All About Suede and How to Clean It to Make it Last

How to clean suede

So what is suede?
Suede (like leather) is made from animal hide and comes from the soft underside. Suede is commonly used for shoes, jackets and bags due to its smooth and velvety texture. While leather comes from cow skin, and suede can come from cow skin, most suede on the market actually comes from lamb skin. It also sometimes comes from goats and deer. Suede originated in Sweden, and is still produced there, although the bulk of suede currently on the market comes from China. 

Is suede sustainable?

Any time we wear something that came from an animal there are several things to consider. Where and how was the animal raised? The environmental impacts of a livestock farming operation depend on scale (how big?) and management (how are the animals and the land being cared for... or not cared for?). Some forms of livestock farming (feedlots) produce immense amounts of greenhouse gasses. Factory farms emit detrimental amounts of methane and a considerable amount of CO2 comes from feeding, processing and transporting animals. Water requirements for livestock operations are high and the effects on water quality can be detrimental. It takes a sufficient amount of land to raise and sustain a herd of livestock animals, and large scale farmland expansion contributes to the destruction of vital habitat. Environmentally and ethically responsible livestock farming DOES exist, and these producers ensure that they have the cleanest standards possible. The most sustainable farms ensure that the WHOLE animal is being used. Farmers are important and we can and should stand behind those that are choosing to operate in a forward-thinking way.

How was the final suede product produced? Once the animal itself is processed, the hide is processed before it becomes the final suede product. Hair follicles are removed (liming, de-liming and pickling) before the hide is tanned by exposure to enzymes called tannins. There are several forms of leather tanning, including vegetable tanning and chrome tanning, all of which are water intensive. The suede and leather tanning process can have numerous negative environmental impacts, including chromium pollution, but there are companies trying to change this with innovative tanning techniques. It is then treated with salts and oils, thinned and textured, and sometimes dyed to produce raw suede that can be sewn into an article of clothing. In a future post we will discuss commercial dying processes in more detail, just know that some forms of dye are quite harmful to the environment. Unfortunately, there are no certifications or standards specific to suede, although there are certifications for leather such as OEKO-TEX , The Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector, and The Leather Working Group.

These issues are complex and this is just a snapshot. The bottom line is that if a company isn't transparent about where they source their suede we can't really trust that it is sustainable OR ethical. This is not to say that all operations are irresponsible or that new suede goods can't pass a conscious consumer check, we just need to make sure we are informed prior to buying it. The production and quality of the suede you are buying is usually reflected in the price, but don't be fooled, this is not always the case. All things considered, the most sustainable suede is the vintage and second hand kind. 

** Please note, just like vegan leather... vegan suede is plastic, it comes from fossil fuels, and it is not sustainable.

How to clean suede

Unfortunately, because of its texture and permeability (the ability to allow liquid to pass through it) suede is not waterproof and dirt grinds itself in. There's something just a little bit mesmerizing about suede, it's downside though, once it gets dirty... well it doesn't look very nice anymore. So here's how to clean it.

What you'll need

  • A suede brush- most shoe brushes work fine, just make sure that the bristles aren't really rough. Local shoe shops are the best place to get these, although they are also easy to find online.
  • A suede eraser - These can usually also be found at local shoe shops, box stores and online.
  • A microfiber cloth - I am a fan of this one from norwex because it is made from recycled plastic (P.S. their glass cloths are amazing)
  • White vinegar
  • And suede protectant spray (I like this one because it is non-toxic) or wax to keep your item from needing to be cleaned in the near future
What you need to clean suede shoes

 If you're a visual person (I know I am), links to reels are available in each section.

Step 1. Brush particles of dirt and dust off of the shoe, bag or piece of clothing using a downward motion against the grain of the suede.

Step 2. Brush the suede with a suede eraser, again in a downward motion against the grain of the suede. The eraser will crumble taking the dirt with it, best to do this over a bin or the sink.

Watch these steps here

Step 3. If the dirt is too ground in and you didn't see the results you were hoping for with steps one and two, you can clean your shoes using vinegar and a microfibre cloth. IMPORTANT- never use water to clean suede, water will leave worse stains than you started with. Dip the cloth in vinegar and gently wipe the suede in a downward motion. Try not to oversaturate the shoes. Once you have wiped down the whole area of the shoe, allow it to dry completely before you decide whether or not to wipe it a second time. 

Step 4.  Let the shoes dry completely, usually 24 hours is a safe bet, before adding a form of protection. There are two great options to protect your suede, with a spray or with a wax. The spray will come with detailed instructions on the bottle and you can find detail instructions for the wax here.

Watch these steps here

Now that you've cleaned and protected your suede it's ready to wear :) Maintain it by giving it a brush every few times you wear it. 

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Love you to bits, 


Owner, curator and creator @purpleastervintage

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