what is suede

What Is Suede? Sustainability, Pros, and Cons

About 70 years ago, the Blue Suede Shoes music was popular. It increased the popularity of suede fabric among people of various classes. So people pondered: what is suede? 

We are here to answer your questions about this unique and pliable leather. Suede got its name from a French word, gants de suede. 

Technically, suede is a type of leather used to make fashion accessories and other high-quality products. Manufacturers make these products from cowhide suede and sheepskin suede. 

This article explores the origin and production process of suede. There's a section dedicated to the environmental impacts of suede production in the environment. We will also discuss faux suede and the various types of suede available. Lastly, we'll discuss proper suede maintenance tips and what sustainable certifications to look out for. 

Related Read: Rayon Fabric, Hemp Fabric.

What Is Suede Leather?

blue suede
Photo by Kkonstan on DeviantArt under CC BY 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The term suede originated in France around the 1860s. French people called a particular type of very soft gloves imported from Sweden ‘gants de Suède.’ It means gloves of Sweden. Over time, suede became the term used for leather fabrics with a smooth finish.

Suede is a type of leather made from various animal hides, the same ones used for other products like nubuck leather. However, suede leather manufacturers use the underside of animal skin while they use the topside for other leather products. 

Suede leather with the best quality is often made with young animal skin because young animals have smooth skin. Suede manufacturers mostly use animal hides from calves, sheep, goats, buffalo, and pigs. 

Unlike other leather materials, suede fabric has a porous surface, which makes it easily susceptible to dirt and moisture. However, it's great for making clothes, shoes, bags, and lining for full-grain leather. 

How is suede made?

production
Photo from Public Domain Pictures.net.

Suede is a split leather produced from animal hides. It could be cow skin, sheepskin, or goat skin. The first stage of manufacturing suede is by killing the animal for its skin. After slaughtering, they skin and dry the animal’s skin. 

The next stage of production is the tanning process. Here, the manufacturers add a  natural chemical, lime, to remove all hair follicles from the animal hide. The next step of suede leather production involves tannins. 

They expose the animal hide to natural enzymes known as tannins to remove the chemical components in animal skins and turn them into leather. The tanning process helps prevent the decomposing process from happening. Without these enzymes, the animal skin will decompose like every other organic material. 

After the tanning process, there is still more processing before it becomes suede fabric. One of these processes includes adding a mixture of salts, oils, and other natural compounds to the leather. 

This mixture makes the leather more durable. However, some manufacturers might use synthetic chemicals to make it more durable. Once they achieve durability, the next step is to create the napped finish of the suede leather. 

They do this by thinning and splitting the leather. Lastly, they use a unique texturing process to make the suede fabric soft and comfortable. Once the texturing process is applied, the leather is now wearable. 

Some producers may dye the suede before selling it to shoe or garment manufacturers. Thankfully, suede leather is highly susceptible to dye. Unlike full-grain leather, suede fabric is highly adaptable to natural and artificial dyes.

Environmental Impact of Suede: Is It Sustainable?

There is an increase in animal agriculture to cater for leather production. However, an increase in leather demand increased the intensity of animal agriculture. Both have severe negative impacts on the environment. Here, we will discuss two reasons suede leather is not sustainable.

Chromium Pollution 

wastewater
Photo by Kristian Bjornard on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Leather-producing factories produce a lot of wastewater that enters the environment and various water sources. The wastewater contains chemicals that harm the environment and its living organisms. 

One of these chemicals is the Chromium metal. Most manufacturers use chromium to make suede leather more durable- a part of the tanning process. Chromium is a heavy metal that exists naturally but is dangerous at low concentrations2. It leads to water and soil pollution. 

The production and usage of chromium affect the environment negatively. Once it contaminates the soil, it disrupts the metabolic activities of plants. It disrupts plant growth, yield, and the quality of vegetables, grain, and fruits. Chromium in soil affects seed germination, reduces photosynthetic rate, and reduces nutrient uptake.

Also, excessive exposure can lead to higher levels of chromium accumulation in human and animal tissues. Inhaling chromium can increase the risk of respiratory problems. Studies also found it has carcinogenic properties, increasing the risk of lung cancer. Drinking contaminated water and consuming contaminated vegetables and crops can lead to the occurrence of gastric cancer.    

Animal Agriculture 

animal farming
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

The leather production industry is tremendous and lucrative. It is made possible because of intense livestock farming. As mentioned earlier, we get suede fabrics from animal hide. We can get leather hides from cows, sheep, goats, deer, and pigs. Due to the increase in demand for suede fabrics like cowhide suede, there is also an increase in animal farming. 

Livestock farming has negative impacts on the environment1. First, it produces greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating climate change and global warming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock farming in the United States contributes 18% to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Livestock farming releases up to 7500 million tons of carbon emissions annually. The livestock industry is the second most polluting after the electricity sector. Also, livestock emit up to 40% of the world's methane and 64% of ammonia emissions.

Livestock farming also contributes to the acidification of ecosystems. Animal agriculture requires a large expanse of land, thus responsible for most of the deforestation perpetuated in the environment. Animal farms cover about one-third of the world's land and two-thirds of its agricultural land. 

Also, animal feed takes a toll on the environment. These animals need adequate healthy meals to produce high-quality animal hides. Research shows that 40% of the world's harvested crops are animal feed. We lose many plants, animals, and insect species as we clear the forests to feed them.

Lastly, the production of animal feed contributes to water pollution. Livestock also contributes to water pollution by antibiotics, animal waste, fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and rainwater runoff. 

What is Faux Suede?

Faux suede is suede made from plant-based fibers and synthetic fibers. It has a familiar suede surface, similar to genuine suede. It is free from animal products, i.e., animal hide. The production of faux leather doesn’t require intensive livestock farming. Some manufacturers even claim that faux suede is more durable than the one made with cow skin. 

Faux suede is more durable because it is water resistant. It is not susceptible to wet stains like genuine suede fabric. Some manufacturers recycle plastic PET bottles into suede fabric because it releases less carbon emissions and footprints. It also requires less water. 

Types of Faux Suede Leather

alcantara
Photo from PickPik.

1. Microsuede 

Microsuede, also Ultrasuede, is a suede fabric made with micro-polyester fibers. Manufacturers create it by weaving ultra-fine fibers, with fibers weighing less than 1g, and elastic high polymers into a dense 3D configuration. 

Ultrasuede was invented by Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto when he was working for the Toray Industries in 1970. It looks like a sheepskin suede fabric but has a higher quality level. It has a soft surface made with intertwined, brushed fibers. 

Ultrasuede is a sturdier material than suede and is made from animal skin. There's a sturdy inner body made of scrim underneath the upper grain. Scrim is a rope-like lining. This imitation textile is excellent for furniture, automobile seats, and other applications.

2. Alcantara

Alcantara is another name for Ultrasuede. It is a joint manufacturing effort between the Japanese company Toray Industries and the Italian firm Alcantara. The fabric is just like ultra suede and similar to genuine suede fabric. 

Alcantara weighs half as much as suede leather hide. They produce it with partial bio-based polymer and recycled polyesters. It requires low maintenance. Also, it is resistant to light, heat, and water. It is an excellent choice for regular accessories, shoes, clothing, and car accessories. 

You'll find cars from high-end brands like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Car manufacturers use it to cover the car's roof, steering wheel, front console, and gear shift knob.

3. Sueded Cotton 

Sueded cotton is a type of faux suede with a finish similar to the napped surface of animal-hide suede. It is cotton made to look and feel like suede. Manufacturers achieve the napped surface by brushing, sanding, and treating it with chemicals. 

Some eco-friendly fashion brands use sueded cotton. It is as soft as velvet and more wear-resistant. It is an excellent choice of fabric for people who desire ultimate comfort. 

4. Sueded Silk 

Sueded Silk is similar to sueded cotton. It is a silk fabric made to have the fuzzy and napped underside of animal skin suede.  Manufacturers often sand-washed to break the filaments to create a soft surface. It is water-resistant and just as durable as other types of suede fabrics.

Sustainable Certifications To Look Out For

suede material
Photo from PickPik.

There's no specific certification for products made with suede. So, how do you know the product you want to purchase is sustainable? 

There are various certifications for leather products. These certifications inform you of the quality, production process, and ethical practices of the brand you want to buy from. One of these certifications is the LEATHER STANDARD certification granted by the global certification organization OEKO-TEX.

The Leather Standard certification goes to brands that produce all types of semi-finished to finished products. However, brands that use exotic animal hides from armadillos, snakes, and crocodiles are not eligible to receive the certification.

You should also look for certifications from the Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector (ICEC). They issue certifications to companies that display their commitment to sustainability and companies with low environmental impact. 

The certification platform only certifies tanneries, leather manufacturing companies, sub-contractors, and companies selling products made with leather. They provide certification services at every stage of the leather fabric supply chain.

Tips for caring for suede products

suede boots
Photo by Noah Smith on Unsplash.

Maintaining a suede product is crucial as it ensures its durability. Here are some tips on suede fabric maintenance: 

  • Apply protective spray coating.

A suede spray protector helps reduce dirt, water, and stains on your suede material. Ensure that you use a spray with natural ingredients. During application, hold the item about 6 inches away from you and let it settle for 5 to 10 minutes before you wear it. 

  • Brush suede material regularly. 

Use a suede brush on our shoes or clothing at least once a week. It helps you get rid of dirt and keeps the nap fresh. Your suede brush should be natural or silicone-made. Soft brushes prevent more damage from occurring. Brush the suede fabric in the nap’s direction to maintain a smooth and uniform look. 

  • Use white vinegar and other white vinegar to clean out stains.

You can effectively remove stains from your suede material with vinegar. Pour a little vinegar on a clean, dry cloth and rub on the stain. Do not soak the suede with vinegar. It should be slightly damp. Then, let it air dry before brushing away the remnants of the stain.  

  • Do not wash your suede clothing materials in the washing machine.  

Avoid washing your suede clothing in the washing machine. It is best to take it to the dry cleaner and let a professional handle it, as it prevents any mishaps from happening. 

  • Don't dry it under the direct glare of the sun. 

It is best to dry a suede item with warm air, not under the sun’s glare. When drying it indoors, never place it in front of a direct heat source.  

Conclusion

The Blue Suede Shoes, sung by Elvis Presley, brought more awareness to the difference between suede and thicker leather. Suede leather is a high-quality product made from animals with thicker hides, like mature cows. 

Manufacturers often pair it with other materials to produce dress shoes and accessories. Suede’s biggest advantages are its softness and flexibility. It is a delicate type of leather, so handle it properly. Follow the few tips mentioned previously to care for all types of suede items. 

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1

Dopelt, K., Radon, P., & Davidovitch, N. (2019). Environmental Effects of the Livestock Industry: The Relationship between Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior among Students in Israel. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(8), 1359. 

2

Prasad, S., Yadav, K. K., Kumar, S., Gupta, N., Cabral-Pinto, M. M. S., Rezania, S., Radwan , N., & Alam, J. (2021). Chromium Contamination and Effect on Environmental Health and Its Remediation: A Sustainable Approaches. Science Direct.

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