As we start to really swing into Fall, people are excited to bring out their favorite handmade leather bags, jackets, and boots for the cooler weather. What’s better than sitting around a fire on a cool night snuggled into your warm leather jacket and well-worn cowboy boots with a trusted leather backpack or tote by your side? Oh yeah, there’s also the hot toddy but that’s another subject altogether.
Now, as you start thinking about breaking out your leather accessories, or maybe heading out to invest in some new leather items for your ensemble, it might be good to review what we call the leather basics. Namely, 5 tips for how to inspect new leather products you’re considering buying and how to care for the leather goods you already own. Let’s do a quick review of both subjects below and you’ll feel more confident almost immediately, we promise!
Buyer Beware … or, more accurately, Leather Buyer Be Informed
The first step in caring for your leather begins way before it even needs care … buying the right leather! Now, there is a very wide spectrum of leather goods on the market from handmade leather belt to bags and car seats to carryalls so all these tips may not apply to the specific purchase you’re considering but, all are good to know either way.
When producing products in our own Embrazio line or buying a product from another brand, we always consider the following:
Look for Full Grain Leather – there are many misleading terms in the leather industry that might cause you to buy the wrong level of quality or pay more for lesser quality items. For example, when many hear the term “top grain” leather, they might assume that’s the top-quality leather they can buy. Top grain refers to the top layer of leather and it is produced by splitting the middle/bottom layers away. It provides for a thinner but also weaker piece of leather. The highest quality leather is called “full-grain” leather.
Fact Check Fragrance – we all know and love that “leather smell.” Good quality leather smells great and it’s a consistent fragrance from product to product. It doesn’t reek of chemicals, nor does it smell like plastic or rubber. Good leather smells great and you’ll “know it when you smell it!”
Feel For Quality – Now in the case of touch, high-quality leather can feel quite different but there are some common characteristics. Generally, avoid leather that feels more like plastic than a natural fiber (our apologies Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade). Leather should feel supple and strong. It should not feel dry and not crinkle as you roll your fingers across it. Check the edges if possible (sometimes they are waxed or painted) to ensure a consistent color through and through and that there are no lines indicating two or more pieces have been glued together.
Check The Stitching – Stitching inherently introduces weak points. Sometimes it is required like when you add sleeves, pockets, and zippers, etc… When your item does have stitching, make sure the thread is strong enough to fit the application. For example, if you’re attaching a shoulder strap to a bag or leather backpack, the thread should be thick, and the stitching should be done in a box pattern and not just at straight line across. Adding a rivet to stitching that attaches something that will bear a lot of weight or endure a lot of bending is even better. Make sure the stitching has been done in a straight line to reflect good craftsmanship and that there are no fraying or exposed knots that could immediately come apart or split.
Lining Has Its Limits – Lastly, check any lining as it will be the first item to fail, and it will fail way before the leather does. On Embrazio products, we avoid using lining wherever possible. However, lining does have its place. For example, we use lining to create sleeves and pockets without adding a ton of extra weight on some of our bags and wallets. Any lining should be clean and lay against the leather without bunching or wrinkling. The material should be high quality and free from fraying. We like to use pigskin for lining applications as it comes in many colors, is thin and easy to sew, and it is more durable than most fabrics.
Caring For Your Leather Is Key
Now that you’ve purchased that favorite leather treasure, you’ll want to give it the care it needs to ensure it just gets better with age and wear. Let’s face it, there’s also just something about taking good care of an item that makes you feel good and value it even more. We think that’s especially true with the leather that you wear.
Here are the four most common things that damage leather and what to do about them. We didn’t include all the ways an irritated girlfriend or boyfriend can damage your stuff as the list is way too long. Instead, just the following four:
Sunlight – we put this first on our list because it is the most insidious. If you leave your leather coat, bag, pants, whatever, in direct sunlight for even short periods, it will have a direct negative effect. We often underestimate the intensity of the Sun. It can suck the color and the life out of any material as quickly as you can say “sunshine on my shoulder.” To avoid this, make sure you’ve conditioned your leather with any good quality conditioner and that you generally just don’t leave your stuff on the top of your back car seat (yes, we made this mistake), on a chair by the window, or out back on the porch table for example. If you have made these or similar mistakes, your best bet is to go to your local shoe repair place and ask them for help testing various colored conditioners to bring back some of the color and life in your product.
Water – we’re not too worried about getting caught in the rain or spilling a bit of water on your bag or jacket. With good quality leather, you can usually blot up any excess water and leave the item to dry in clean dry shaded air. Don’t use a blow dryer or any heat source to speed up the process. More severe drenching is, of course, more problematic. Leather that has been really soaked can be left to dry per the instructions above, but you might also stuff the item as you can to help it hold its intended shape. Clean rags and/or white paper is good for this purpose. Also, you’ll likely need to apply a high-quality conditioner once the item has dried to recover the soft and supple feel.
Dryness – leather that has been left to dry out over time to the point where it has become brittle and may even be cracking can be brought back to an acceptable condition under most scenarios. We recommend applying a leather cleaner first and then a thin layer of conditioner to start the process. Let the conditioner really soak in for a day or two and then re-apply with a heavy layer actively working the conditioner into an cracks and crevices. Be sure to wipe of any excess conditioner and then consider applying yet another layer after a month or so. You should be able to tell by touch once you’ve successfully penetrated through the entire depth of leather.
Storage – it is important to consider where you’re storing your leather if you’re planning on putting it away for several months or more. Choose a clean dry place without exposure to direct sunlight. Most of us won’t think about it but it’s great to check in on the item you’ve stored to see if anything is molding and to move it around and turn it inside out if possible. Catching any mold early on is easy to cure with a leather cleaning solution.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, wearing great leather, especially handmade leather that has a few years of “experience” is one of the true joys in life. The first Fall day you reach into your closet and break out that favorite jacket or bag, it often triggers a warm smile and fond memories. If you buy the right leather for the application you have in mind and then care for that leather like the treasure it is, it should give you years of use and much joy!
About the author: The above article was written by Scott Schaefer, co-founder – Embrazio Embrazio is a leather and jewelry accessories company based in Boulder, CO. Scott and his wife, Stephanie Boyles, started Embrazio in 2012 and the line is now carried by over 300 retail boutiques primarily in the US.