CONCORD, N.C. — My January column on wetcleaning suede (Breathing New Life into Suede) drew a large number of comments. This month, I will revisit the cleaning of skins, by giving an overview of smooth leather and its cleaning. It can be found as trim on a fabric garment as well as comprising the entire garment.
One can usually identify the part of the animal’s body the hide came from by the grain/texture of the leather. The coarser the grain, the higher on the body the hide originated.
Deep valleys in the hide probably indicate a back skin, while fine grains in the leather are an indication of the skin coming from the belly region. Belly skins are thin, while a back skin is dense. Most motorcycle jackets are of a coarse grain, indicating that they were taken from high on the back of the animal. They are intended more for protection rather than decoration, and the thick hide makes them much more durable.
On the other hand, a lady’s jacket constructed of well-matched belly skins will be soft and supple in appearance and touch. This leather is thin and will require a level of protection to prevent seams tearing during the mechanical action of cleaning.
Two major indicators of relative quality in leather garments can be observed by the CSR upon presentation for cleaning.
The first is how well the grain in the leather has been matched together in appearance. A garment that has a small, fine-grain belly skin sewn to a coarse back skin is evidence of little or no attention to detail during construction.
This is apparently the product of “using up” the available hides by piecing together hides without any regard to texture or appearance. Many times, under these conditions, the thin belly skin will tear at the seam due to the relative difference in tensile strength of the two pelts during cleaning.
The second indicator is the use of a filler to camouflage imperfections in the skin from things like barbed wire and thorns. These imperfections are trimmed away in the construction of all but the low-end garments. This filler is similar to the Bondo® used in a auto body shop and is easily loosened during wear and cleaning, leaving the cleaner open to a potential claim.
If the leather has begun to stiffen, even to the point of crackling when handled, it is a good indication that it has been a victim of neglect or abuse. Stiff leather that crackles when bent is a sure sign that the garment is likely to be unserviceable.
Leathers come in almost every configuration: jackets, skirts, pants, vests, even shorts. Just like suede, the moment the animal’s heart stops, the hide tends to dry.
Modern tanning methods go a long way to slowing down the process of drying. Our job is to continue to retard the drying and keep the leather smooth, soft and supple. Restoring smooth leather requires a virtually identical cleaning process as suede.
You must use a detergent formulated for cleaning animal skins, spotting agents that are compatible with retaining the oils and dyes used on smooth leather, and, most importantly, a conditioner to ensure the garment remains soft and flexible. Ask your distributor about the lines of leather cleaning supplies that are available to you.
Do not use strong chemical tools to pre-spot leathers. It is almost always necessary to re-clean a leather garment when post-spotting is required. When I pre-spot leather, I use a 50/50 concentration of my leather detergent and water or a 50/50 concentration of my leather degreaser and water.
These have a great shelf life, so they can be made up in advance and kept at the ready. When pre-spotting, you should be sensitive to your mechanical action and/or chemical tools disturbing the dye or the smooth surface.
Any rinsing of pre-spotter should be done with a bottle of tap water followed by your air gun.
Increase the gun’s distance from the garment by another two inches to allow an additional margin of safety for the garment surface. If additional mechanical action is required, use a “worn-out” toothbrush to get into the grain.
Check back Tuesday for the conclusion!