Dress Code: The Care And Feeding Of Leather


Just when I thought everyone’s wardrobe was meticulously maintained, the letters started coming: leather! What about leather? So, herewith and to the chagrin of vegans everywhere and with Stella’s undoubted blessing: how to care for leathah.

First, let’s remember one thing: leather is skin. No getting around it. As such, it needs cleaning and conditioning to stay in good shape. There the parallels end because, well-maintained, leather will last you forever. Or as good as. A few things to keep in mind:

– As a general rule, the less leather has been treated, the higher the quality; “full-grain” is the highest quality.

– Don’t spray on perfume, hairspray or other stuff containing drying alcohol while wearing leather.

First of all, when in doubt, yes, a dry-cleaner can do this. Rather, they’ll send it off-site to a leather-cleaner. Be sure it’s a reputable cleaner. However, much leather cleaning can be done at home. Saddle soap is great. Obviously designed to clean leather, it’s cheap and widely available. However! It will also dry leather out unless used with a conditioner, so nb.

Before you use anything, try a damp cloth. If that doesn’t work, buy “leather cleaner” from a cobbler or drugstore. Follow manufacturer’s instructions, but most often this involves applying, waiting and wiping.

If it’s still dirty, you can try:

  • Hand-washing.
    – Get out as many stains as you can (see below.)
    – The drill’s the same as for any hand-washing: warm, soapy water and a mild cleanser like Ivory or shampoo.
    – Gently suds the leather with a washcloth
    – Either rise thoroughly or wipe off all soap.
    – Pat dry and allow to dry flat, obviously away from direct heat or sun.
  • Machine-washing. I’ll be honest, I’ve never done this, and it’s definitely a risk. But, theoretically, it can be done. And if you’re a daredevil or you have really filthy, cheap piece you’re willing to risk, try it! On, of course, a delicate setting and warm or cool water and a small amount of delicate cleanser like Ivory or Woolite.

Conditioning. This is important! Will keep leather supple and healthy. Basically, you’re re-tanning it, and if you’re diligent, do this twice a year. You want “leather conditioner” (when you look for it, it’s pretty ubiquitous and at any cobbler’s) and one without silicone, since leather needs to breathe. Follow manufacturer’s instructions, but generally you’ll want to:

-Dampen a soft cloth or chamois, and apply the conditioner to that.
– Gently rub into the surface (or the nap — this also works for suede)
– Allow to penetrate for 30 minutes before applying another light coat.

Weather-Proofing. A good idea, for obvious reasons. Those moisture-barrier products (again, available wherever shoe products are sold) smell weird and may leave the leather a little greasy, but if you’re going to be out in the elements, it’ll save it from drying and cracking.

Stains. As with any stain, try your best to get it out while it’s fresh (a phrase I’ve always found vaguely disgusting.) With a grease stain, sprinkling with some chalk (if you have it around) and letting sit overnight may work. A leather brush can also help work out a stain. However, if they won’t budge there’s no shame in going to the dry-cleaner.

– Mildew is another ballgame. As many of us know, leather’s prone to it. Here’s the method: make a 1:1 solution of water and rubbing alcohol. Wipe it all over the mildew, and allow to dry. And obviously, to avoid this, don’t put away wet!

Ironing. Don’t, if you can avoid it. But if you really need to, iron on the lowest setting, avoid steam, and iron through something else, like a towel. Move as quickly as possible.

Storage. Leather needs to breathe: store it in tissue, a garment bag or an old pillow-case. Avoid plastic. And keep it away from too much dry heat or damp. Hang on a wide wooden hanger to help preserve shape.

Suede. Most of the same wisdom applies, but you can buy a stiff suede brush (or just a terry washcloth) which will take care of most of the cleaning: you can literally brush out dirt. Then spray it with a waterproof suede protector and you should be good to go. (You can also use your brush to fluff up the nap, if you’re into that.

For all of our handy Dress Code guides, go here.

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