Why do we need to treat leather?
As the discovery of an intact 5,500-year-old leather moccasin confirms, leather is an extremely durable material. It is, however, a natural organic material and consequently it will age and if subjected to extremes of heat or humidity, it will decay.
Leather is a porous material which means that it’s supple and pleasant to handle but it also means that if it is immersed in water it will eventually rot and if it is exposed to extreme heat it will dry out and crack. If full grain leather is treated with care it will last a lifetime: inferior quality leather, such as bonded leather will deteriorate much faster.
Leather goods are strong and durable and often are in everyday use so occasional treatment may be necessary to ensure that the leather retains its natural oils and does not become brittle. The type of treatment required will depend on the nature of the item. A full grain leather bag may only require the occasional wipe down with a damp cloth, dress shoes will obviously need regular polishing.
Why might you not treat leather?
What do you want your leather to look like? If you want the item to shine and remain free of any marks, then you will need to apply polish regularly. For many people however, the attraction of a leather possession is the way in which it will age, becoming a unique and highly personal possession. The patina which leather acquires through age is not only beautiful but also serves as a record of the time that the bag or jacket has been in your possession. Full grain, vegetable tanned leather will develop the best patina and will do so without the application of treatments and conditioners.
What are most leather treatments made of?
There is a bewildering variety of leather treatments on the market, many claiming to provide specialist treatment of leather furniture or car upholstery. The leather treatment with which most of us will be familiar is shoe polish, the main function of which is to provide a shine, although most polishes will contain a moisturizing element. Shoe polishes are made from a combination of natural and synthetic materials, such as naphtha, turpentine, dyes and gum Arabic. A much older form of shoe treatment, in existence since medieval times, is Dubbin. Dubbin is used to waterproof leather, but it leaves the leather with a dull, unattractive finish, traditionally it was made from beeswax, fish oil, lard and mink oil. Another traditional treatment for leather is Neat’s-foot oil. This yellow oil, still in use today, is rendered from the shin and feet bones, not the hooves, of cattle. It softens and preserves leather, but it will also cause darkening, consequently it is used for working leather, such as saddles and bridles, rather than fashion items. Saddle soap is another traditional treatment which protects and softens leather and is made from lanolin and beeswax. Lanolin, a waxy secretion from sheep, is a common ingredient in many forms of leather treatments. The type of treatment you need to give your leather depends on the nature of the leather article and the conditions in which it is used, avoid chemical treatments and never use soap and water.