Log inSign Up

What is Suede Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • October 16, 2019 • 10 min read

Fabric name Suede
Fabric also known as Fuzzy leather, napped leather, Ultrasuede
Fabric composition The underside of animal skins or a similar synthetic material
Fabric breathability Low
Moisture-wicking abilities Low
Heat retention abilities High
Stretchability (give) Low
Prone to pilling/bubbling Low
Country where fabric was first produced Sweden
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Professional cleaning recommended
Commonly used in Shoes, jackets, gloves, hats, bags, apparel lining, seat covers, belts

Khaki Stretch Suede FabricKhaki Stretch Suede Fabric

What Is Suede Fabric?

Suede is a type of leather, and it can be derived from any type of animal skin that is used in the production of normal leather. The main difference between suede and other types of leather is that suede fabric is derived from the underside of animal skin while most types of leather are derived from the top side of animal skin.

The underside of animal skin is much softer than the outside, but it is also less resistant to the elements and stains. Therefore, suede is usually treated as a luxury material; while it lacks the durability of normal leather, it is much softer to the touch and more comfortable when worn against the skin.

Compared to normal leather, suede is far more permeable, which means it lacks the waterproofing benefits of leather. It is, therefore, best to wear suede garments indoors or in situations in which encountering adverse environmental conditions is unlikely.

While most kinds of leather are produced from cow skin, suede is most commonly produced from lamb skin. Other types of animal skin, however, such as calf, goat, and deer can also be used in suede production.

In an attempt to reduce the impact on leather-producing animals and counter some of the negative attributes of suede, textile manufacturers have attempted to create a variety of different synthetic suede alternatives to varying degrees of success. While it’s impossible to truly replicate the desirable attributes of suede, synthetic alternatives may be less expensive or more durable than the genuine article.

Kimi Suede SandalsKimi Suede Sandals

History of Suede

Etymologically, the term “suede” comes from the French term “gants de Suede,” which literally translates to “gloves of Sweden.” During the Romantic period in France, imports of Swedish leather became highly popular among the nobility. Instead of using the rough outer hide of animals, Swedish leather artisans had devised a way to use the soft inner skin of animals to devise incredibly soft gloves for women.

While suede production remained limited to gloves for a number of decades, artisans in Sweden and throughout Europe eventually recognized that the potential of suede reached far beyond mere glove production. Over time, suede production expanded into jackets, shoes, bags, and the other applications of suede we know of today.

Suede production is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, but human beings have been using animal hides to make clothing and accessories for thousands of years. Evidence from prehistoric times indicates that Neolithic peoples used animal hides as their primary source of textiles, and the use of hides and leather in fabric production continues unabated to this day. The major difference between today’s leather and its prehistoric counterparts is the variety of leather products available and the technical skill employed to develop modern leather materials.

Lapel Collar Suede Fabric Lamb Wool Cotton-padded CoatsLapel Collar Suede Fabric Lamb Wool Cotton-padded Coats

Attributes of Suede

Suede has a fuzzy finish, which is sometimes referred to as “napped.” While most types of leather are smooth, suede feels more like cotton or another type of plant-based fabric than animal skin. In appearance, suede is matte while normal leather is glossy, and while normal leather is waterproof, suede is highly permeable, and it tends to stain.

Unlike normal leather, which is usually quite thick, suede is usually thin, which contributes to its allure for delicate textile applications. Suede is notoriously hard to clean; machine washing this fabric can ruin it, but since suede becomes dirty so easily, owners of suede garments, shoes, or accessories must professionally clean their suede items relatively frequently to keep them in good condition.

How Is Suede Fabric Made?

how is suede fabric made

The process of making suede begins with the slaughtering of the animal that will be used to make this fabric. Next, the animal is skinned, and the hide is dried.

Once the hide is fully dried, a natural chemical called lime is used to remove all the hair follicles from the hide. Next, the hide is exposed to natural enzymes called tannins, which render the hide inert and officially transform it into leather.

Without tannins, hide used to make leather would remain like any other animal product and decompose over time. Tannins prevent this decomposition, and the process of applying tannin is called “tanning.”

Sure Fit Soft Suede Chair SlipcoverSure Fit Soft Suede Chair Slipcover

Finishing the Leather

At this point, the leather that will be used to make suede is in a more-or-less finished state. To make a fabric recognizable as suede, however, a few more processes must be undertaken.

First, leather makers apply a mixture of salts, oils, and other natural compounds to treat the leather. This process makes leather more durable, and some leather manufacturers may use synthetic chemicals to provide even more durability.

To turn this finished leather product into suede, the leather will be thinned and split, which results in the nappy exterior texture that makes suede so desirable. Lastly, a special texturing process will be employed to make the resulting suede soft and comfortable.

Final Processes

With the final texturing process, suede fabric is ready to be made into garments, accessories, or shoes. Some manufacturers, however, may choose to dye their suede before selling it to accessory or garment manufacturers.

Unlike normal leather, which is notoriously difficult to dye, the unique texture of suede bonds well to a variety of natural and artificial dyes. Once the dyeing process is complete, suede is generally sold by the yard, and it can then be cut and sewn to form a final product that can be sold to the end consumer. Some apparel and shoe manufacturers may, however, choose to apply a final waterproofing finish before they sell their suede items.

How Is Suede Fabric Used?

how is suede fabric used

Suede fabric is used in a variety of different apparel and accessory applications. Since this fabric is relatively delicate, it isn’t useful in industrial applications.

As Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” has eternally etched in our cultural memory, suede is a popular fabric for shoe production. While suede is light brown or gray in its natural state, various dyeing processes can be used to alter this fabric’s color scheme to make it blue, red, yellow, green, or any other desired color.

Suede fabric is only applicable for dress shoes. Since this fabric is delicate, absorbs water, and is prone to staining, it is not useful for any outdoor shoe applications. In fact, regular upkeep is necessary to keep suede shoes looking presentable, which has led many enthusiasts of this fabric to turn to synthetic alternatives, which don’t require significant maintenance and are machine washable.

Aside from shoes, suede is commonly used in jackets and other types of outerwear. However, suede is only useful for cool-weather outerwear applications; since this fabric becomes sodden and stains so easily, it isn’t useful for environmental conditions that are rainy or snowy.

Additionally, suede is also popular in designer handbags. This fabric’s softness and unique texture makes it desirable in this application, and like most designer accessories and apparel items, suede handbags aren’t designed to be used daily or in heavy-duty applications. Sparing use of suede handbags protects the quality of these high-end accessories.

In some cases, suede is still used as a glove material, but other materials have generally surpassed the desirable attributes of suede for this application. Other applications of suede fabric include inner linings for jackets, high-end belts, designer hats, and seat covers for automobiles. However, synthetic alternatives to suede are considered to be more desirable for car seat covers since they are more durable and stain-resistant.

Where Is Suede Fabric Produced?

suede fabric in the world

China is the largest producer of leather products, which would lend credence to the notion that this Asian textile giant is also the largest producer of suede. However, some sources contend that it isn’t China but Europe that holds the largest market share of suede production.

In any case, China is the largest textile market in the world, and other expanding markets in Southeast Asia and South America will continue to drive demand for suede fabric in the coming decades. While synthetic alternatives to suede continue to vie for dominance, the unique attributes of this animal-based fabric will support its popularity worldwide.

How Much Does Suede Fabric Cost?

The cost of suede fabric per yard varies depending on the quality and means of production of this type of natural textile. However, natural suede fabric generally costs between $30-40 per yard.

Synthetic forms of suede fabric are significantly less expensive than the genuine article, which is the main driver of the popularity of synthetic suede. Many types of synthetic suede cost between $8-$12 per yard, which makes suede alternatives like Ultrasuede and Alcantara much more accessible to small apparel and accessory manufacturers without access to huge pools of working capital.

What Different Types of Suede Fabric Are There?

different types of suede fabric

While there’s only one type of true suede, there are a few alternatives to this fabric that may be referred to as suede under certain circumstances.

1. Suede

While there are many suede alternatives on the market, only animal-derived nappy leather can be referred to as genuine suede.

2. Ultrasuede

Ultrasuede was one of the first suede alternatives to arrive on the market. Developed in 1970 by Japanese scientist Miyoshi Okamoto, most forms of Ultrasuede are composed of 80% polyester microfiber and 20% polyurethane plastic. Unlike animal-based suede, Ultrasuede can be washed in a washing machine, and it can be tumble-dried.

3. Alcantara

Alcantara is another trade name for Ultrasuede. It was developed as part of a joint venture between Japanese Toray industries and the Italian firm Alcantara. This fabric is practically identical to Ultrasuede, and like this similar synthetic fabric, Alcantara is machine-washable. While Ultrasuede is more commonly used in industrial and general consumer applications, Alcantara is more commonly found in upscale vehicle interiors and designer handbag linings.

4. Sueded Silk

It’s possible to subject silk to a chemical process that renders it similar in texture to suede. Sueded silk has all the beneficial attributes of silk, and unlike normal suede, it’s possible to machine wash sueded silk.

5. Sueded Cotton

Like sueded silk, sueded cotton has been subjected to a chemical process that roughens its exterior surface to resemble suede. This type of textile is machine washable.

How Does Suede Fabric Impact the Environment?

Suede fabric has a generally negligible impact on the environment. Since this type of fabric is a natural animal fiber, it is biodegradable, which means that suede does not build up in the Earth’s delicate ecosystems or contribute to the microfiber crisis.

However, animal rights activists and other relevant entities have raised concerns regarding the treatment of the animals used to derive suede fabric. Particularly concerning to activists is the fact that animals must be killed to derive leather fabrics. In most cases, the other parts of the animal are also used when leather is harvested, but under rare circumstances, the remainder of the animal is discarded, which is highly wasteful.

Tan Faux Suede Espadrille WedgesTan Faux Suede Espadrille Wedges

Production of animals for leather purposes is only environmentally sustainable when the entire animal is used. Animals used for leather production, such as sheep, cows, and goats, use up enormous amounts of food and water, and the breeding of large animals can have a detrimental effect on the soil and surrounding environmental conditions if proper land stewardship techniques are not practiced.

Ethical and land use concerns aside, production of leather products like suede is one of the most environmentally-friendly types of textile production. The cultivation of plant-based fibers generally requires the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the production of synthetic fibers generally requires the use of fossil fuels, and these fibers are not biodegradable.

Since animal fibers, such as suede, are renewable and biodegradable, they have a negligible environmental impact as long as proper breeding and production techniques are followed. Suede production is not inherently environmentally sustainable, but producers of this fiber must be held to strict organic farming techniques to avoid any avoidable negative environmental impact.

Suede Fabric Certifications Available

suede fabric certifications

There are no certifications available specifically for suede. However, there are a variety of certifications available for leather in general. For instance, the global certification organization OEKO-TEX provides LEATHER STANDARD certification for leather products, and the Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector (ICEC) also provides certification for leather products.

The Leather Working Group (LWG) is an organization that provides certification services at every stage in the leather fabric supply chain. It’s important to note that while leather is an animal-based textile, it does not fall under the purview of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or similar organic textile certification bodies.

Share

About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.