Breathing New Life into Suede

Martin L. Young Jr. |

Approach depends on whether pelt is ‘pasture’ or ‘pig’

CONCORD, N.C. — I recently spoke to a cleaner who expressed astonishment that I have wet-cleaned a suede garment. As we talked, though, it became apparent that he was not willing to invest his money in the chemical tools to do the job or invest his time in proper finishing.

Suede is a skin, a pelt; it was once alive. Suede once had blood circulating through it to nourish and maintain the pelt. Once the circulation stops, the pelt begins to dry out. There are procedures, commonly referred to as tanning, that will retard the drying process. Everything done during the cleaning and refinishing process is done to minimize the impact on the pelt and to restore it to the best condition possible. Best condition possible means soft, lush and of even color.

Here is an overview of the steps necessary to wet-clean a suede garment.

First, determine if the suede is “pasture” or “pig.” Look closely at the surface of the suede. If there is any similarity to the surface of a football (obvious dots equals hair follicles), you have a pigskin.

Pigskin is fragile due to its thin nature, and is often coated with a superficial finish to hide the hair follicles and make the surface appear smooth. Also, pigskin is most often offered in a bright color that is sprayed on, much like painting a car. Therefore, when you are presented with a pigskin, you must use cold (tap) water and the least mechanical action possible.

Be aware that your customer will assume the skin is the much sturdier cowhide, since the label will read “suede.” Take the time to counsel the customer and then get a “hold harmless” release signed before proceeding with work dealing with pelts.

More durable pelts from pasture animals present less risk. However, that is not to say there is no risk. Consider all skins fragile. The deeper the color and the thinner the pelt, the greater the risk to the cleaner. Respect the pelt, then collect accordingly. Cleaning a garment made of animal skin is far different than getting cake icing out of navy polyester.

You must use chemical tools that are formulated for cleaning and restoring pelts to achieve the consistent results that the customer is expecting. The detergent, degreaser/prespotter and conditioner I prefer are all suede-specific.

It took cleaning a black suede jacket with white cotton sleeves to convince me that wet-cleaning suede would work. You just have to follow instructions and have patience.

Always finish the cleaning process with suede-specific conditioner. When cleaning suede, you can even use an empty top loader for single items. The results are just as good.

When pre-spotting suede, stay away from drycleaning chemicals. The dye and the softener in suede are virtually inseparable. Anything that will aggressively remove paint, oil or grease also may lift the suede’s base color. If using a wet-side POG, be on guard, because even that tool may pull some color. Use cold water in a spotting bottle when flushing pre-spot agents from suede.

Air from the spotting gun is all the mechanical action you should use on suede. If using a soft brush for localized mechanical action, always finish with air to “fluff up” the nap before cleaning.

When drying suede, include about a half-dozen fuzzy tennis balls with the load. The covering on the tennis balls will go a long way toward restoring the nap on the pelt. Use a lower temperature of 130-140 F to dry to around 10% relative humidity. The garment can then finish drying at room temperature.

Placing a coat or jacket on a suzie using manual air and sleeve forms will go a long way toward reducing the time and effort necessary to reshape the garment.

Many cleaners are willing to stop at this point, having survived the ordeal of wet-cleaning a suede garment. But to make the garment “pop,” to make it look truly professional, you need to complete the job with a finish coat. This will increase the luster of the color and reduce any harsh hand left by wet cleaning.

The most common finishing products are based in lanolin oil or neatsfoot oil. I usually use lanolin oil on the lighter colors. It is mixed: 1 part lanolin oil to 6 parts water. I apply this mixture with a spray bottle in a well-ventilated area or, on occasion, outside. The garment can then be left to air-dry or tumbled a second time.

I use neatsfoot oil at full strength on darker colors. I apply it with a spray bottle, always outside, and then tumble on a “fluff” cycle with the fluffy tennis balls. Neatsfoot oil can be acquired locally, in small amounts, from a tack shop catering to saddles and bridles.

Cleaning suede simply requires attention to detail. It is a great way to enhance your reputation and add diversified income to your bottom line.

About the author

Martin L. Young Jr.

Industry Consultant and Trainer

Martin L. Young Jr. has been an industry consultant and trainer for 20 years, and a member of various stakeholder groups on environmental issues. He is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Launderers & Cleaners (NCALC). He grew up in his parents’ plant in Concord, N.C., Young Cleaners, which he operates to this day. Contact him by phone at 704-786-3011, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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