The joy of suede

ILM Comment
Published:  03 April, 2020
Credit: Luke Insoll

In one of his ILM blogs posted on this website in January 2019, Mike Redwood referred to an interesting comment posed at a Leather Naturally panel meeting during the Portland Materials Show which took pace in the Autumn of 2018. John Graebin, Director of Materials for Deckers Outdoor Corp, asked the audience to consider how leather would be viewed if it was discovered today for the first time. A renewable, sustainable, durable, versatile yet beautiful material; in fact, the very best example of what a modern material in its class should be. 

And, as we all know, leather is a by-product of the food industry and is a material that is put to good use by tanners to make everyday objects that enhance our daily lives.

Now, what happens if we take Graebin’s insightful comments a step further and suggest that for many hides, especially the larger and thicker substrates, each piece can be split through the cross section to produce a split or even splits (middle split/drop split). Each split, depending on its quality, can be used for making another wonderful and natural material, which we all know as suede. Or the split could even be sold back into the food industry for gelatine production, a perfect example of circularity. I wonder how many people outside of the leather industry realise quite the amount of material that can be gained from each hide? Small skins such as sheep and goat, despite having a thinner substrate, can also be split to make skivers for production of useful leathers such as chamois. Each hide and skin really is a versatile material.

So, what we have from a single hide is the grain layer and the split. From an environmental point of view, the split provides the tanner with carbon footprint credits and allows for a range of beautiful end products from suede leather garments and gloves, footwear, upholstery and leather goods.

The Wikipedia definition of suede is as follows: A type of fuzzy leather with a napped finish, commonly used for jackets, shoes, shirts, purses, furniture and other items. The term comes from the French gants de Suède, which literally means "gloves from Sweden". Suede is made from the underside of the animal skin, which is softer and more pliable than, though not as durable as, the outer skin layer, which we know as the grain layer.

“No animal is saved to make suede!”

During a recent post on LinkedIn in March, I questioned the validity of the claims made by two Mexican businessmen regarding their material made from cactus fibres. These bad hombres suggested that by switching from genuine leather to vegan materials such as their cactus material, millions of animal lives would be saved every year in the process. I suggested that not a single farmed animal’s life would be saved if consumers switched away from using leather (a by-product), let alone a material like suede, which is a by-product of a by-product. What could be more sustainable! While we all eat meat, the hides and skins are still created, and we are better off making something useful from them than putting up with inferior microfibres and plastics trying to mimic real leather and suede. Even the cactus material will need chemicals to prevent it from degrading, and how long it lasts for in use is still an unknown, like so many of these so-called vegan materials. Leather and suede last a long time in use and are repairable.

Allowing perfectly usable hides and skins to be landfilled is an environmental crime in my view. Brands and retailers who really do care about their environmental responsibilities should push back against anti-leather pressure groups and lobbyists, as by sourcing microfibres and plastics instead of leather, they are making the waste problem worse and not better. Remember, those animals will enter the food chain anyway regardless of whether leather is substituted by other materials.

Suede classics

Over the decades, the production of suede has become a specialist business and throughout the world there are many tanneries dedicated specifically to making the most out of the splits. Today, suede can be found in any colour, with a range of finishing effects, and can be produced to be water and dirt resistant. Suede is a super tactile material and when a person has a product made with suede, it is impossible not to want to touch it, the tanner works hard to buff or brush up the nap to a soft touch with the well known “writing effect”.

Credit Wellour

At the last edition of Lineapelle in Milan last February, an Italian suede leather producer demonstrated the water resistant properties of suede by submerging a piece in water for the duration of the fair. No water permeated through and yet, the suede’s more open fibre structure will still allow the wearer a degree of breathability. Suede, although not as strong as full grain leather, when made well is a strong material.

Suede is still a very common material used by many of the world’s largest footwear brands and is the main upper material used in some of the most iconic footwear models ever made. Think of the famous Clarks desert boot, Adidas’s classic Gazelle, Nike’s Blazer Mid 77, New Balance models 373, 500, 997H to name just a few. For the more classic styles, suede is used to make Chelsea boots, loafers, slippers and walking/hiking boots.

Suede has also provided some famous images in popular culture. Everyone remembers Elvis’ 1956 hit “blue suede shoes”, and in the world of cinema, who can forget Dennis Hopper’s 1970s tan coloured fringe suede jacket in the cult classic Easy Rider.

Not bad for a by-product of a by-product.

Martin Ricker

ILM Content Editor

martin@edifydigitalmedia.com