How to Clean Vintage Leather and Suede
Anessa Woods of Bustown Modern shares her best tips on how to clean vintage leather and suede garments after working in the vintage business for nearly 20 years.
“I’m pretty fearless when it comes to cleaning anything but I do usually think out the best course of action before I begin. If I can, I practice on a similar leather before I start a more in-depth project. It’s always a good idea to keep damaged pieces around for practice – that goes for any material or leather!
I don’t consider myself an expert leather cleaner though. I have a good deal of experience because I’ve been doing it (and making lots of mistakes!) for a long time. I consider myself a student first and am always learning new things. The minute I consider myself an expert is the minute I stop learning.
There are tons of ways to clean leather. It depends on the type of leather – is it suede, dyed, colorfast etc. The texture of the leather tends to play a big role in the way I clean and condition it as well, because the really soft ones like lamb are so easy to scratch or dent, and uncoated leather like doeskin (in my experience) can’t handle much either it peels!
Cleaning Leather – Brush First
Generally speaking, you want to clean the leather before you condition, and for that I like to use a soft horsehair brush. I keep a few brushes around – one for cleaning dirt and debris and one with no product on it for polishing. I use the large ovular brushes and also the small round ones with the long handles. Obviously, you don’t want to use your dirty cleaning brush for polishing your freshly cleaned leather.
Horse hair brushes should be really soft so they don’t scratch your leather. The soft horse hair brushes are generally safe for all textures, which is great because they can really get down inside the stitching. I also use clean horse hair brushes on my reptile skins before conditioning. You want to be careful there though – if your reptile skins are super dry, curling, or flaking (think snakeskin here), you can knock the scales off before you condition. With snakeskin, I usually turn the item at an angle and dab delicately between the scales and the leather with one of the small round horsehair brushes before conditioning.
I really don’t care for the skinny combs (like the Kiwi brand) because they are so hard, I find that they tend to damage the leather. They do work well on and around zippers and grommets though and when used carefully at an angle, you can slide them beneath trim or around the sole of a shoe or purse without scratching the leather. If it’s really grimy, try the flat side of a wooden manicure stick. Digging the grime out from under the trim on items like vintage Coach bags is particularly satisfying!
Leather Cleaning Products
When deciding how to clean the item, the main thing is how porous the leather is and what kind of coating it has. Always check the colorfastness of any leather (even if it’s plain black/brown) in a hidden area before you start the actual cleaning. If there’s no selvedge inside, I usually use the inside of a cuff or a hidden area beneath the collar. Often with coated leathers, I find that wetting and wringing out a soft damp cloth to the point where it’s almost entirely dry can be enough for a suitable clean.
On the harder coated leathers like your Nikes, shiny/varnished coated boots etc, you can gently use a Magic Eraser (always use name brand Magic Erasers - the generic products crumble and disintegrate, making a huge mud-like mess). Again, test in a hidden area first! Magic Erasers are abrasive and can wreak havoc on some leathers! Just make sure you’re gentle and that the garment does not get too wet. That’s huge - if it’s too wet, you soften the coating and can rub it right off. Total nightmare - trust me. If there’s a way to ruin your leather, I’ve already done it!
For reptile skins, I use the Angelus Reptile Cleaner. I really drench the skin in the product and then gently rub it in with my fingers. Just a note – it will feel a little sticky and slimy for 24 hours while the product dries. Some really old or dry reptile skins may need a few coats. You can brush them along the grain of the scales afterwards.
My absolute favorite leather product is Leather CPR! Those people really know what they’re doing! The product cleans, conditions, and removes stains all in one go. I’ve actually stopped using most of the other products I used to buy with the exception of simple saddle soaps and colored polishes. I have brought back dozens of dried-out, sad leather pieces with a simple coat of Leather CPR. If it’s super dry, you can wait a few days and do a second or third coat. You just want to give the leather time to dry fully (usually 24 hours) and make sure you fully buff out any leftover product with a horse hair brush or soft cloth. They recommend using your fingers to rub it in so you don’t waste product in a cleaning cloth, which I thought was brilliant. They also have an Instagram account and Youtube videos on how to use their products.
Lastly, they’ve got great communication and have been able to help me troubleshoot a few problems, mostly with the super old, Cashin-era Coach bags. I particularly love that this product doesn’t fog up the surface of the item like so many other leather cleaners. Some products can leave a white film on leather after you’ve cleaned it and then you have to start all over again with another cleaning, followed by a different conditioner and/or polish.
For suede, first try a simple suede brush (horse hair preferably) and a suede eraser. First, you use the eraser on a dry stain or scuff and then the brush to sweep off the remnants of the eraser. There are other kinds of suede brushes like horse hair / brass combos that are designed to work their way further into the nap in order to pull out deeper stains and restore the original “fluff” of the suede. With these two methods, it’s a quick sort of flicking action - not brushing the suede the way you would your own hair. Lastly are the crepe rubber brushes. With those, you pull the brush across the suede, more the way you would with a regular hair brush and they will help to pull out dirt and restore the original texture of the nap. They are natural rubber and will wear down with use, so they will eventually need to be replaced.
My preference is the rubber brush because I’ve got a heavy hand and have scratched my suede with the copper kind, but it’s up to you - whichever feels best in your hand. Don’t forget – always keep a clean horsehair brush around for the final touches!
One thing that’s a common misnomer is that you can’t spot treat suede or condition dried out suede. That’s absolutely not true. You can actually spot treat deep stains with a foaming suede removal product, let it sit for a few hours, then brush the stain out and rinse. You can also hand wash and soak suede with a suede shampoo. You want be careful with the lining though, as they often bleed. If you can, remove the lining and put it back in afterwards. At the very least, make sure it’s colorfast before you soak it. Some tutorials instruct you to use hot water on your suede, but my experience with that method has been somewhat devastating and I’ve definitely ruined a few cool pieces. Suede and leather are natural fibers that can shrink and crack in hot water! Instead, I use cold to tepid water - it has just worked better for me in the long run. Again, experiment and see what works best for you. I suspect that my interpretation of “hot water” may be hotter than what is suggested.
I also can’t vouch for soaking a colored suede – I would assume that it would bleed and become a mess. I use Saphir’s Omni’Nettoyant Suede Shampoo for deep cleaning suede baths. That company also makes some really great brushes, leather dyes, and repair kits that I’m dying to try. They also make a few universal leather and suede stain removal products like their Foam Cleanser, which has worked well for me.
Getting Rid of Smells
For smells, hang the garment outside. Nothing cleans better than oxygen (*ahem* Oxi-clean) and sunshine. I generally hang leathers in the shade so they don’t fade, and alternate hanging them both inside and right-side out. You can also spray down the lining with various smell-reducing products. I usually just use diluted lemon juice. If it has a mildew smell, I go with diluted white vinegar. Worst case scenario, you can try any generic disinfectant spray, but I try to avoid chemicals whenever I can. If I do resort to using a chemical product, I always hang the piece outside to air it out. Sometimes, I hang leather products (or any fabric that isn’t easily cleanable) in my bathroom while I take a super hot shower. The steam does a great job of removing smells and loosening wrinkles in leather and suede. Sometimes you’ll need to take a few showers before you get the result you want though!
A lot of people like coating stains in things like corn starch or baking soda to help absorb them and bring them to the surface. Then they use a clean paper towel to blot the stain as it comes to the surface. I’ve never had great luck with this method unless the stain is still wet (i.e I slopped stuff down myself while wearing haha). There are also specific products that will bring stains to the surface, like some of the Leather Therapy products. Again, I use the Leather CPR, which has taken tons of stains out for me. Saphir also makes several great leather stain removal products like their Foam Cleanser, which I have described above.
Storing Leather & Suede
Anything that is a natural skin like leather, reptile or even fur wants to live the same way you do - in nice, moderate temperatures. Be super careful that your items don’t get too hot because that can really dry them out. Too cold and the leather can literally crack and/or flake. For example, keeping your leathers in a hot attic or garage all summer is a bad plan. They also don’t want to be in cold storage the way your furs are (hopefully) kept in the off months!
Lastly, don’t forget to protect your leather and suede when you buy it! That’s the first step to keeping it nice and minimizing the work you have to do to it later on down the road.”