Caring for Leather Gear

Lately, I have received several email messages asking about leather care, and wondering how often I care for and treat my leathers.

Generally, I am not one who obsesses about my leather getting mud or dirt on it, or splashed by rain. But I want my investment to last, so I care for it as I use it. This time of year in North America, the temperatures are dropping so it’s time to get the leathers ready for more regular wear. (Yippie!) I remove the gear from my closet and rub a “leather wipe” (described below) over it, re-orient the gear on the hangar, and hang it back up.

Details on care of leather garments is below. I took this from my Complete Guide to Leather Gear that I wrote last year. The most important thing to keep in mind is that leather is a tanned and treated animal skin. Much like our skin, leather is porous and needs to be treated with care.

Condition it when you first get it: The first thing you should do after you purchase any leather garment is to treat it. You can almost always find leather care products where you make your leather purchase, or at any good shoe or western store. What has worked best for me is Lexol Leather Conditioner. This product comes in a bottle. Just put a little bit on a damp sponge and rub it all over your leather gear. Hang the gear to dry away from sunlight and heat sources (like a heat vent.) Do not use spray treatments — these products do not work as well because the oils that are in the product that help the leather have droplets that are too large, and tend not to soak in.

Hang It Up: Just like your momma told you, hang up your clothes! This is really important for leather. When hanging leather gear, remember to keep it cool and dry. Always use broad and padded hangers, as metal wire hangers will distort the shape of leather. Leave some space on each side of each piece of gear while it is hanging so air can circulate around it. Leather gear can stick together if packed too tightly, and cause damage that can’t be fixed. Remember never to store leather gear in plastic bags or containers because they need to breathe. Sunlight can easily cause leather to fade and dry out prematurely. Keep your gear out of direct sunlight when you store it.

Regular Care: Right before you hang up a piece of gear, check it for dirt, stains, or other gunk and clean it off. If it’s generally clean, use something like “Armorall Leather Wipes” or “Lexol Leather Wipes” and give the gear a light going-over, ensuring you cover stress points like knees, crotch, butt, shirt sleeves, and anywhere else that your body moves and causes the gear to crease.

Spot Mud, Dirt, Salt, and Stain Removal: Use a damp sponge moistened with water only — not saddle soap or detergent — and rub it on the gear, particularly heavily soiled spots, in a circular manner. If a stain is stubborn, rub off as much of it as you can from the leather, then use Lexol Conditioner on the spot. You may need to treat the gear several times. Be persistent — it will eventually come off. Be particularly attentive if the gear were exposed to salt applied to roads during the winter. This salt can quickly dry out leather and leave it permanently damaged.

Stain removal from suede: Try this old tried-and-true technique. Remove the crust from a piece of bread and let it dry out until it is hard and stale. Rub the stale bread over the stain to remove it. It really works!

Removal of Mold and Mildew: Mildew is a name for a variety of common molds, which are in the Fungus family. Mold feeds on dead organic substances, including leather. Mold will cause leather to decompose, leaving thin patches which will become holes in short order. Mold propagates by spores, which are omnipresent; you can’t keep the mold spores away from leather, but you can make the environment unsuitable for their growth. Mold will grow when leather is the least bit moist, especially if kept in a dark and warm place, such as a car trunk or storage chest with limited or no air circulation. Thus, the most important thing to do to prevent additional damage is to dry the leather carefully (see below) and then keep it in a dry, well-ventilated place.

If Leather Gets Wet: Drying leather the correct way will lengthen its lifespan. Leather gear should always be air dried in a cool area away from sunlight. Humidity and heat will cause excessive drying and result in the eventual cracking of the leather. Hang the wet gear on a wood hangar. Find a cool, non-sunlit but NOT DARK place to hang it. Wet gear hung in a dark place will get mildew very quickly, and perhaps mold that will ruin it. Make sure air circulates in the room where it is hung. If air doesn’t circulate naturally, use a small fan to keep air moving in the room, but not to blow on the gear.

What to Avoid: Soaps, solvents, silicone, wax, and harsh chemicals are not a good for leather gear. Shoe polish should only be used on boots, but never on leather garments. Avoid spraying hair care or deodorant products while wearing leather gear. Overspray can stain and discolor leather beyond repair.

Professional Cleaning: If you find you cannot clean the item yourself, you can get it done professionally. Look in your local telephone directory for a dry cleaner that specializes in leather items. Some dry cleaners are not familiar with the processes involved in the making of leather and the glues used in the making the garments. It never hurts to make a few phone calls to find someone who is knowledgeable in cleaning leather. It may cost from US$40 – $80 for this service.

Life is short: enjoy your leather gear!