When it comes to gear, apparel, and everyday carry, leather is one of the most natural and versatile materials in the world. It’s got the potential to last for years, looks great when done right, and offers a wealth of benefits – from protection to style, to comfort, and more. But, it doesn’t come without its downsides. We must remember that leather is in fact skin. It can dry, crack, stain, warp, etc, and of course aging. So today I’ll walk you through the various options for treating and taking care of leather so that your most treasured pieces will look beautiful for years to come.
LEATHER CARE PRINCIPLES
Leather needs to breathe. Just like skin, leather needs some ventilation to prevent mildew and rot. Air can naturally pass through leather, leaving moisture to evaporate naturally. That can’t happen when your leather is all sealed up, though. So don’t ever store or transport it in a plastic bag. Either use the storage/travel bag the item came with, or some type of breathable fabric — pillowcases are great for shoes, bags, and/or other accessories.
Keep leather away from direct sunlight/heat. If a leather item gets waterlogged, it can be tempting to throw it in front of a heater or to use a hairdryer to speed the process. Do not, under any circumstances, use a direct heat source or the sun to dry out your leather. Just like skin and other fabrics, exposure to a great amount of heat can cause the leather to dry out, shrink, and potentially crack. Rather, let it dry naturally, even if it takes a couple of days. Also, just generally keep leather out of direct sunlight when storing. The leather fades naturally over time, but sunlight speeds up that process. Drying and cracking can also ensue. Darker places with some humidity are preferred, although again, ensure airflow so that mildew can’t form.
Conditioning once in a while. Leather needs some moisture to remain supple and soft. Leather conditioner can help to soften and replenish moisture in the leather. The leather conditioner also helps prepare the leather for polishing. It would be ideal to let your leather products air dry overnight after you’ve cleaned and conditioned them.
Test first. When applying any polish or conditioner, always test a small area first. Any chemical is likely to change the color of the leather, even if only slightly. Before applying a treatment to an entire shoe, test it on a small portion, let it dry for 24 hours, and see what happens. It may seem tedious, but it can keep your shoe from looking different than what you want. If a certain color goes well the first time, then feel free to use repeatedly without testing again.
Go with natural/neutral colors. Many polishes and creams will come in either black, brown, or neutral. The added dyes are thought to liven up any faded color in a leather product. While black is a pretty safe choice for black products, there are just too many shades of brown to match things up perfectly. To avoid unnecessarily changing the hue of your leather, stick with neutrals.
Regularly clean with a damp cloth. The most foolproof way to keep any leather product from prematurely aging, even if you do nothing else, is to give it a regular wipe-down with a damp cloth. Your jackets, shoes, bags — they all quickly accumulate dirt, dust, and all manner of other abrasive particles that lead to premature wear and tear. Preserve your leather by wiping them down weekly, or even after a single hard use in a winter storm, with a wet cloth or even paper towel.
CLEANING YOUR LEATHER
Begin by wiping away as much dirt and grime as you can with a dry towel or your hand, then switch to a damp cloth as the moisture can loosen up the grime and make cleaning as simple as following just this first step.
Once your leather is clean, lay it out to dry on a flat, dry, cool surface. Do not apply heat and do not leave it out in the sun, as this can shrink and crack the leather in the process. It may take a while, but your leather should dry on its own.
THINGS TO CONSIDER FOR SPECIFIC LEATHER GOODS
Shoes: Should be wiped down weekly (even twice weekly if they’re truly worn every day) and conditioned every 1-6 months depending on where you live, the time of year, and your preferences. When storing, use a shoe tree – Cedar shoe trees are best because they help to keep your shoes in shape and absorb odor that may have seeped into the insole of the shoe.
Bags/wallets: Your primary concern here is to avoid over-filling these items. Once misshapen, leather isn’t going to spring back to its original form. Bags generally need less treatment than shoes just because they aren’t subject to the same beating as footwear. Still wipe them down regularly, though, and condition every 6-12 months.
Jackets: Similar to shoes. Wipe them down after a few wears, and condition every 6 months or so if worn regularly. It really comes down to how the item looks; if it feels dry and small cracks are appearing, give it some attention. Also, consider getting leather jackets professionally cleaned once a year; there are in fact specialty leather cleaners in most major cities.
Albums and Journals: Remember to wash your hands before handling them so as not to transfer any residue or dirt to the leather surface. You should also polish or buff them with a clear wax to hydrate and maintain the leather covers.
To sum up, ensure that you have a good routine for caring for your leather goods. In many instances, it will look something like these 3 easy steps:
- Wipe down leather with a damp cloth 1-2 times per week depending on use and accumulated dirt and grime. Store leather shoes on cedar trees.
- Condition leather every 3-6 months, sometimes more depending on the environment and season.
- Waterproof once a year, if desired, and if your lifestyle/environment calls for it.