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What Is Suede, Is It Leather, and How Is It Different?

What Is Suede, Is It Leather, and How Is It Different?

It’s hard to imagine that the leather industry can be as diverse as it is. With over 25 different types of leather existing, and probably more still to be pioneered, it can be intimidating when one starts to dip their toes in and explore all the various types of leathers.

When it comes to leather types, there are different cuts, from top-grain and full-grain to genuine leather, all composed of different cuts of leather. Then there are different types of leather based on the tanning process, from vegetable-tanned leather to Nappa leather, to Italian leather. Every kind of leather has its own unique aesthetic, qualities, advantages, and disadvantages.

The Diversity of the Leather Industry

All this to say, no two types of leather are alike, and the leather you choose to go with is largely up to your preference. There are significant differences between the quality of full-grain and genuine leather, with the former being the highest possible quality cut of the hide, its durability and rich patina setting it apart. 

While genuine leather, on the other hand, can be formed from a number of disparate cuts of leather that are sewn together and painted over, full-grain leather is from the topmost part of the hide and always comes from the same cut.

Additionally, there are vinyl and PU leathers, which are faux leathers. These synthetic leathers are made from different kinds of materials that are then melted onto cotton or polyester, giving them a very leather-like look and feel without the expense of hide. They are great for some things, including commercial upholstery, but they lack the elegance and durability of authentic leather.

There are other subtle differences, like the difference between Nappa leather’s supple and soft exterior in contrast to distressed leather’s rugged resilience. But beyond these, choosing your type of leather is an expression of your preference and desire.

We’ve all heard of suede leather. Is it really leather? Why does it look and feel so different? Is it like vinyl, a human construction that is intended to imitate genuine leather? Let’s explore the differences that suede has to offer.

The Suede Difference

So what is suede leather? And how is it different from any other type of leather? The word “suede” is derived from French, and comes from the phrase “gants de Suede”, which translates to something like “gloves from Sweden.”

Suede is an incredibly ingenious product because it “recycles”  what would otherwise be thrown away because of imperfections. Suede originated from cuts of hide that were damaged and unusable. 

Instead of disposing of them because of their flaws, the tanners flipped over the hides and displayed the underside of the hide as the outer side. This is suede leather. Suede is the undermost side of the hide. 

But why do this? Besides saving cuts of hide from being thrown away, what’s the point?

Suede’s Unique Qualities

After the hide is flipped, the topmost layer is cut off to reveal an incredibly soft and supple material used for shoes, gloves, bags, some wallets, and other accessories. Is suede better than any other type of leather? That’s an impossible question to answer.

Suede is used for a variety of products and purposes. What makes it desirable is its softness. When the hairs are properly brushed, it gives a uniform pattern of soft leather. Likewise, if made into a garment suede can be worn year-round. There won’t be any discomfort due to temperature fluctuation like there is with other leathers when worn. 

As materials go, it’s very durable, which makes it a highly desirable material for fashion decorum and dress shoes. Suede is generally a less expensive option than other leathers and for this reason, remains a high-quality item without the burden of too exorbitant an expense.

As far as leather goes, suede is one of the least durable types. Its softness and mutability come at the price of natural resilience. Suede is the thinnest version of leather which makes it vulnerable to forms of damage that a more durable cut of hide would be impervious to. 

Additionally, suede isn’t waterproof, making it less than ideal for weathering harsh climates. If you’re looking for a beautiful material, suede is definitely the way to go; however, if you’re looking for durability then suede isn’t your top choice.

Suede Made Famous

Suede has been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that it became internationally popular, especially as a status symbol for fashion designers. Renowned designers like Jeanne Paquin, pioneer of the modern fashion industry, Givenchy, the luxury fashion and perfume designer, and Hermes, the dignified french design house, all innovated with suede in the 20th century.

After their revolutionizing of suede as a luxury design item, it became intensely popular. The effects of these innovations are still echoed today in suede bags, boots, and other accessories which strikingly stand out. Suede is lightweight, delicate, and luxurious, which makes it the perfect item to set a model apart on the catwalk.

Types of Suede Leather

Now, suede is not a completely uniform category of leather. Yes, it refers to a cut of leather that is flipped over to the backside and refined to have an incredibly soft texture. There are multiple different types of suede depending on which animal hide is used, each with its own qualities.

Suede Leather Made From Cowhide

Suede made from cows takes much longer. Tanners wait for the animals to mature well into their years before sourcing the leather. With this type of suede, the hides are significantly thicker and therefore more durable. So if you’re looking for a version of suede that retains its signature soft texture, yet also has increased durability, then look for suede that’s made from cowhide.

Suede Leather Made From Sheepskin

When tanners decide to source their suede leather from the hides of sheep and lambs, you receive an incredibly soft and delicate suede, unlike the above cowhide suede. These animals are less matured and their skin is naturally more tender than its counterparts, hence why this type of suede is so coveted for its natural tenderness.

Suede Leather Made From Pigskin

Lastly, there is suede leather that is sourced from the hides of pigs. Like suede made from cowhide, this type of suede is thicker and more durable than sheepskin. It is known for its toughness and heavy durability. If you want a suede that is a little less soft and a little longer-lasting, then this type of suede is for you.

Suede vs. Full-Grain Leather

What are the differences between suede and full-grain leather? First, as covered before, suede is made from the underside of the hide, while full-grain leather is taken from the topmost section of the outside of the hide. They are the polar opposites of each other as far as hide goes.

If you’re looking for a wallet or backpack, full-grain leather is your best option. Full-grain leather is known for being the most durable and flexible cut of the hide. With how it ages and matures, it’s a great choice for a wallet, bag, or watchband, because its rich patina develops over time, giving each product a beautiful and diverse tone, unique to each buyer. However, that doesn’t mean full-grain leather is perfect for everything.

Beware, too, of “genuine” leather which claims authenticity. Yes, products labeled “genuine” leather are sourced from cowhides, sheepskin, goats, etc., but genuine leather is often made by attaching a bunch of different cuts of leather together to form one piece, and then artificially pigmenting or painting it to make it appear uniform. 

Full-grain leather, in stark contrast, is only from the same cut of hide, and its surface is the natural appearance of the skin. This makes full-grain leather a more sought-after and greater quality leather.

What suede offers, however, is a different variety of advantages for a specific buying interest. If you want a bag that will last a long time and weather the storm with you, then full-grain leather is your best bet. However, if you’re looking for a luxury item that will accentuate an intentional outfit, then suede is for you.

There are plenty of uses for both types of leather, and it’s a gift that we have both of them at our disposal to do what we will with. So put in a few minutes of careful consideration when investing in a leather item, and weigh which type of leather will be the best fit for you before buying.

How To Take Care of Suede Items and Accessories

All leather items need to be cared for. Just a few minutes of time invested in cleaning your leather product could save you from having to buy a new one so soon. A well-taken care of leather product should last close to a lifetime if not longer.

Like any other type of leather (granted it’s a form of genuine leather and not a PU imitation or vinyl pastiche), you should consistently spot clean your product and remove dirt from your suede. This will help prevent stains. Grab a washcloth and dampen it just a bit and add a  couple of drops of your normal dish soap. Tenderly scrub the suede until the spot or stain fades away.

Suede should be kept dry at all times, but it can be too dry, too. So leather conditioner is perfect for suede. If your suede leather item dries out too much, it can crack and peel. We don’t want your suede to deteriorate, so occasionally apply a leather conditioner to prevent your suede from drying out. 

And, as a rule of thumb, keep your suede in a safe place so it isn’t unnecessarily exposed to the elements. Humidity can cause your suede to mildew, so avoid damp and dark places to store your suede shoes or purse.

The Importance of Suede Leather

There are a few innovations that when you hear of them for the first time, you can’t believe how simple they are. Like a butterfly flapping its wings near North Dakota, making a hurricane ensue in Madagascar (so explanations of Chaos theory tell us), who knew that flipping over a piece of cowhide could reveal an entirely new type of leather with a completely different utility than its full-grain and top-grain counterparts?

Suede exhibits the beauty of human ingenuity: how sometimes the simplest of turns can have the greatest of impacts. It is appropriate, then, that it also occupies the public space as a luxury item that adorns models, serves to make purses and bags, and adorns the feet of the immaculately dressed. 

Suede has the advantage of being an incredibly soft and supple leather product. It’s known for its flexibility, mutability, and supple feel. Running your hand across a quality piece of suede, one which has been properly tanned, can be like running your fingers across silk. Because of this, suede is most popular in the fashion industry. Many companies specialize in making suede shoes, designer handbags, and other articles of suede clothing due to its lightness and thinness. 


If you’re in the market for a refined product, something that looks elegant and still has durability known to leather, without the thickness and heaviness of normal leather, then suede is the right material for you

And who knows? What if we started turning over other things? Who knows what beautiful uses we’d find?



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