Learn the Basics

What is Suede? Genuine vs Faux Leather

What is suede fabric

As a fashion lover, a textile designer or an avid shopper, you’ve probably come across the term ‘suede’ in various shops or fashion magazines. But what is suede exactly, what does it mean, and why do we use it? In a nutshell, it is a particular finish of leather (often referred to as suede leather) that gives the fabric a soft, fibrous effect.

handle suede fabric

How is Suede made?

Suede is the inner surface of animal hides, visible on the underside of leather. Leather is a material created by processing the hides, pelts and skins of animals in a range of ways. Occasionally manufacturers or designers will use this soft underside of the leather and turn the material upside down so the suede is on the exterior. This results in a much sturdier
material and can take away the lovely delicate quality which suede is known for.

The majority of the time a more popular method is used instead. The leather is split and the upper grain is removed to reveal only the fuzzy, napped underside. This then becomes visible on both sides of the fabric. This second technique of creating suede results in a much softer and pliable leather.

underside of animal hide

What is Suede made of?

So, what is suede made out of? Amazingly, this type of leather can be made from almost any animal hide. The most common one is lamb, alongside goat, deer, pig and calf. However, the type of animal has an effect on the final finish. When using thicker hides of older cows and deer, the nature of the fiber results in a much shaggier ‘nap’ which isn’t as soft as the lighter suede we’re accustomed to. The ‘nap’ of the fabric is the raised surface on the texture; a result of the way the tiny hairs lie across the top of the material.

What is Suede used for?

Not being particularly durable and unsuitable for upholstery or outerwear, you might find yourself asking, what is suede actually used for? Its beautifully soft and light nature makes it perfect for clothing and high-quality fashion accessories, including bags and shoes. It is also used for lining sturdier leather items like traditional Western leather jackets. Have you seen that fringing!? Oh, and not to mention Elvis’s blue suede shoes of course.

The Origins of Suede

Amazingly, animal hides have been used to create clothing and household items from as far back as the Paleolithic era. A dramatic change came about during the Industrial Revolution, where new kinds of tanning chemicals were available which were vital to the creation of leather.

During the 20th century, Suede became much more popular. In the fashion industry it was considered a symbol of status, due to its delicate and luxurious nature. It is also incredibly versatile. The fluid characteristic of the fabric turned it into a favorite for high fashion designers such as Paquin, Givenchy and Hermes for the catwalks. In fact, even to this day designers work with tanneries to create totally unique leather for their collections.

Now what does ‘suede’ actually mean? The term originates from Europe, more precisely France. The phrase ‘gants de Suede’ means ‘gloves from Sweden’ and was referred to a specific type of very soft gloves which were imported from Sweden at the time. Eventually the phrase began to refer to any type of leather based material with a napped finish.

print on suede fabric

Suede Vs Faux Suede – Is It Waterproof?

Incredibly many people actually prefer faux suede to the real deal. Faux suede – or ‘suedette’ – offers a range of benefits over real leather. This animal-friendly alternative maintains the appearance and texture of suede down to the soft, brushed surface without the disadvantage of fraying or potential matting. It’s usually created with a water repellent quality so it can be safely and easily cleaned. Genuine suede, however, is sensitive to water. If that wasn’t enough, the tightly woven nature of faux suede means it repels stains easily. So you won’t even need to wash it as often. Did I mention it’s also significantly cheaper?

Types of Suede Leather

There are a huge range of leathers and suede leathers available. The type is dependent on the type of animal hide used.

Sheepskin Suede

Predominantly made from the skins of lambs (they’re lighter and softer than their older counterparts), this pliable, brush textured suede with a velvet nap is the most lightweight and delicate type of suede widely available. Although not entirely waterproof, sheepskin suedes are excellent at keeping out that cold wind and damp during the winter months.

Pigskin Suede

Pigskin is not quite as popular as sheepskin, being much tougher and firmer in texture. It can still be used to make suede but with a much shorter soft nap on the surface. and is typically longer lasting than other suedes.

Cowhide Suede

Just like sheepskin, calves produce much softer hides than fully grown cows. Creating a suede with a coarser nap, it’s not as popular as the previous options but can create a very durable leather if you’re after something incredibly long-lasting.

types of suede leather

Advantages and Disadvantages

With any fabric there are advantages and disadvantages; here are suede’s most noteworthy qualities:

Advantages

  • Brushed face
  • Long lasting
  • Soft & luxurious touch
  • Thicker suede can be durable

Disadvantages

  • Not overly resilient
  • Absorbs water easily
  • Can become dirty quickly
  • Expensive

So, now that you’ve got an answer to the question ‘what is suede?’ Explore the feel & drape of faux suede and over 100 other fabrics in your own swatch pack.

suede fabric swatch

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