Commonly used to make boots, gloves and other fashion accessories, suede is a kind of leather with a smooth, velvet-like surface. The term was originally used in France to indicate a particular type of soft gloves imported from Sweden. Over time, the word came to refer to any leather material with a smooth nap finish.
Leather is manufactured from the skins of animals, generally cows. Once the skin has been removed from the animal, it is tanned in order to produce a supple, durable material that is used for a number of applications, such as manufacturing clothing and upholstering furniture. Leather that has not been sanded or split in any way is known as full-grain leather. Full-grain leather is usually manufactured from only the best, undamaged hides. As a result, it is the most expensive as well as the most durable of leathers.
When manufacturers seek to produce more material out of a single hide, the leather can be separated into two or more layers, or splits. These include the grain split, which is the outer surface of the hide, and the flesh split, or inner surface. In very thick hides, one or more middle splits may also be produced.
Generally, suede is created from either the inner split or the flesh split of a piece of leather. Because it comes from a thinner piece of hide, suede is less durable than full-grain leather. The nappy texture of the material also makes it more susceptible to damage from water and stains. However, because several pieces of suede can be produced from a single hide, it is also much less expensive than full-grain leather.
Although most suede is made from a split hide, it is also possible to produce suede from a full-grain piece of leather. The nappy finish can be achieved by abrading the surface of the leather, usually with an emery wheel. Suede that is manufactured from full-grain leather may also be called nubuck. Full-grain suede is usually more durable than the split-hide variety, but also more expensive.
A more durable and cheaper alternative to suede can be manufactured from synthetic materials. Unlike natural suede, the synthetic version is stain-resistant and not susceptible to water damage. Because of this, synthetic suede is frequently used to upholster furniture or other items that may need to sustain a lot of wear-and-tear.
The best way to clean suede is to use a dry sponge or a suede brush to remove dust and dirt. Suede footwear can also be protected with a silicon spray, which will prevent water damage and soil build-up. After the spray has been applied, the nap can be restored with sandpaper or an emery board.