suede leather conditioner of your choice, as with the brush, I recommend testing the conditioner on an inconspicuous area of the product to ensure it is compatible with your item. You can apply your conditioner with a clean lint-free cloth or soft brush. You can also remove excess conditioner with the cloth. 

For those who want to waterproof their product, this is possible, but keep in mind that your suede will lose its softness. The fibres on the surface could be damaged and make the process more tedious. It is best not to use suede in a damp environment. To waterproof your item, get a leather waterproofing spray and apply it evenly to the surface. 

Removing a stain 🍷

Regardless of the nature of the stain, the first thing to know is that the sooner you react, the better. For most stains, you can rely on a good leather cleaner. Just follow the instructions on the back of your cleaner. Make sure the cleaner is suitable for soft leathers such as suede so as not to damage your item. 

In most cases it is a wax, cream or oil that the leather will absorb. To ensure that the leather absorbs the cleaner properly and evenly, apply the product in several directions as the fibres may prevent the product from spreading properly if you apply the product in only one direction.

The best option is always to have your item cleaned by an expert leather cleaner. This is a more expensive but much safer alternative, it's up to you. There are other "tricks" that you can find on some websites like white vinegar or baking soda. These techniques may work, you can try them at your own risk. 

Removing a scratch/scrape

If it is a very small scratch, rub it with your finger to try to remove it. If that doesn't work, you can take your soft leather brush. Hopefully this will hide or cover the scratch. 🐱

If the scratch is really big, the first two techniques won't work, so you can try pouring acrylic paint of the same colour as your object into the scratch. You can apply the paint with a needle, toothpick or other fine point for more precision. If it is a huge scratch, the damage may be irreversible but you can always try. 

Acrylic paint is ideal because it is flexible even after it has dried. Let the paint dry completely before using it again.

Storage 

As with most materials used for clothing, a cupboard with a relatively dry room temperature is fine. Some items are sold with their boxes, especially shoes, so you can store your item in this box. 

What are the Alternatives to Suede Leather? 

There are many alternatives to suede leather, mainly in the category of faux leather (synthetic leather). But another genuine leather that is often compared to suede is nubuck. Nubuck leather is known for its velvet-like feel like suede, but it is more durable, more expensive, less flexible and less breathable.  

The most common alternative to suede is microsuede, which is a synthetic leather made from polyester. It is much less breathable than real suede because leather is much more porous than polyester. However, many people prefer microsuede because it is cheaper, does not require the death of an animal, is more stain and moisture resistant and easier to maintain. In addition, the exceptional feel of suede is reproduced on microsuede. However  the quality of this alternative is often lower...

There is also suede cotton and suede silk, which are designed to 

look like suede. These products are popular among suede lovers who want more animal-friendly products. 🤜🤛 

Finally, there is Alcantara, which is a trademarked artificial leather that looks like suede. This faux leather is made from polyester and polyurethane (plastic) and is a viable alternative to suede.

What is the Difference Between Suede and Other Leather Types? 

There are many different types of leather and not all are equal. Some are tough, some are soft, some are cheaper. Is suede really the right leather for you? To find out, it may be interesting to compare it to the most common leathers and imitation leathers.

It is important to understand that the overall quality of a leather depends on a number of factors. The quality can vary depending on the hide used (bovine, ovine, cactus, etc.), the product that is going to be made (backpack, sofa, shoes, etc.), the tanning method (vegetable tanning, tree bark tanning, smoke tanning, etc.) and of course the type of leather (nubuck, nappa, crazy horse, etc.).

Durability ⏳

Suede is a durable material, but not as durable as most other leathers. Suede is particularly thin which weakens its durability compared to traditional full grain leather for example which is much stronger and more durable. This difference is quite small, however, suede is still more durable than most materials. Faux leathers are less durable than suede in the vast majority of cases. 

Scratch resistance

Again, the thinness of suede is a disadvantage, despite the natural toughness of leather, suede is quite sensitive to scratches. Most other leathers are stronger because they are thicker. In addition, most leathers are made from the "skin side" whereas suede is made from the "flesh side" of the animal. The outer part of the leather is more resistant, which amplifies the difference in scratch resistance between suede and most other leathers. 

It is difficult to include faux leather in this area as they can be very different from one synthetic leather to another. 

Water resistance 💧

Suede is not very water resistant, but this is also the case with other traditional leathers. Synthetic leather is the best choice if you are looking for a water resistant product. Leather is very porous, so water will seep through very quickly, whereas plastic, which makes up most faux leathers, is smooth. 

Breathability 👃

Breathability is very important to remove moisture and bad odours. Suede is extremely breathable! More than synthetic leather for sure, but more than most traditional leathers too. Other factors come into consideration, for example a leather that has a lot of protective layers added will be less breathable as the fewer layers between you and the leather the better.

Feel

There is not much suspense for this section, the feel of suede leather is probably the reason most people buy them in the first place. It is very soft, however it is difficult to compare its feel with other leathers as some will prefer the feel of traditional leather. It is very subjective, and the feel varies from leather to leather so just remember that the touch of suede tends to be very popular. 

Care

Suede leather is difficult to maintain, more so than most other leathers. Faux leather tends to be much easier to maintain. Most faux leathers are water resistant, so you can clean them more easily, whereas more conventional leathers require more care and equipment. 

Price 💰

The price depends on many factors, the product, the brand, the manufacturing method etc. If we talk about the average price, traditional leather is very expensive. Suede, being a real leather, is also expensive. But instead of looking at the raw price, I invite you to look at the price/quality ratio. Synthetic leather is often much cheaper, but will only live for a few years, whereas suede or other genuine leathers can live for several decades if they are properly cared for. 

For this last one, it's a question of point of view.

Pros & Cons : 

Pros:

  • ✔ Suede leather is very durable, as are most leathers. It's rather impressive durability makes the price much easier to believe, you know you'll keep your item for a long time. 
  • ✔ Probably its best known quality is its softness. Suede is often compared to velvet, and not only is this a good comparison, but it is deserved. 
  • ✔ Suede is porous, so it is very breathable. Breathability allows moisture to be wicked away and reduces the growth of bacteria and moulds which are often the cause of bad odours.
  • ✔ Suede leather is very flexible, making it ideal for lining other materials or items requiring a great deal of freedom of movement. 

Cons:

  • ❌ Part of the reason suede is so flexible is that it is thin, making it less durable than other leathers and relatively susceptible to scratches
  • ❌ Dust deposits accumulate quite easily in suede because of the small fibres on the surface. 
  • ❌ Suede leather requires fairly rigorous and regular maintenance to keep it in its best condition.
  • ❌ It is a rather expensive material, so if you find unusually cheap suede, listen to your instincts, it is probably a scam or faux leather. 

Wrapping Up

To conclude, suede is one of the best known and most popular of all leathers. Its exceptional feel alone is a good reason to get one. Its flaws make some people shy away from it, but in most cases it does not outshine its qualities. It is a leather that is perfectly suited to city life, but not recommended for walks in the mountains for example. 

Whether you are a suede lover or not, tell us why in the comments! 😉

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Author: Felix

Felix is a very curious person who is always looking to learn and explore. Always in search of the unknown, he hopes through this blog to share with you his passion for adventure and vintage objects

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