If you live in Pittsburgh, you’ve probably been caught in the rain with no umbrella on a couple of occasions. And to make matters worse, you might have been wearing one of your favorite pairs of leather dress shoes. You get home and try to mitigate the situation so that your shoes won’t be completely ruined, but we all know that prevention is key when it comes to leather goods. To learn about good leather care practices, we spoke to W. Kleinberg about the best ways to take care of small leather goods like wallets and belts, and we’ll also be touching upon how to care for leather shoes. There is a myriad of leather care products from conditioners to waxes that are all beneficial in their own way, so we’re going to break down what each one does and how it is best used. But first, let’s quickly go over how leather is produced.
From Hides to Handbags
As we all know, real leather is made from animal hides, most commonly cowhides. The hides are first cured to help preservation, then soaked, limed, and fleshed to fully clean the surface. The hides are then tanned, a process that further aids in preserving the leather and which usually utilizes chromium or vegetable tannage. Different types of tannage contribute to different characteristics of the leather, like body and suppleness, and hides can be retanned multiple times to further enhance these characteristics. They are then shaved to a uniform surface and put through a sammying machine to remove excess moisture before being air or vacuum dried. Finally, they are dyed, dried once again, and finished to give them the specific look and feel desired. This complicated, multi-step process can take days to complete, but it produces a beautiful and versatile material. Now that we know the basics of how leather is made, we can better understand the proper steps to care for it.
Small Leather Goods
First and foremost, quality is key. A well-made, real leather wallet or belt is going to hold up better with time than its less expensive counterpart. Our friends at W. Kleinberg pride themselves on making goods that last for decades, so investing in a great piece could save you plenty of time and money in the future. After provenance comes usage. It is important to remember that leather is made from animal hides, and therefore it will stretch over time. Once stretched out, it won’t return to its original shape, so it is important to avoid bad habits like overstuffing your wallet. One great tip for belts is to switch how they are worn; if you continuously wear a belt in one direction (say, with the end pointing to the left), the leather will gradually become contoured to the shape of your body. You can see this change in shape by laying your belt down on a flat surface - over time, it will curve into a “U” rather than staying perfectly straight. You can try switching the direction that your belt points every other day to avoid misshaping.
Finally, we must discuss cleaning and storage. To spot clean your belt or wallet, use a slightly damp washcloth to gently wipe the area of concern and then blot excess moisture with a dry cloth. Because using heat on leather can cause damage, always let your leather air dry. Also, be sure to store it in a dry environment and away from direct sunlight. Sunlight will cause colors to fade and the leather to dry out, thus ageing it much more quickly. For wallets, it is best to leave them out in the open. Avoid leaving them in pockets, bags, or any potentially humid space while you are at home. If you want to use a leather cleaner or conditioner, try to find one specific to the type of leather you are caring for; exotics like bison and ostrich often need products that cater to the specific animal hide used.
Of course, quality is also of the utmost importance when it comes to larger leather pieces like briefcases, purses, jackets, and shoes. The way that we care for these items will vary based on frequency of use and the specific characteristics of the material, and those aspects are largely dependent upon how the leather was made. For shoes, you may feel the need to regularly clean your favorite pair, and to occasionally polish a dressier pair. Your everyday shoes can be cleaned using a leather brush and then a damp cloth to remove dirt, and then a product of your choice may be applied to add to their longevity. If your shoes have stains, however, then a leather cleaner such as saddle soap should be used to remove them.
Once you begin looking into what to use on your shoes, you’ll find that there are many care products on the market that promise to keep the leather supple, smooth, shiny, and more. But which ones do you actually need? Certainly not every single permutation of protectant that you find in a specialty shop. Like every aspect of this material, the products we use are dependent upon the type of leather and its finish. But in general, a classic pair of oxfords will need to be cleaned/conditioned every month or two (depending on how often you wear them) and polished as often as you prefer. If you do happen to get your shoes particularly dirty, then a more thorough cleaning at a shoe-care shop may be your best bet. But for the most part, you’ll be able to keep your shoes looking great with a little extra time and attention.