December 2007 Peru Tribune Articles on Leather and
Suede Cleaning by One Hour Cleaners
This is the first of a two part article on leathers.
Leathers can mean furs, suedes and leathers, and so in this article, we will use
the word leather to mean typically all three.
Maybe you noticed in the stores the past few years, a larger and larger amount
of low priced leathers, such as coats as low as $65, and yet, 25 years ago, the
cost for a similar garment would have been much higher. This two part series
will explore that and in the second part discuss things to watch for when buying
a leather, things to avoid during wear and care and how leathers are cleaned.
We have to remember that whenever you buy a leather garment, something else
first wore that skin! And we have to also realize that leather garments go back
to the beginning of time. And that it is a natural product that breathes well. I
can recall in the 1970's when leather was getting high priced, that some shoe
makers used "man made" materials that cracked and peeled. Look even at the
products such as polyurethane and vinyl and "ultra suede" and "brushed cotton"
all which try to imitate real leather and suede.
Leathers are the first garments, worn by the first man and woman (Adam and Eve).
(Can't you just see Adam and Eve in their biker black painted leathers....just
kidding) And tanning is the process by which skins of the animals become leather
and are no longer subject to rotting. Genesis 3:21 says "unto Adam and his wife
God made coats of skins and clothed them". And of course the skins of the
animals were used to make the clothes for Adam and Eve were the by product of
the first animal blood sacrifice, for the atonement of the sin of disobedience
of God who commanded that they should not eat of the fruit of the tree of
knowledge of good and evil. Since Jesus was the final blood sacrifice, the skins
of animals used to make suedes and leathers today are the by product of the food
industry, after we eat steaks, lamb chops and pork chops.
That is correct, we have to preserve the skins else they rot. I mean we have all
seen road kill, and there does not lay a perfect piece of fur, it will decompose
unless it is "tanned". The joke goes of a woman who goes into a shoe store to
buy a pair of alligator shoes. The store simply wants too much for them and the
woman complains they are all too high priced. The manager says, well go catch
the alligator if you want them cheaper. That night on the way home from work,
the manager sees this woman at the edge of the bayou, with several dead gators
on the bank. She wrestles another one out of the water and kills and flips it
over and exclaim, "shoot, this one doesn't have any shoes either".. There is
quite a process that happens to make it into leather. While the most common come
from cows, pigs and sheep any skin in theory is a leather from snake to fish to
deer to bear, etc.
Man developed ways to soften and preserve the skins of animals. At one time
skins were air dried in sunlight, then soaked in water and dried over a fire
with the smoking emitting an element called aldehyde and resulted in tanning of
the skins. Later vegetable tanning was discovered when the bar of trees like oak
were soaked with the skins in water to preserve the skins. Modern day methods
utilize tannic acids and chrome tanning agents in water to turn hides and skins
You notice I said hides and skins. We refer to cow leather as cowhide and sheep
as sheepskin and pig as pigskin, but elephants as elephant hide. So why are some
"hide" and some "skin"? The larger skins are called hides, hence cowhide and
elephant hide, and the smaller skins are skins such as rabbit skin, sheepskin,
O.k. I mentioned leather, suede and fur, aren't they really three different
things? Not at all, leather is the top surface. If you look at the skin on your
body, what you see is the leather side. Of course fur is that same side
simply with quite a bit of hair. Suede is the under side. Suede is "nubby" (has
?nap?), where as leather is smooth. Of course there is a process called nu-buck
where they take the leather side and rough it up to make a suede looking
And in at least one type of animal skin, that being sheepskin, sometimes they
leave the fur or lamb's wool on it, and so the outside of the coat is suede and
the inside is the warm wool fur, and it is called shearling. And like I spoke of
imitations, just how many coats over the years have tried to imitate that lamb's
wool interior, and even today, we have those fake fur on the inside with pigskin
on the outside. That real shearling is very warm!
The process of tanning leather is quite involved and it starts with washing of
the hides and cutting the hides into various thicknesses, running through
cutting and roll machines, being put into vats of chemicals to preserve and to
dye the hides. Obviously it is quite labor intensive. Years ago, the reason
leather was expensive (compared to now) is that today most all tanning and even
construction is done in China, Vietnam and other "3rd world" countries.
Of course at one point in the process, something very important happens and that
is the placing of the skin onto either a stainless steel sheet where there is
glue to allow it to dry or on a device that uses like clothes pins over a wire
mess for it to dry. Why is this drying process so critical? Well leather when
wet will stretch somewhat. And the tanners sell their skins based upon the
square inches and a scrupulous operator will stretch the skins a bit and make
The problem is that much like our human skin after a woman has a baby, it has
been stretched but returns back to its original size (more or less). So as you
wear that that leather garment, if the leather was over stretched in the tanning
process, it will "relax" and return to the normal size. Not only can just
wearing but the cleaning process can cause the same. More on that in the 2nd
part of this series.
Back 30 or so years ago, there were two common forms of leather/suede. One being
sheepskin and the other cowhide. But today, the more common is pigskin. The
reason we did not see pigskin back in the 1960's and most of the 1970's is that
pigs don't have hair, they have bristles, and there was no easy
process to remove the bristles until Oscar Mayer (the hot dog folks) came up
with a way to remove such. I have been told a billion hogs are slaughtered a
year in China, and is it any wonder that there are so many pigskin garments
How can you identify a pigskin suede garment? Look at it, if you see pores (like
we have on our skin), it is pigskin. So with an abundance of skins, with low
cost labor, is it any wonder that leathers are showing up everywhere?In the next
article, we will talk about selecting a leather, things to avoid during wear and
care and about getting one cleaned.
Chris Birk, is a staff member of One Hour Cleaners, 52 W. Third, and is a
graduate of the Royaltone Leather Cleaning Academy
This is a 2nd in the two part series on Leather and Suedes.
In the last article, we discussed a bit about leather, suede and fur, and about
why cow leather is called cowhide, but pig leather is called pigskin. How
leather garments were the first ever worn by man (o.k., not counting the fig
In this article we will talk about what to watch for when buying a leather, how
to care for it and how leathers are cleaned.By its nature, leathers (which means
leathers, suedes and furs) can have what you might call either natural beauty or
defects in it. Go look at fellow man, and you will find skin defects, either
"natural" (freckles, moles, etc.) or caused by accidents, etc. (scars, for
example). The same is true for animal hides. There are fly bites, there are barb
wire fence pricks, there are vein marks, there are belly wrinkles, after all 1/2
of the leathers come from females and many who have had babies. There are tick
bites. Many times these "defects" are covered by the tanning process but will
show up later during wear and cleaning.
For example, I mentioned tick bites. That leaves a scar that temporarily will
hold some dye but after wearing and cleaning will come off and you will end up
with "little white spots" and that is from a tick. And that scar won't hold dye.
A garment maker should very carefully select the skins, but more than likely
your garment will be made of skins of different animals. If it is a painted
leather (a black biker jacket is an example of a painted leather, there is a
coat of paint on the surface), they can get by with more of a mix of grains
because you don't see the real leather grain.
Think of it this way, you take a piece of wood, and you paint it. You can't see
the grain, that is just like painted leather. Instead of painting the board, you
do nothing, that is just like what we call naked leather. Or you stain the
board, and that like most leathers and suedes (dyed). There are antiquing
processes, etc. but for the most part, the 3 most common are painted leather (it
is smooth and has a layer of paint on it), naked leather which is in a natural
color (many sheepskins are natural), and dyed leather which all those green,
blue, dark brown, black suedes are. I mean, we typically don't see green cows!
If the garment is not painted, and if the person making it selects skins that
are different in texture, color, markings, etc. it may be much more noticeable
over time. Of course the consumer can only look at it, they can't change that
So you are looking at a smooth leather and you don't know if it is painted or
dyed, how can you tell? Put a drop of water on it, if it lies on the surface and
does not soak in, it is painted, if it soaks in, it is dyed. Painted leathers
typically are easier to maintain because when you get caught in the rain, you
can just wipe it down. If you get caught in the rain in a suede or a dyed
leather, it can many times spot, and this is even more prevalent after it has
been cleaned as the initial repellant has been lost or breaks down.
So if you get a leather garment wet, whether it be in the rain or out in the
snow, whatever, do NOT dry it like in the dryer or next to the radiator. Many of
you reading this can maybe recall as a youngster of putting your leather shoes
(or gloves) next to the heat to dry them out and they were stiff and hard. You
say wait a moment, water by itself will do that to leather. Nope, for the whole
leather tanning process is done in water.
Keep your leather dry, avoid heat and avoid excessive sunlight, are three
If you spill something on your leather garment, you will want to get it cleaned
relatively quickly after it happens because the longer it is in there, the more
difficult to remove. Unlike regular cloth fabric where
various chemicals can be used, spot removal on leathers and suedes are done much
different and chemicals can't be applied like on cloth. Ink (like a stray mark)
may come off, ink like a pen that leaked in a suede purse and soaked through
won't come off.
And if you spill some common household products like bleach, battery acid, etc.
the suede or non-painted leather, you can damage the dye and even with
respraying of the dye, may NOT be able to correct it. Avoid putting sticky name
badgeson a leather or suede.
Protect your garment from sunlight because sunlight can fade your leather
garment and leather garments even if you do not wear them, should be cleaned
about once a year, to restore the oils in them to keep them soft.
If different animal skins were selected, as you know two people won't "tan" the
same, there can be some color variation or change so if the leather is part of a
2 piece suit, both pieces should be cleaned. And sometimes skins from various
parts of even the same body won't take the dye at the same rate and after
cleaning there can be variations. The best skins are on the top of the animal
(the back), not the belly. And if the manufacturer of the garment used glue to
hold together pieces while stitching and that glue won't
withstand the cleaning, it can go and bleed to the surface of the leather, and
that can only be prevented by the garment maker choosing a quality glue.
Unlike regular cloth fabric, there are other problems that can occur. When you
take your leather garment to the cleaners, the counter staff should go over the
garment with you, pointing out any potential problems that could occur no matter
who cleans the garment. For example, if the lining is now hanging a bit below
the jacket, guess what, as you have worn it, it has tried to relax back to its
original size because it was over stretched. Or if it is a painted leather, and
around the cuffs, collar and button holes, all the paint is gone (worn away),
that won't improve in cleaning, and only is improved by repainting the jacket,
which is typically not only an extra step and but an extra charge.
There are two basic processes of cleaning leathers(excluding furs), one of them
in done in solvent and the other is a "green" process done in water. Both
involve special detergents, oils and conditioners, as leather cleaning is
totally different than regular drycleaning or washing, as is the pressing or
finishing of leather garments.
Typically when a consumer takes their leather to a cleaners, one of two things
happens. The cleaners will send the garment out to a leather wholesaler who
specializes in leather cleaning since the process is different than drycleaning
or the other option is that the cleaners does them on site, as they have gotten
the education, experience and equipment required to do them onsite. The process
is involved, and the cost to clean a leather coat is more than a cloth coat, and
Furs require very special care and processes and they are handled by furriers.
Leather gloves can be challenge also and many times are not accepted for
cleaning (as they have a tendency to shrink, are not easily finished, and
sometimes will rip at the seams if they were overstretched during tanning.
However there are a lot of lady’s pigskin suede purses out there and some of
them do clean up very nice compared to the alternative of discarding the purse.
And you have to keep in mind that a nice cowhide suede coat in the 1970's or
1980's might have ran a couple hundred dollars, and when you factor for
inflation, that would be close to thousand dollars today, and you are buying a
suede pigskin coat for $70, there is a difference in the quality and you need to
understand that. Also you are getting all the "natural beauty" of leather (what
some may call defects like scars, belly wrinkles and color and texture
Never buy a leather garment that is "tight" to begin with, because unless you
plan to lose weight(grin), as you wear the leather it may begin to relax back to
its smaller size if it was overstretched during tanning or relax back during the
So in these two articles, we have covered a few consumer-important items about
where leathers comes from, how to care for leathers and a bit on the risks and
benefits of cleaning leathers. You can see what happens in the barnyard, and
what happens during the tanning process plays a huge role on the future
appearance of the garment.
Chris Birk, a staff member of One Hour Cleaners, 52 West Third is a graduate of
the Royal Leather Cleaning Academy.