What is Suede?

Take a close look at suede leather fabrics, how it is made, what are the materials that use suede fabrics, how it is used, its alternatives and its artificial counterpart.

This is a close look at a piece of brown leather suede fabric.

Whenever I hear someone talking about suede, I have to stop myself from breaking out in a spontaneous song about blue suede shoes! Not many leathers are the star of a song. What makes suede so unique, and for that matter, what is suede?

Suede is a thin, flexible leather with a velveteen surface. Tanned leather is split into 2 to 3 layers: the middle and bottom layers are used to produce suede. The surface of the split leather is sanded to separate the loose fibers into individual strands creating the characteristic nap of the suede. 

Most people have a vague idea that suede is a soft, fluffy material. Beyond that tactile memory of suede, they have little understanding of what makes up suede. In this article, we investigate the nature of suede, its benefits and pitfalls, and why it continues to be a popular material in numerous industries.

Table of Contents

What is Suede?

Suede is a thin, relatively delicate leather made from the flesh side of a leather hide, and it has a soft, velveteen-type texture referred to as napped leather. Suede can be made from any animal skin commonly used in leather production.

Thick heavy skins of older animals will have a hairy, almost coarse nap. The thinner nap of pigskin, calf, and lamb produces a superior suede, commonly used for luxury items. 

Suede was initially produced in Sweden, where leather artisans used it to create soft luxurious gloves for women. Eventually, these gloves were sent to France, where they were referred to as “gants de Suède,” which translated means gloves of Sweden.

Over time, the soft, flexible leather used in these gloves became known by the French word for Sweden, which is Suede.

How Is Suede Made?

These are various leather pieces stored together in a shop.

All hides must undergo vegetable and chrome tanning to turn them into leather. Tanning is a crucial step in the production of suede as it permanently alters the hide proteins. This process stabilizes the protein structures making the leather more durable and less likely to decompose over time.

Once tanned, the leather is split. The top layer contains tight, densely woven fibers and is referred to as top-grain leather. The middle layer containing the corium of loosely woven fibers is used in the production of suede.

If the leather is only split into two layers, the bottom layer is used to produce suede. If the bottom split is used, it can be flipped over, and the flesh side is presented as having a suede finish. However, this is not genuine suede.

Genuine suede is created by sanding the upper or lower sides of the split to separate the individual leather fibers creating a soft fuzzy texture. Suede that has been sanded on both sides is referred to as double-sided suede.

What Is Suede Used For?

Suede is a popular textile used in the clothing, shoes, furniture, and horse equipment industries.

Furniture

This is a living room with a reddish brown suede sectional sofa.

Suede is a firm favorite of furniture manufacturers. It is most commonly used for upholstery on lounge suits and armchairs but may also be used to create luxuriously soft throws and pillows.

Shoes

A shoemaker holding a finished black suede shoe.

Suede is a popular material for manufactures of high-end fashion shoes, as it is more durable than many of the luxury textiles used in shoe construction. It is lighter than traditional top-grain and full-grain leather shoes.

Clothing

A woman wearing a brown fringe suede jacket.

Suede provides a fascinating tapestry of light and shade when worn. As a person moves, the suede’s drape creates folds that alternate between deep matt shadows and gleaming peaks of hidden light.

This complex play of light makes this fabric ideal for all clothing items ranging from bohemian to formal wear. True to its origins, suede is still used in the creation of durable, high-quality gloves.

Sticky Bum Breeches

Sticky bum breeches deserve a special mention, with credit being given to suede. Suede is stitched onto the bum and inner leg portions of the horse riding breeches.

The increased friction provided by the suede assists riders with staying on their horses. As a rider, I appreciate my suede breeches for increasing my “stickability”!

Suede Saddles

This is a brown leather suede riding saddle on display.

Traditional saddle makers will often incorporate suede into their saddle design. The suede is stitched into the seat and knee roll areas, where it performs a similar function to sticky bum breeches as the suede helps the rider grip the saddle.

Buffalo hide nubuck is often used as an alternative to suede in hunting and trail saddles.

What Color Is Suede?

The natural color of suede is a soft fawn brown or dove grey, depending on the hide’s original color.

Chrome tanned suede demonstrates excellent clarity and colorfastness when dyed. Brilliant shades of vibrant color are possible when dying suede, making it ideal for fashion and interior decorating, i.e., throws and decorative cushions.

What Is Faux Suede?

This is a close look at an artificial faux suede fabric.

Polyester with a soft nap finish is known as microfibre suede or faux suede. Many people have ethical issues with the use of animal products and prefer synthetic items.

Microfibre suede is cheaper than genuine suede, waterproof, stain-resistant, and easy to care for. The tactile and visual experience of faux suede cannot match that of authentic suede.

Nonetheless, it is a popular alternative to genuine suede, especially for families with dogs and children, individuals with budget restrictions, and animal activists.

Is Suede The Same As Nubuck?

Initially, suede and nubuck may appear to be the same material. However, there are distinct differences between the manufacturing process and end products.

Suede is manufactured by sanding the top and bottom surfaces of the middle and bottom leather splits. In comparison, nubuck is made by sanding the top and bottom surfaces of top-grain and full-grain leather.

The tightly woven fibers of top-grain and full-grain create a nap of short fine hairs. The nap on suede is slightly longer and softer.

Nubuck is thicker and more robust than suede due to the full thickness hide or ultra-strong top-grain characteristics. Suede is easier to stitch and bend around tight corners, which is essential in the fashion and furniture industries.

The robustness of nubuck makes it the preferred choice for hardwearing items such as saddles and outdoor shoes.

Is Suede Always Made From Split Leather?

Some leather websites and blogs will claim that you can get full-grain suede; however, this is fundamentally impossible. Suede can only be obtained using the middle layer in a three-way split and the bottom layer in a two-way split.

Full-grain suede is a misnomer; in reality, full-grain suede is nubuck and not suede! If the top grain was sanded to create the velvet nap, then the leather piece is nubuck.

Sources:

Sew Port: Suede Fabric

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology: Exploring the Use of Suede Dye on Leather

Master Class: What is Suede Fabric

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