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Caring for Suede Furniture: Artisan or Antique Upholstery

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Caring for Suede Furniture: Artisan or Antique Upholstery | Living Deep

Caring for Suede Furniture: Artisan or Antique Furniture Upholstery

Helpful Tips for Maintaining the Quality, Preserving the Touchability and Extending the Lifetime of Your Suede Artisan or Antique Furniture

 Caring for Suede Furniture

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As previously mentioned in our post “Caring for Leather Furniture: Artisan or Antique Upholstery,” our “Caring for Artisan or Antique Furniture” series will address the best ways in which to protect heritage furniture. We at Living Deep hope to help you to prevent damage to your furniture -- from spills, pests and climate. We also hope to provide helpful information in case of damage, instructing readers on how to safely address these damages. Sometimes, this will include interventions the owners can conduct at home by themselves. Unfortunately -- particularly in the case of organic materials like suede, leather and silk -- calling a professional will often be necessary post-damage. Above all, we at Living Deep aim to help owners protect each piece so it can live as long as possible in its home, supporting and inspiring its owners from generation to generation. We continue our series in this post with Part Two, which will focus on caring for suede furniture. 

As always, prevention is the best method of preservation. Keeping environments clean, temperate and free of heavy foot traffic goes a long way to protecting artisan-made and antique furniture. Follow below for our tips on caring for the suede furniture pieces you intend to keep in your home for many years to come. Read on to learn what you can do yourself, and when to reach out to a restorer, furniture maker, upholsterer, conservator or other professional.  

What is Suede? 

Caring for Suede Furniture

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Authentic -- not faux -- suede is the far more delicate cousin of cattle hide leather. According to the Master Class article “What is Suede? Learn About the Difference Between Suede, Leather, and Nubuck,” suede is made from “the underside of the animal skin, giving it a soft surface.” Suede is often made from lambskin and from that of other livestock animals like pigs, calves and goats. Occasionally, suede is also made from deer. The way in which suede is produced results in a much thinner hide than that of traditional leather. Because the top layer of skin is separated from the sinew, suede is referred to as “split leather.” While leather is often coated and painted, suede is more frequently dyed.

The Leather Encyclopedia entry “Split Leather,” explains that split leather is “buffed and sanded on the top side to create the suede finish.” Top grain leather and split leather -- or suede -- differ significantly in texture, appearance and care requirements. Suede is sometimes coated to achieve a grain appearance, but this process is rarely pursued with high-quality suede. Much of the aesthetic character and textural interest of suede comes from the nap, which the Master Class article’s writers describe as “the tiny, raised hairs on the surface of suede.” The nap of suede “can be tougher if the hide comes from older animals or animals with thicker hides, like cows and deer.” Suede is more delicate than top grain leather, explains the Leather Encyclopedia entry. However, it is far more durable than other fabrics like cotton, silk, linen or wool. Unfortunately for suede furniture owners, suede is more easily torn and punctured than leather. Still, suede is commonly used as a sofa, high-end automobile seat, ottoman and armchair upholstery material. When cared for properly, suede furniture can last generations.

Common Threats to Suede Furniture

Caring for Suede Furniture

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Temperature, Relative Humidity and Light Exposure 

As an organic material, suede is susceptible to damage caused by changes in relative humidity and temperature. In the publication “Care of Alum, Vegetable and Mineral-tanned Leather” by the Canadian Conservation Institute -- publicly available on the Government of Canada website – condition concerns regarding suede are outlined. The publication notes that “proper storage environments and supports are most important” when caring for any type of leather -- including the more delicate suede. As the publication explains, “organic materials...should, if possible, be stored in the dark.” However, cowhide leathers -- which are often painted and/or coated -- are much more susceptible to light damage than is suede. 

Per the CCI publication, suede furniture should be stored in central locations, kept out of “damp basements” and far away from “sweating pipes.” Though temperature and relative humidity can both be detrimental to the condition of suede furniture, moisture is of particular significance. Unlike most leathers, contact with moisture easily stains suede. It can leave tidelines that are difficult -- and sometimes impossible -- to remove. Moisture also attracts both pests and mold, one of which would be enough to do a delicate piece of suede furniture in. Mold can also attract pests on its own, explains Brian Frank in his article “What you need to know about mold and cockroaches in the home” from the KPCC “Harm at Home” series. Of course, “dampness and mold in the home” are also detrimental to the health of human residents and should thus be avoided regardless of their threat to furniture. Mold and moisture “can worsen symptoms for those who already have” conditions like asthma and can cause new issues in previously healthy residents.

Dust and Pests

Dust is much more harmful to suede furniture than one might imagine. In fact, dust -- like moisture -- can attract biological attack. According to the CCI, dust can also “contain pollutants that contribute to the degradation of the leather.” Deposits of dust over time can “be very difficult to remove from a decorated or deteriorated surface,” so dusting lightly and often is considered a best practice. Frass from insects can also erode the surface of suede, similarly to the way it degrades leather. As we explained in our article “Caring for Leather Furniture: Artisan or Antique Upholstery,” frass can be acidic, causing “burn holes and other cosmetic...condition issues.”

Tips for Caring for Suede Upholstery in Good Condition

Caring for Suede Furniture

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Unfortunately, the options for caring for suede on one’s own at home are fairly limited. Treating vintage, antique or artisan-made suede is often best done by a professional, or with the advice or guidance of a professional. If severe damage has occurred, it is always best to reach out to a local professional -- or if possible to the artisan who created the piece in question -- rather than trying to intervene on one’s own. 

Establish a Proper Environment

As with top grain leather, suede furniture should be protected from light exposure, swings in temperature and humidity and from dust and dirt build-up. Suede should be kept away from intense sources of light -- particularly from under the gaze of bright floor lamps or hot-burning bulbs in end table lamps. Keeping suede furniture away from hot spots is always best, as explained by Lauren Smith McDonough in her article “How to Clean All Your Suede Accessories“ for Good Housekeeping. Notes that “heat destroys suede’s soft finish.” This is why -- if suede is ever drowned in water -- it should be blotted but never dried with a blowdryer. 

Try to keep temperature and relative humidity in the home moderate and temperate and moderate at all times. Avoid allowing the temperature to exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity to dip below 40% or rise above 60%. Never allow a room with suede furniture to reach dew point humidity, as the contact with moisture will likely cause irreversible damage. Attempt also to keep suede furniture out of rarely cleaned corners or uncovered in storage closets in order to prevent an accumulation of dust. 

Conduct Safe and Effective Cleaning

Few common household cleaners aside from dry cloths are recommended for cleaning suede furniture. In fact, if suede upholstery becomes wet or stained, it should be simply lightly blotted dry using an up and down motion. The stain and/or wet spot should never be rubbed in a side to side motion as this will spread the stain and likely cause a tideline because suede quickly imbibes and travels moisture. Always avoid dousing a suede stain with moisture. If possible, seek the advice of a professional restorer or furniture maker before treating any type of damage -- particularly scuffs, stains, tears and distortions. A furniture care professional should be able to either direct you towards appropriate reparative products -- such as a suede eraser and/or shampoo. 

The best way to rid suede of surface dirt both gently and safely is to use a brush made specifically for cleaning suede. According to Meghan Blalock in an article for Who What Wear, use a “proper suede-cleaning brush” to brush your suede upholstery “only in the direction of the fibers.” As mentioned above, one should never “move the brush back and forth over the surface.” After removing larger accretions and visible deposits of surface dirt, Blalock recommends reaching for a terrycloth bath towel. One may use a dry bath towel to “gently rub” suede upholstery, “wip[ing] them down [to] remove any unseen layers of dust.” Avoid brushing or even gently rubbing suede furniture that appears to be damaged or in poor condition, as any contact might worsen the deterioration.

To make a long story short, by maintaining a clean, temperate environment, dusting regularly and addressing damage with the help of a professional, your suede furniture will be in excellent hands. Stay tuned for the next installment of Living Deep’s “Caring for Furniture” series: “Caring for Embroidered Upholstery.” 

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