Make your leather last

If you follow this column, you know I am a fierce proponent of investing in quality and taking care of it.

Leather goods epitomize this principle. Well-made leather handbags, shoes, belts and jackets can be costly but can also serve for years, even decades, if properly cared for.

I have a vintage pigskin handbag that is almost 60 years old, and though now delicate, it still draws compliments. I also get lots of use from a thick leather belt bought in Mexico in 1988.

Before I delve into leather care, I just want to add a note about sustainability and veganism.

It’s very true that the use of hides from live animals is controversial and the tanning process has environmental consequences.

While I’m no expert in the subject, I also suspect that purchasing multiple cheaply-made pleather products, derived from petroleum, also has negative impacts for our world.

Whether you believe in using faux leather or real leather, the principle of buying quality for long-term use still applies. But in this column, I am going to be talking about animal hides.

Leather from cows, sheep, goats and lamb has the remarkable ability to be breathable and mouldable while at the same time being amazingly strong and durable. For these reasons, it’s no wonder it has long been the choice for footwear and accessories meant to stand the test of time.

At its essence, leather is simply dried skin. A leather care expert I once spoke to likened it to our human skin — over time, it will become drier and thinner. But this process can be slowed by regular cleaning and conditioning.

This is especially the case for raw, glove-tanned or vegetable-tanned leather. Think of the kind that baseball gloves are made of.

This kind of leather is thick with a suede underside, often used in cowboy boots, western belts and casual handbags.

I recently bought a Penny style Coach bag off eBay for $10. The date coding system used by Coach at the time tells me it was produced in 1992. The leather is soft and chewy, but it arrived very dirty.

The great thing about this kind of leather is the ease with which it can be revived. After thoroughly researching the procedure, I gave it a bath in soft dish soap and warm water to remove excess oils and stains. 

Using standard garage tools, I took off the hardware to remove “vert-de-gris” underneath — the green patina the can develop around brass — and polished the pieces with Brasso.

I filled the waterlogged leather with towels, as best approximating the proper structure of the bag and let it dry for two days. Then followed with several coats of Leather CPR, available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, to restore the softness. 

Of course, a wet bath isn’t the right thing to do with all kinds of leather. Before you attempt to clean or condition any hides, follow any instructions provided by the manufacturer.

If you don’t have access to the maker of the product, do as much research as possible on the Internet to determine the best procedures for your type of leather. 

Tandy Leather and Fiebing’s are leather craft companies that include great instructional videos, tips and articles on their websites.

Or take your leather to an expert for advice. In Kelowna, I have found the staff at Roy’s Shoe Repair downtown and at Diamond H Tack Shop on Kirschner to be very knowledgeable and helpful.

Many of today’s modern jackets, shoes, and handbags are made of thinner pebbled leather or lambskin which can be dyed to vibrant colours. In many cases, dirt or stains can simply be wiped off using unscented baby wipes.

These types of leathers will only need the occasional conditioning using a generic leather balm. Always do a patch test first to ensure the conditioner doesn’t pull off any dye.

Do you have a favourite leather piece that, despite regular care, is now showing wear and tear? You don’t have to despair. There are several specialty products designed to restore your leather goods to near-new shape. 

It is common for leather to show abrasion scuffs on areas where the leather has been stretched or folded, such as cuffs and seams. Carefully applying a matching leather dye or coloured polish on these areas can minimize the look of the wear.

Fiebing’s also makes an “Edge Kote” product specially designed for sealing raw leather edges with a more durable plastic-like film.

If a light coloured leather is stained beyond hope, or if you simply don’t like the colour of your piece anymore, there are many products available to dye leather.

Again, lots of research and patience is needed for this type of restoration. I’ve ended up destroying as many pieces as I’ve saved trying to change the colour. But when it works, it can be miraculous. 

Holes or cracks, stubborn stains and ripped seams often call for more serious intervention. Thankfully there are numerous leather care “spas,” companies that specialize in restoration and repair.

As a DIY-er, I haven’t tried any of these services yet so can’t personally vouch for a particular company. But they are definitely worth investigating instead of binning a beloved leather article.

What is your oldest piece of leather fashion? 


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About the Author

Marla is best known for her 19-year career in the local charitable sector as a fund development and marketing manager with the Okanagan Regional Library, United Way, UBC Okanagan, and Kelowna Community Resources. 

In 2014, Marla and her husband decided to take a break from the work world, and, four years, later they are still enjoying Okanagan summers, winters in Mexico, and extensive travel. 

Marla has had a life-long passion for fashion, designing her own graduation dress and formal gown for the 1990 Miss Interior competition before age 20.

In 2014, she was named one of nine Style Ambassadors for a year-long marketing campaign at Orchard Park Mall. Her motto is “Life is short...you might as well go through it looking good."

If you have a style question or topic you’d like Marla to cover in this column, contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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