Suede’s sumptuously soft, fuzzy fibres may trick you into thinking that it belongs in its own category of fabric, but it is actually a type of leather.
Pure suede is traditionally made from sheepskin and it undergoes a meticulous manufacturing process to make sure that it’s in excellent condition when it reaches our wardrobes. Because of this, washing suede requires lots of care and special instruction to ensure that it remains looking, and feeling, pristine.
Whether you own a suede jacket, bag, or pair of shoes, learn how to clean and prolong the life of this precious natural fibre.
What is Suede?Suede is a natural fabric that’s made from the underside of animal skin and is part of the leather family. It comes from the abdomen and weaker part of the hide which gives it a softer, thinner, and more pliable composition compared to other types of leather. It’s this silky, delicate feel that adds to suede’s high-end appeal and causes it to be enjoyed as an illustrious sign of luxury.
To gain a better understanding of suede and how it’s produced, it can be easier to look at in comparison to other types of leathers:
- Napa – Napa is a full-grain leather, meaning the surface of the hide hasn’t been processed once the hair has been removed. It keeps all of its grain and texture from the original skin surface, which is why napa is regarded as one of the most authentic types of leather. It also offers some water resistance, which can be enhanced through a finishing process to add to its durability.
- Suede – Suede is the layer of the hide that you’d find on the opposite side of napa if you turned it over. The fibres on the interior of the skin surface have a more open-grain structure that gives it a softer and looser feel. To turn this inner layer into suede, it must be sanded down to open up the fibres further and give it that signature velvety texture. As sanding the leather breaks down the fibres to make them more pliable, it also makes them more susceptible to water, natural oils, and dirt. It’s recommended to use a specialist suede protective product to keep it from soiling.
- Nubuck – Like suede, nubuck is also made from animal hide that has been sanded down to create a smoother finish. Except, nubuck is made from the top, outer layer of the hide that napa is formed from. Buffing this tighter and tougher grain still gives it the same velvety texture, but it is much more resilient than suede.
What is suede made from?Traditionally, sheepskin is used to create suede. Goat, cow, deer, and other animal skins can also be used and they each give suede a slightly different texture and appearance when finished.
It’s also worth touching on the term ‘nap’, which is used to describe the micro, raised hairs found on the surface of suede. The nap will be tougher on older animals or those with thicker hides, while younger animals will yield a softer, smoother nap.
The three most common types of suede:
1. Sheep and lambskin suede – This offers the softest and silkiest finish, which means it’s also the most delicate. It’s a popular choice for lightweight clothing and accessories like skirts, jackets, and belts.
2. Pigskin suede – This is thicker and more durable than sheepskin suede. As pigs have denser hides, the nap they produce has a short and rough surface.
3. Cowskin suede – This is the coarsest type of suede as it’s usually taken from older animals with rougher, more fibrous hides. This lends extra strength and weight to cowskin suede, making it best suited for shoes, boots, and upholstery.
How to clean suedeAs a type of leather, suede has inherited natural durability and long-lasting properties. That’s not to say that it doesn’t require a little helping hand to keep it looking its best. Suede needs a touch more care than other leathers, but once you know the proper way to care for it, it’ll reward you with years of wear.
Here are a few top tips for how to clean suede:
1. Keep it away from waterIf there’s one key rule for caring for suede, it’s to avoid getting it wet at all costs. Suede is extremely porous and will absorb liquid very easily. Without any natural water resistance, any addition of moisture will cause it to stain and become damaged.
Reversing water damage to suede is extremely difficult as the nap becomes stiff and is likely to break off when wet. Always try to resist the urge to add a splash of water to rid any stains.
If your suede garment or shoes do happen to get wet, you must act immediately to prevent any further damage.
Use a microfiber cloth to absorb as much of the liquid from the nap to dry it out. Blot the affected area and use a suede brush to gently comb with and against the nap while it’s still damp. Keep brushing the nap as it dries; if the nap dries before you can brush it, it’ll likely harden and become too tough to comb through.
Apply gentle heat from a hair dryer as you continue to brush the nap. Once it’s dry, give it another comb through to revive the fibres.
2. Clean with a suede brushWhether you’re dealing with water damage or not, it’s recommended to keep a specialist suede brush in your arsenal for regularly cleaning and maintaining your suede products.
Choose one with boar, brass, or nylon bristles for keeping the nap fresh. The soft bristles work to remove tough surface stains and re-fluff the suede surface to keep it soft.
To use a suede brush, apply light sweeping strokes and brush with the grain. This is the natural direction that the nap hairs fall.
For more stubborn scuffs, you can apply more pressure and brush with and against the nap to dislodge any particles that have settled deep into the fibres.
3. Use talcum powder for wet stainsIf your suede suffers from a wet stain that’s discoloured the surface of the material, try using talcum powder to lift as much of the liquid off as possible. This works particularly well for oily stains.
Sprinkle a generous amount of talcum powder over the affected area so that it completely covers the stain. Leave it for 2-3 hours to absorb the liquid before using your suede brush to remove the powder. The powder may look oily and discoloured as it soaks up the stain.
Repeat the process until the talcum powder stops changing texture and brushes off easily.
4. Spot clean with white vinegar or rubbing alcoholFor stains that have been left to dry, all is not lost. You can still revive your suede with white vinegar or rubbing alcohol. While you may think that these liquids will damage the precious nap of your favourite suede goods, their acidic nature is exceptional for breaking down dried debris.
Apply a few drops of either white vinegar or rubbing alcohol to a microfiber cloth and gently massage onto the stain. Use a back and forth motion to make sure the liquid is fully seeping into the fibres.
Repeat this step to fully break down the stain and remove it. While these liquids may temporarily darken the colour of your suede, it will return to its original colour when the liquid evaporates.
As the area dries, brush it with your suede brush to revive the nap.
5. Get it professionally cleanedIf all else fails or you don’t want to try your hand at cleaning suede yourself, take your item to be professionally cleaned. This is the best option for particularly large or extensive stains that you want expert help to clean.
A professional cleaner will be able to help restore your garment or accessory to its original condition.
How to clean a suede jacket
Suede jackets are a popular garment thanks to their enduring style. Here are some tips for how to keep yours clean:
- Never apply traditional washing detergent to suede.
- Review the care label – some manufacturers may state that some suede-blend jackets can be washed in the washing machine if they are made with other materials. Pure suede, however, often cannot be machine washed.
- Spot clean dry stains by brushing and wet stains with the talcum powder methods.
- Leave to air dry in a well-ventilated area away from exposed sunlight.
How to clean a suede bagTo clean your suede bags and purses, it’s recommended to:
- Brush the nap regularly to remove any debris build-up, even if you can’t spot any visible dirt.
- Apply a suede protector to give added water resistance.
- Store your suede bag in a dust cover, if it came with one, when it’s not in use. A pillowcase will also do the trick. As a natural fibre, suede needs to ‘breathe’. Keeping it in a low-humidity environment is ideal; avoid placing your suede goods in an airtight or sealed space as this can cause humidity levels to increase and cause mould to grow.
How to clean suede shoes and bootsFootwear is much more susceptible to daily wear and dirt, but the best ways to keep your suede shoes and boots looking pristine are:
- Always brush the suede between wears.
- Use the white vinegar or rubbing alcohol methods for stubborn, dry stains and talcum powder for dried scuffs.
- Apply a suede protector after cleaning.
- Store in a dust bag or pillowcase if you’re planning to store them away for long periods of time.
How to protect suedeTo help it last longer between cleans, there are ways you can protect the surface of your suede. The best preventative measure is a suede protector that creates a water and dirt-resistant barrier. These often come in an aerosol spray for easy application.
Here’s how to apply a suede protector:
- 1. Make sure that your suede is clean and completely dry.
- 2. Test out the protector on a small, subtle area to check that it doesn’t alter the colour of your suede. A little darkening is normal.
- 3. Hold the protector 15cm away from the surface and spray evenly across the suede. Move in sweeping motions, applying a thin, even layer.
- 4. Use your suede brush to gently comb through the nap fibres. Remember to brush with the grain in one direction.
- 5. Leave your suede to air dry overnight and away from any direct sunlight or heat sources.
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