how to clean leather and suede

Woman sitting surrounded by leather shoes and handbags.

We all have luxurious leather and suede in our closets: skirts, vests, jackets - or shoes, belts, and handbags. 

While we love the leather items that keep us warm and toasty, sometimes the mere thought of a spill, drip or drop on our leather duds can send such a chill through us, that that hot new jacket or handbag never makes it out of the closet, lest it get soiled.

After all, how would we clean it? For many of us, cleaning leather garments is still one of life's mysteries. 

So here's a guide on how to clean leather - mystery solved. 

Cleaning Leather By Type

The best way to ensure your suede and leather stay looking sharp, is to apply a water-resistant spray, like Kiwi Boot and Shoe Protector ($15), before wearing.

If boots or shoes get wet prior to treatment, water stains may be sealed in.

To clean leather effectively, use the right method and cleaners for the specific type:

  • Protected: These are the most robust and most practical leathers. The leather is finished with pigments on the surface. You can restore the color on scratches.
  • Aniline: This type of leather (also called natural, naked, or unprotected) is colored with a transparent dye so that the grain shows through. It has no protective coating though you can spray it with a leather water repellant.
  • Nubuck: This is an aniline leather (also called distressed or bomber leather) that has been brushed to create a soft velvety surface. It's very absorbent and will stain easily, although some Nubucks, such as distressed or bomber, have waxed surfaces that offer some protection.
  • Suede: Suede is the flesh side of a piece of leather. It looks like Nubuck and needs similar care. 

Always clean leather following the item's care label instructions - if the label is legible. If not, these guidelines can help.

Finished Leather

Clean leather of surface dirt and stains by rubbing with a damp sponge. If the spot remains, apply a little saddle soap or liquid dish detergent and try again.

Unfinished Leather and Suede

Suede and unfinished leather clothes and shoes will spot quickly if you get them wet. If that happens, gently rub a horsehair suede brush in circular motions across the affected area when it's dry. This will help fix discoloration.

To reverse salt stains, rub the spot in circular motions; alternate between using a barely damp sponge and a suede brush. Stuff boots with newspaper while they dry.

If at-home repair techniques don't work, take the boots or shoes to a pro.

Leather and suede rarely need to be professionally cleaned. That's good because professional leather cleaning is expensive, and it may fade the color.

If you must send a leather garment to the dry cleaners, find a dry cleaner who specializes in leather. And if you have a two-piece outfit, send both pieces, so the color stays consistent.

When soles become worn, have the boots or shoes resoled. You can even ask the cobbler to add durable rubber outsoles to the existing thin leather soles. 

Leather Storage Tips

During the off-season, keep your boots and shoes in dust bags in a cool, dark area to help prevent dust buildup and fading.

Store leather garments on shaped or padded hangers in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated place. Cover with cloth instead of plastic so the garment can breathe; otherwise, it might dry out or mildew.

If the wrinkles in your leather garment don't hang out, try steaming them out. Hang the clothing in the bathroom while you shower.

If you still have wrinkles, you can iron the leather using the iron's lowest setting (no steam!) Place brown paper between the iron and the leather garment to protect it.

How to Dry Leather

Avoid getting leather garments wet. If leather does get wet, blot the excess moisture from it gently with a towel. Then lay flat to dry away from direct heat. Heat will dry out its natural oils and can cause the surface to become hard and cracked.

Leather and Suede No-Nos

  • Using hair sprays or perfumes near leather clothes
  • Wearing a leather collar against your skin (protect it with a scarf)
  • Putting an adhesive sticker (such as a name badge) on leather.

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