what is patent leather ?

What is Patent Leather?

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When it comes to water resistant leather, the first that comes to mind for most people is probably patent leather. This type of leather, now iconic for its shine and "go to all corners" style, is a fashion must-have. Its name comes from the patent that one of the inventors of the product obtained. The method of producing the leather was patented, so people started calling it patent leather. 

📷 Credit: Shoes of Prey 's Youtube Channel

What is patent leather?

Patent leather is characterised by a smooth, shiny protective layer that covers the underlying leather. This surface is polished to give the object a uniform appearance. The patent layer is at least water resistant, often even waterproof, which helps the product to last over time. 💪

This type of leather is used mainly in the fashion world, especially in the manufacture of shoes. It is often used for quite formal accessories such as watch straps, belts or suit shoes.

Patent leather is however quite fragile, not to water like other leathers but to scratches. This material scratches easily and can crack over time if it reaches the end of its life, if it is badly maintained or if it is of poor quality. Fortunately, it is probably the easiest leather to care for, so don't worry about that. 

Patent leather has remained popular over the years due to the multitude of colours available when using it. The unlimited choice of shapes and colours means that most people will be happy with it. Add to this a price that is often much lower than other leathers and you have a very successful material! 

Originally, patent leather was not as cheap as it is today, it was made on real leather and the protective layer was made from various oils. The cost of production is now lower due to the synthetic materials used. It is now very rare to see patent leather made from real leather. 🐮

Now that I have started to tell you about the origins of this leather, I might as well take a step back in time and find out the whole history of this most unusual type of leather. 

groom wearing black patent shoes

The history of patent leather 

The first references to patent leather are found at the end of the 18th century in England in a British periodical called The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer. A certain Mr. Hand of Birmingham is said to have obtained a patent for preparing flexible leather having a glaze and polish that renders it impervious to water and need only be wiped with a sponge to restore it to its original luster.” 🤩

This description is dreamy, so the news caught the attention of a man named Edmund Prior who was reportedly granted another patent. This patent allowed him to colour leather with dyes and boiled oil, then varnish with oil. Some years later, another inventor was granted another patent for "the application of a chemical composition in the preparation of hides, skins and leather to give them a beautiful sheen".

This third man reportedly used linseed oil, whale oil, horse fat and lampblack. Once the oil was applied and dried, the surface was more durable and water resistant. After this innovation, the demand for the product grew steadily until it was even imported into the United States in 1818. A year later, in 1819, patent leather slightly modified by a fellow named Seth Boyden was marketed in the USA. 

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How is patent leather made?

The process of making patent leather begins in the same way as for other leathers. If the leather comes from an animal, then the hide is taken from the animal to be tanned. If it is an artificial leather, then it is manufactured. Tanning is a process that will turn the hide into leather. What makes a patent leather a patent leather and not something else is the "finishing" phase of the leather. In this case, it is the addition of the patent on the surface. 

Once the hide has become leather, it is ready for the application of the gloss coating. As you know by now, leather used to be varnished with oils, mainly linseed oil. Nowadays, the varnish is made from polyurethane or acrylic (plastic). Pigments are often added to colour the product. Finally, chemical additives can be added to increase performance or to introduce new characteristics to the varnish. These additives can, for example, give the product better protection, a better shine or protect the leather from UV rays.  

As for the application method, most companies use conveyors (machines). For smaller productions, it is possible that the patent is applied with brushes as in the days of the invention of the patent. 🖌

📷 Credit: Chrystian Załęcki's Youtube Channel

To make patent leather, three layers of coating are applied to the base material (leather or faux leather). 

  1. The hides are placed on a conveyor belt or a falling plastic liquid is poured over the hides, which covers the material. 
  2. The hides are then stretched and dried in a heat tunnel.
  3. This first layer normally penetrates the leather completely
  4. Once dried, the hide is passed back through the liquid for the second layer of plastic, this time with the colour. 
  5. It is again dried as in step 2
  6. The last layer is applied when the hide has dried again. This is the layer that is hard, transparent, shiny and waterproof, it is the finishing layer.
  7. Finally, the skin is dried one last time. 

Now that the hide has finally become patent leather, it will be sent to its buyer, probably a manufacturer of fashion accessories or shoes. This manufacturer will cut it to give it the desired appearance. 👞

📷 Credit: Anil Tannery's Youtube Channel

What are the most common uses of patent leather?

Patent leather is not new, it has had many different uses throughout history. Its first really prominent use dates back to the early 19th century when it began to be used as footwear to match the famous smoking jacket. Today, major fashion brands such as Chanel, Hermès and Prada use this leather to design some of their products. The most iconic patent leather product is undoubtedly the Air Jordan 1 basketball sneakers. Here are some example of big brands that commonly use patent leather products: 

  • Coach with bags
  • Christian Louboutin with shoes
  • Chanel with purses and clutches
  • Allen Edmonds with shoes
  • Hermes with bags
  • Valentino with shoes
  • Prada with shoes
patent leather handbag

Apart from shoes which dominate its use, patent leather is widely used for accessories where the shiny look is appreciated. Handbags, belts or wallets are probably the most common applications. Even though it is footwear that mainly uses this material, patent leather is very popular for the manufacture of many products: 

  • shoes, boots, sneakers, etc. 
  • handbags, backpacks, etc. 💼
  • clutches, wallets, purses, etc. 
  • trousers, skirts, etc.
  • belts 
  • watch straps
  • spectacle cases 🕶
  • etc.
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How do I maintain patent leather?

Patent leather has a reputation for being relatively easy to maintain, especially when compared to real leather. It's true, patent leather is easy to maintain, but there are some good habits to adopt and certain things to avoid to keep it in good condition for longer. 

Overall Maintenance

For maintenance, nothing could be simpler, dust your accessory with a damp cloth, a microfiber cloth will do the trick. Make sure that the cloth is clean and that there are no protruding fibres that could cling to the surface. If in doubt, try it on an inconspicuous area of the leather to make sure the colour of the cloth does not transfer to the item (unlikely). If you just want to dust it and bring back its shine, you're done. 😂

For more thorough care, you can gently scrub the item with a soft, slightly humid brush. Patent leather is sensitive to scratches, so make sure the brush is soft to avoid damaging your product. The brush should remove all dirt without too much trouble. 

I also recommend applying a special patent leather oil. This oil will slow down the onset of micro-cracks and ensure that the leather remains supple. The frequency of application depends on how much you use your product but once a year should be enough for most cases. 

Specific Case of Patent Leather Shoes Maintenance

Taking care of patent leather shoes is like taking care of the shiny coating that is applied to the leather, not the leather itself. Therefore, it is important to take special care of your shoes, ideally once a month.

Step 1: Preparing your shoes

Start by removing dust and other impurities with a damp cloth. Once clean, take care to remove the laces not to damage them during the treatment.

Finally, place wooden shoo trees in your shoes to maintain the shape of the shoe, and to stretch the material for optimal treatment.

Step 2: Washing your shoes

For this step, you will only need a polishing cloth and a leather cleaner. Carefully take your polishing cloth and apply the product to your shoes, using regular and circular movements to avoid damaging the leather fibers.

You can easily remove the remaining impurities and traces. However, you will not remove the traces and marks due to the use and the age of the patent leather.

Step 3: Nourishing your shoes stitching

In order to preserve all the resistance of the seams of your patent leather shoe, you can, with a soft brush, apply wax on the seams of your shoe to nourish them. It is important to note that a dried out seam will tend to get damaged faster over time, compromising the integrity of your shoe.

Be sure to cover the areas most often exposed to impact, most often the front and toe of the shoe. Don't hesitate to wipe off the excess wax with a cloth.

Step 4: Hydrating and restoring the waterproof property

Your leather shoe has the property of being waterproof, which is quite practical. However, with use and age, cracks can appear, compromising its water repellency.

To restore this, apply a solution of patent leather polish to your shoe using a polishing cloth in the same way as above to ensure that the product penetrates well. Be sure to let the product soak in and the shoe dry for about 15-20 minutes (until the surface of the leather becomes matte)

Step 5: Polishing your shoes

It's almost over and here's the last step to give your shoe a real boost. Using your polishing cloth, polish your shoe with quick and vigorous movements, creating those shiny highlights so appreciated by patent leather lovers.

📷 Credit: SUPERGLAMOUROUS's Youtube Channel

How do I remove a stain from patent leather?

To get rid of a stain, you can in most cases rub with a damp microfiber cloth as for dusting. If the stain persists, use a specialised cleaner for patent leather. These products are designed to remove stains as well as enhancing the finish of your item. If in doubt, as with the cloth, try the cleaner on an inconspicuous area of the product to ensure that it is compatible. 🧼

Remember, the sooner you start to remove a stain, the better (this advice applies to other materials). 

How do I fix scratches and cracks in patent leather?

Patent leather is quite sensitive to scratches, and it is sometimes difficult to remove them. However, there are some things you can do. You can get a leather repair kit, normally in such a kit there is a coloured liquid, take the liquid that matches the colour of your item and pour it into the crack. Let it dry and the scratch should no longer be visible. 

For a crack, depending on its size, the damage may be irreversible. The good news in this kind of situation is that you don't have much left to lose, so you might as well try! You can do the same as for the scratch, and put the plastic liquid into the crack. You can also try to sew it up if you know how to do it, or even use soft glue. It's up to you depending on what you have and the size of the tear. 🧵

How to store patent leather?

Patent leather is fairly easy to store, just like most other materials. Ideally, store your item in a cool, dry place like a cupboard. Avoid too much heat, especially direct sunlight. Some patent leather has a coating that protects it from UV rays, but this coating has its limitations. 

To be on the safe side, you may want to keep your item in its original box, especially if it is white, which may fade the colours of other items. Finally, store your item once it has dried so that it keeps its shape and lives longer. 

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Difference between patent leather and other leathers:

There are many different types of leather and not all are equal. Some are tough, some are soft, while others are cheaper. Is patent leather really the right leather for you? To find out, it may be interesting to compare it with 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, although the type of leather is the most significant. The quality can vary depending on the hide used (bovine, sheep,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 ⏳

Patent leather is relatively durable, if properly cared for, it can survive for a few years depending on the quality of your product. Compared to patent leather, real leather is almost always more durable. Good leather can last a lifetime with proper care. 

The only leathers that are less durable than patent leather are synthetic leathers such as glued leather or PU leather which are also made of plastic. There are however higher quality patent leathers that can live for a very long time but standard patent leather will live for a few years. Furthermore, patent leather will crack over time. 

Scratch resistance 

If you are afraid of scratches, patent leather is not for you. Some leathers are more resistant than others, but scratching is one of the major weaknesses of leather. Patent leather is slightly more scratch resistant than real leather but both materials are sensitive. The problem with patent leather is that once there is a tear, it is very visible and difficult to remove. Whether you wear leather or patent leather, be careful !

Water resistance 💧

One of the best known characteristics of patent leather is its water resistance! Real leather is quite sensitive to moisture, different leathers will react differently to moisture but in general, leather is very sensitive to water. If it is not exposed for too long and dries properly, it will not be damaged. Prolonged exposure will be irreversible for the most natural leathers such as aniline leather which has no protective layer. Leather is very porous, so liquids can easily seep through, whereas patent leather is smooth so water should not penetrate. 

The coating on patent leather makes it at worst water resistant, at best waterproof. Only the most heavily coated leathers can compete with patent leather in this respect. However, it is possible to waterproof leather to overcome this weakness. The problem is that this involves additional costs for an already expensive material. In addition, the immobilisation is only temporary, and must be done regularly. 

Breathability 

Leather has a super power that prevents moisture and reduces the growth of bacteria and moulds that often cause bad odours. This is due to the breathability of leather, which is naturally porous. The more layers you add, the less breathable it becomes. As you know by now, patent leather has many layers, so it is not very breathable. 

Feel 

Not all leathers have the same feel, velvet leathers such as nubuck or suede have a feel similar to, you guessed it... velvet while smooth leathers have a feel, you guessed it too... a smooth feel. It is impossible to compare the feel of patent leather to the feel of all other leathers, but remember this: patent leather has a wonderful smooth feel. Real leather has a softer, more authentic feel. 

It is important to mention that poor quality patent leather can have an unpleasant sticky feel. In general, it is difficult to be disappointed with the feel of real leather, whereas the feel of patent leather will depend more on the quality of the product. 

Smell 👃

The smell of leather is simply incomparable to any other material. Of course, the smell will depend on the tanning method or the age of the product but I am taking little risk in writing that leather smells good. The smell of patent leather is often chemical. I understand that this is not the most important criterion, especially for shoes, but if you seriously compare real leather to patent leather, the smell is an important differentiating factor. 

Appearance 

Real leather is very different from patent leather when it comes to visual appeal. The timeless look of real leather means that you can more or less wear leather with anything in any situation. Patent leather is shiny and is more suited to the person who likes to be the eye-catcher. 

Genuine leather can have imperfections, some people love the authentic or vintage feel, others prefer a more homogenous product like patent leather. At this point, both styles are classics, they can even go together, it's a matter of taste. 

Ecological 

In this area, neither patent leather nor genuine leather is a good student. Leather requires the death of an animal to exist and the tanning process is very polluting. Patent leather also needs to be tanned and the plastic coating is anything but biodegradable. The textile industry, which includes leather, is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world. However, there are more and more environmentally friendly leathers such as pineapple leather or cactus leather. 🌵

Care 

Patent leather is known to be very easy to maintain, in most cases a quick wipe with a cloth is sufficient. It is not that real leather is particularly hard to maintain, it is that leather is more difficult to maintain. The difficulty of maintenance depends on the type of leather, but there is no doubt that patent leather is easier to maintain. In addition to being easier to maintain, patent leather costs less to maintain. Real leather often requires specialised equipment which is often quite expensive. 

 Price 💰

You may be expecting an overwhelming victory for patent leather in this section, and on paper you would be right. Patent leather is almost always cheaper than real leather. If you find a "real" leather cheaper, watch out, it's probably a scam. Only a handful of high-end patent leather made from real leather can be more expensive than real leather.

Where real leather is better is that it will last much longer, the price/quality ratio is in most cases on the side of real leather. Quality hides are very rarely turned into patent leather. For this last point, it is up to you to decide, is it better to buy a quality product at a high price, or is it more profitable to buy several cheaper but less durable products?

Pros & Cons  

Pros:

  • ✔ The best known quality of patent leather is that it is waterproof, so you don't have to worry about it raining or being very wet.
  • ✔ Patent leather is very shiny, impossible to miss!
  • ✔ The feel of the patent leather is smooth and even.
  • ✔ This leather is available in all colours, the only limit is your imagination (well the only limit is what the manufacturers offer but it sounded cool).
  • ✔ One of the few characteristics patent leather shares with genuine leather is that it is a rather flexible material.
  • ✔ It is the easiest leather to maintain. Most of the time, a damp cloth is sufficient for occasional maintenance.
  • ✔ Patent leather goes with almost everything, no need to have 15 pairs of shoes, patent leather goes with almost every style. 😎
  • ✔ Patent leather is very affordable compared to other leathers. The only expensive patent leathers are quality items, they will live longer.

Cons:

  • ❌ Patent leather scratches quite easily and scratches are very difficult to remove.
  • ❌ Over time, patent leather will crack. You can delay the onset of cracking, but it is inevitable.
  • ❌ Patent leather is not breathable. Bad odours can build up and you may feel hot in summer.
  • ❌ This type of leather often has a chemical smell, few people smell their shoes but this is an important criterion for many people.
  • ❌ Compared to real leather, it is not very durable. It will live for a few years, not too bad for plastic but don't expect to age with it.
  • ❌ Patent leather is not eco-friendly. Plastic degrades over centuries… 🌳

Frequently asked questions about patent leather :

Is patent leather of good quality?

In most cases, the "leather" layer is plastic, it is a fake leather. The leather is not of very good quality. If the inner layer is real leather, it is often poor quality leather. The plastic coating hides the leather, so manufacturers do not spoil beautiful leather with patent leather, very beautiful leathers are used for aniline or crazy horse for example. 

How long does a patent leather accessory live?

It is difficult for me to give you a precise lifespan since the durability of the product depends on the quality of the basic products, its frequency of use, its maintenance etc. But if you want to have an idea, count on 5 or 6 years for a good product correctly handled and maintained. 

Does patent leather crack?

Yes, patent leather will crack over time. Its coating is solid, but even the Mona Lisa's falling apart. Good maintenance can slow down the first damage, but it is inevitable

Does patent leather stretch with wear?

Patent leather does not stretch easily, if you want to stretch it, apply a little heat to it and wear it so that it adapts to you. Be careful, you can damage it, so take it easy. Stretching will cause cracks but it will not stretch too much over time. 

Why is patent leather yellow?

The last layer of plastic is transparent at first. Over time, it will degrade and turn yellow. On dark products the yellow is not very visible but on white it is very noticeable. 

Is patent leather vegan?

Most patent leather is fake leather, i.e. it is not made from hide. So yes, patent leather is vegan, but that doesn't make it eco-friendly. It does have a lower environmental impact than real leather.

What kind of paint can I use on patent leather?

If you want to paint your patent leather item, use acrylic paint. This is the best paint because it remains flexible even after it dries, which is a must for many bags, shoes, etc. 🎨

Is patent leather real leather?

The reason this question is so confusing is that the answer varies. Most patent leather manufactured today are fake leathers, which are cheaper and more vegan. So it's essentially plastic on plastic. But some of the higher end products are real leather, and the protective layer is almost always the same. 

To Wrap Up

Patent leather is affordable, durable, waterproof, easy to care for, comes in all colours and goes with almost everything. For all these reasons, fashion brands around the world use this material for their products.Now that you know all about patent leather, which do you prefer, patent leather or real leather? Tell us in the comments! 😉

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