What Is Suede? Care Tips & Environmental Impact

At Latico Leathers, we only use full-grain leather to handcraft our best-selling leather purses, wallets, totes, backpacks, and other bags because we firmly believe in its quality and sustainability. However, we know suede also appeals to many customers. 

Yet, confusion persists about how suede differs from other leathers, how to care for it, and how it affects the environment. Let's take a closer look at this popular material.

What Is Suede Leather?

Suede leather, which has a distinctive soft, fuzzy texture, originates from the underside of animal skin, particularly from lambs, goats, or calves. Sanding the skin's underside yields this soft and pliable fabric, distinguishing it from traditional outer layer-based leather, such as top-grain or full-grain leather. The sensory appeal of suede leather has made it popular for various fashion items, such as shoes, handbags, and other accessories.

Types of Suede

Different animals produce suede with varying characteristics:

  • Cowhide: Durable, slightly rough texture, used for shoes, jackets, and upholstery.
  • Sheepskin: Soft, lightweight, and has a finer nap (the fuzzy, fibrous side of the leather versus the grain side). It is used for garments, gloves, and delicate accessories.
  • Goatskin: Soft and resistant with a pleasing drape, famous for high-end fashion items like handbags.

Origins of Suede

People have been using the term "suede," which originates from the French term "gants de Suède" (French for "gloves of Sweden"), since at least 1884, although the material itself predates that. Swedish artisans used animal hides to craft soft gloves, which became highly sought after by French noblewomen. This trend spread across Europe and eventually worldwide, solidifying suede's place in fashion and luxury.

Suede vs. Leather

Suede is derived from the inner layers of the animal's hide. It has a matte finish, is more permeable, and requires more delicate care due to its sensitivity to water and stains. This contrasts with full-grain leather, which is smoother, less absorbent, and more durable. Note that no type of leather is fully waterproof.

How Suede Is Made

Suede production begins with the underside of animal hides, typically from cows, goats, and sheep. Manufacturers split, tan, buff, and then sand the hides to create a distinctive soft, napped texture.

Uses for Suede

Suede is a staple in fashion design, used in boots, jackets, shoes, hats, gloves, and bags. Its unique texture facilitates comfort and ease of movement for the wearer. 

The material has also secured a stronghold within interior design, contributing to an inviting atmosphere. For example, suede upholstery, in tandem with a well-placed set of suede pillows, can provide warmth and sophistication.

How to Care for Suede

Proper cleaning can enhance suede's lifespan, but a traditional wash with water will likely damage suede leather items. Consider the following tips for cleaning and regular care.

Cleaning Techniques

  • Use a specialized cleaner specifically formulated for suede. 
  • Immediately blot excess liquid with a clean cloth in the face of accidental spills. 
  • Avoid agitating stains since it may push the substance further into the suede's texture. 
  • A suede brush provides a gentle yet effective solution for robust dry stains. 
  • Consult the manufacturer's instructions for a suede eraser or cleaner if you encounter stubborn stains.

Protection Against Elements

  • Apply waterproofing sprays to your suede items to weatherproof them. 
  • Avoid exposing suede to wet or muddy conditions. 
  • If your suede item does become wet, allow it to air-dry naturally.

Proper Storage & Preservation

  • Store your suede item properly to preserve its quality and aesthetics. 
  • Choose a dry, well-ventilated area for storage. 
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight since it can cause fading. 
  • Regular use of suede brushes to maintain the integrity of the suede nap can also aid in keeping your suede items looking as good as new.

Ethical & Environmental Considerations of Suede

People who oppose the manufacturing and use of traditional suede sometimes offer vegan suede as a solution. Made from synthetic microfibers, vegan suede has emerged as an alternative, mimicking the texture and feel of genuine suede without animal products. 

That said, microplastics are incredibly harmful to the environment. When people wash or throw away suede items, the synthetic fibers are too small for waste treatment plants to filter out, so they make their way into our soil and waterways, where fish and other wild animals consume them. The ecological impacts of this are huge—synthetic microfibers are the largest source of marine microplastic pollution, accounting for 35%.

Humans consume these microplastics, too, with researchers finding the hazardous materials in tap water, bottled water, beer, sea salt, and fish and shellfish.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is suede leather? 

Suede is a leather specially processed to have a soft, napped finish. It's known for its smooth texture and versatility in coloring. It has been used in fashion and design for centuries.

How is suede leather made? 

Suede is made from the underside of animal skin, usually lamb, although goat, calf, and deer are common, too. This lower layer is thin and pliable, making it suitable for light-duty applications like clothing and interior decor. It's treated to create its soft, fuzzy finish.

How does synthetic suede differ from genuine suede? 

Synthetic suede, or faux suede, is a fabric that mimics suede's soft and plush feel but is made with synthetic materials and is typically more affordable. Whether or not it has a lower environmental impact than natural suede is a topic of debate.

What are the environmental impacts of suede production? 

Suede production typically involves tanning and dyeing processes that can harm the environment. Advancements have led to the rise of synthetic alternatives like vegan suede; however, synthetic suedes contain microplastics that have devastating ecological effects and are ultimately harmful to humans and wildlife.

How do you care for suede leather? 

Caring for suede involves regular brushing to keep the nap soft, avoiding water exposure, and using specialized suede cleaners for stains. Regular care increases the lifespan of suede products and maintains their look and feel.