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How to Take Proper Care of Your Leather Bag: The Ultimate Leather Care Guide

For most professionals, for that matter anyone who takes particular pride in their appearance, a fine quality leather bag or accessory is a staple part of their style and look. When it comes to materials nothing quite exudes class, timelessness and durability as leather does. From accessories to footwear, to everyday carry, leather is one of the most reliable and versatile materials in the world. It has the potential to last for years upon years, look stunning when done right, and offer a plethora of benefits; from protection, to stylishness, to comfort, to name but a few. Though a good quality full-grain leather can last many years of rugged use, like with most things, you need to show it some love and attention. Simply put, the better you maintain your leather the longer it’ll last and the finer it’ll look, the key is not to wait for your leather bag to start looking shabby but to start from day one.

Whilst leather bags be more expensive, good-quality full-grain leather bags can retain their shape and aesthetic appeal for years upon years if cared for properly. It is true leather does age well over time; however, your leather bag won’t look the same in 5 years time as it does today. That’s part of leather’s unique appeal. Genuine full-grain leather ages handsomely, each leather good taking on its own patina, a deep, natural luster, as it ages. However, leather doesn’t come without its shortcomings.

So, let us start with a touch of background, leather is an animal hide, meaning it is a natural living material (with life and proteins removed), a strong collagen structure in other words, therefore it requires a measure of care. Proper care prevents the leather from drying out and cracking, as well as protecting from excessive moisture that can cause the skin to swell or mildew. A little attention paired with the proceeding expert tips will ensure a longer life for your leather item.

For some people, particularly those with deep pockets and little interest in timeless, character infused quality, caring for leather is as simple as replacing old gear when it starts to get worn. However, if you do want your favourite leather backpack to last its due course without looking shabby and compromising your look, then there are without doubt things you need to do to in order to maintain and uphold its condition.

The following guide will detail things to avoid, things to ensure you do and things that’ll help keep your leather bags and leather goods look as you wish them to, pristine and shiny or rugged and full of character. After all leather is a special kind of material that you can’t just throw in the wash, thus it’s important to understand how to properly care for it.

The ultimate leather care guide

Old leather bag

From leather backpacks to duffle bags and wallets to belts, here at Illicium we’re passionate about your leather goods serving you a lifetime of enjoyment. From the moment they are handcrafted, until the day they face their demise, they need to be cared for properly.

Below we detail the fundamental principles applicable to genuine leathers of all kinds aswell as some item specific processes, ranging from day-to-day care to minor repairs and quick fixes, ensuring your most treasured pieces will look tidy and full of life for years to come.

First and foremost, it’s essential to decide which route you wish to take.

Basically, there are two schools when it comes to leather care, both of which are perfectly acceptable, but it is important to choose which one you side with.

1. Choose a high quality full-grain leather that develops a rich patina over time and let your life story start to show, without being too concerned with keeping it looking new.

2. Preserve leather as best you can so it forever looks new and shiny.

Personally, we strongly recommend the first option for reasons to be discussed later, although we will address both approaches.

Cleaning leather

Much like anything you wear or use constantly, leather items are going to get dirty over time. But worry not, most filth can be cleaned off without too much of a hassle. Although, again as a reminder, bear in mind that leather is, essentially, a living material – meaning it will naturally change over time. There’s no stopping that (apart from not using it); leather is going to age. How that happens and over what span of time, however, is much more under your control. The following processes should allow you to extend the life of your leather items far longer than they would last on their own.

The basics of leather care are actually much simpler than you may think. To begin all you really need is some cleaning cloths (or paper kitchen towels), water, a non-abrasive unscented gentle soap, and a leather cleaning brush.

Basic leather cleaning steps are as follows:

Begin by always handling your leather with clean hands, oil, and food residue are easily transferrable onto leather. Proceed to wipe away as much dirt and grime as you can with a dry towel. In some case, the dirt won’t be buried deep into your leather and will thus brush away with ease. However, if there is still tougher grime remaining, repeat this step with a damp cloth this time; the moisture can loosen up the dirt and make cleaning your leather as simple as following just this first step.

If there is still dirt or grime clinging to your leather, the next step would be to take some chemical-free non-abrasive soap to it. Rub the soap under water until you work up a bit of a lather, then rub it directly onto the leather in areas where you still notice tougher dirt. It should be quite satisfying to see the muck seperate and start to come off the surface of the leather.

Once the tougher grime has been washed off, using a damp cloth, carefully wipe away the excess soap and any loose surface grime. After wiping away the remanence, you will be able to inspect the surface, you may need to repeat step 2, you should do so now. Note, that you should not need to soak the leather fully, this is highly advised against and may cause long term irreversible damage to the leather. We advise to try to keep the leather as dry as feasibly possible so try to avoid getting it too wet.

Once you are satisfied with the level of cleanliness of your leather, carefully lay it out to dry on a dry, flat, cool surface, away from sunlight exposure. At all costs avoid applying artificial heat and leaving out in direct sunlight. As will be discussed later, this can shrink and crack the leather, leading to irreparable damage. Allow the leather to dry naturally, this may take a matter of days.

Dealing with water-soaked leather

On the note of trying to avoid completely soaking you’re leather in water, we thought we’d address how to deal with it if the unfortunate event of completely soaking your leather item to the core came to pass, for example accidentally dropping your leather jacket in a puddle, or falling into a large body of water. Although we’d generally recommend keeping your leather out of the rain, if you do live in a country like the UK then you’ll know that a single day can go through four seasons, leaving the house in glorious sunshine, thinking what a great day to show off my classy leather goods, only to return home a few hours in a raging monsoon that threatens to wash away your leather items altogether, in which case you really ought to know how to deal with wet leather which requires extra care.

When a daily used leather item gets waterlogged, it can be very tempting to simply throw it in front of a heater or use a hair dryer to accelerate the drying process. Do NOT do this, ever. You should not under any circumstances, use a direct heat source or the sun to dry out your wet leather. Much like human skin and other natural fabrics, exposure to a great amount of heat can cause leather to dry out, shrink, and potentially crack. The best practise is simply patience. So instead of taking a hair dryer to your favourite leather jacket, which will at best shrink it and at worst dry out the natural oils in the leather causing it to crack and potentially tear resulting in it completely losing its timeless appeal, instead you should let it dry naturally; carefully lay the leather out on a flat surface in a cool, dark room and wait patiently, the drying process can take a number of days, but long term this is definitely worth the wait.

Sunlight exposure

Simply put, keep leather items out of the sun. Whilst water-soaked leather is generally reversible, damage caused by excessive and prolonged sun light exposure isn’t. Much like Dracula, leather’s number one worst enemy is sunlight. Although leather fades naturally over time, sunlight significantly speeds up this process. Extended periods of sunlight exposure will dry the leather out and cause it to become brittle. Once the leather has become brittle it will begin to crack and can deteriorate rapidly. In the end, leather and all animal hides are essentially skin, UV rays from the sun and heat will do them no good. If you’re leather items are precious to you and you want them to last for a long time, then try to keep them out of the sun as much as possible. Unfortunately, there is no sun cream for leather. The drying out and cracking of leather is ultimately something that can’t be reversed.

Finally, proper storage is vital when caring for leather. As a general rule, when storing leather be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight. Darker places away from heat, sunlight and dust, such as large wooden wardrobes, with some very slight humidity are optimal, although air flow is crucial so that mildew cannot form. Preferably keep leather items stored in a protective, fabric (never plastic) dust bag (which all illicium leather goods come with).

Waterproofing

Now then, onto the controversial topic of waterproofing your leather. There are really very opposing views when it comes to waterproofing leather goods. One school argues that it is an absolute debauchery, whilst the other sees it as a perfectly acceptable and pragmatic practice if done right. Before we consider the best approach, a bit of background. As a natural characteristic of leather as a material coupled with the tanning process that keeps leather from decaying, leather is naturally very water-resistant. However, it is not completely waterproof. This means that excessive exposure to water will cause leather to absorb water and become water-logged. This may tempt you to go town with water-proofing spray on your leather item. Waterproofing sprays provide a coating to your leather good that repels water, snow and various other sources of moisture. These treatments generally only need to be done once a year, depending on your use of the leather item. Sprays should only be used sparingly, they are convenient, but create a lower quality effect to the leather. Overall, we strongly advise against using sprays. As spoken about previously, leather is a natural living material; thus, it needs air in order to breathe and maintain its flexibility and suppleness, allowing it to age nicely over time. By spraying a waterproof layer onto your leather good you run the risk of suffocating your leather, resulting in it taking on a cheaper artificial look.

There are however better alternatives to spray waterproofing. Waxes and creams are a viable option, they tend to be more durable, and can be applied with greater precision and control. So, if you absolutely need to be able to wear your leather items during the wetter months of the year then that’s your best bet. Be aware though, you will likely have to reapply them several times over the course of several months. The main thing is they are better for your leather than waterproof sprays and are relatively easy to remove once you’re out of the wet time of year.

Overall, if you can avoid it then we suggest staying away from waterproofing your leather altogether. In the end there is no way around the fact that it will impede the leather aging process and can potentially have a negative long-term effect.

Actively caring for your leather – Leather care products

Leather care

By taking the time to actively care for your leather goods you’ll uphold their value and ensure the pristine condition of your prized possessions.

Leather is an extremely versatile and multi-faceted material and how you choose to maintain it tends to shape the appearance of your leather goods for many years to come, in this way allowing you to tailor them to your own individual style.

Thus, the first task in deciding how to treat and maintain your leather is simply asking yourself how you want it to look and what kind of role it plays in your life. A pair of smart dress boots will undoubtedly need more attention than a pair of rugged work site boots, as does a smart messenger bag over a sturdy duffle bag. It also comes down to personal preference. Some people want a clean and shiny polished look for their bag, whilst others welcome the character that natural wear and tear and blemishes bring to their leather, giving then that ‘spiritedly used’ look that tells tales of epic adventures.

Once you have decided your desired route there are a number of leather care options available to you:

  • Dust & Wipe: daily use functional items such as leather backpacks and duffle bags made from solid full-grain leather take well to frequent dusting and a quick wipe down with a moist cloth, allowing them to develop their own deep characteristics whilst keeping them tidy.
  • Polishing: allows leather to maintain its original shine. This is more suitable for glossy leather, often used for formal and eveningwear, which exude elegance and should be kept in pristine condition.
  • Creams & Conditioners: You should think of these as skincare products for your leather. Softer and finer leathers that are more susceptible to scratches and cracks will benefit noticeably from leather creams and conditioners. Much like lotions for your skin, leather creams and conditioners aim to sustain the supple and soft look and feel of your leather. They’re also great at staving off the negative effects that the natural elements may have on leather, such as drying it out causing it to crack and/or shrink. Creams and conditioners can also be used to remove smaller scratches. Whilst coloured balms can be used to restore colour and rejuvenate your leather.

One thing to be aware of is that a lot of leather creams contain lanolin. Lanolin is a fatty substance derived from sheep’s wool, it heavily moisturises and softens your leather, which can be good if that’s what you’re looking for, however if you do want your leather to look and feel more tough and rugged then avoid lanolin products.

Specific leather products care

Everyday care and attention, discussed above, will go a long way in keeping your leather goods in order. Although some specific products may require special attention.

Leather Shoes: When your leather shoes, particularly dress shoes, aren’t being worn for any prolonged period of time, cedar shoe trees should be placed inside. This ensures the shoes keep their shape, reduces creases and absorbs excessive moisture and odours. Dress shoes take well to polish whilst more casual everyday shoes should be wiped down weekly.

Leather bags and wallets: It is essential that you avoid overfilling your bags and wallets, as once these items shape becomes distorted it will not recover to its original beautiful shape. Furthermore, it can be tempting to leave your leather bag packed with your daily essentials at the end of each day and may seem tiresome and unnecessary to unpack them, but rest assured this is a vital practice that can prevent them from warping and maintain the bags silhouette.  

If you are storing your leather bag for a prolonged period of time, ensure it is covered, preferably in the original dust bag it came in. If you no longer have the original dust bag then a white pillow case can be used as an alternative. Finally ensure it is stored in a cool place away from sunlight and is stood on its base rather than hung by its handles which can result in them being stretched.

Leather Travel Bags: Built with durability and heavy wearing in mind, leather duffle bags and weekenders tend to be pretty resilient to wear and tear, but there are a few things you can do to preserve the look and finish of your travel bag. Firstly, always ensure it is stood on its wheels or metal rivets on its base in order to minimize contact with the floor. Secondly, whilst in transit, utilize a protective cover to prevent scratches or any other harm coming to your bag.

Leather jackets: Wipe down after several wears and condition every 4-6 months depending on frequency of usage.

How to remove scratches and marks from leather

cracked leather

When it comes to scratches on leather the best approach in removing them really comes down to the extremity and depth of the scratch as well as the quality of the leather and finish of the leather.

Faint and shallow scratches on full-grain leather can be taken care of relatively easily. Your first option is simply to warm your hands by rubbing them together intensely and using the heat and moisture in your fingertips to gently rub out the scratch on your leather, this works well when the scratch isn’t too deep. Alternatively, if this doesn’t fully do the job you can use a little polish to polish out the scratch.

Deep scratches, on the other hand, require further attention. Initially you need to be able to properly assess the surface and severity of the scratch, thus begin by gently cleaning the surface with a damp cloth and allow to dry naturally. Once it has dried you can assess the extent of the damage, if the surface of the leather remains in tact and it is just the colour that is scratched, you can gently buff the scratch with a dry and soft cloth and carefully apply thin layers of coloured leather balm that is of the same colour as the leather. Once this is done and any excess removed, use a leather protector to protect from future scratches.  

In some cases, deep scratches and marks can damage the surface of the leather, in this case a leather filler should be used, to restore the evenness of the surface. Once dry, the area should be buffed and a matching coloured balm applied as above. This process can be more complex; thus we recommend consulting a leather care and repair specialist.

Do’s and Don’ts & Concluding remarks

The following list prescribes some key things to avoid and to ensure you do in order to maintain the condition and shape of your leather:

  • Do not ever leave your leather bag in direct sunlight or in close proximity to heaters.
  • Do not put items that can stain leather inside of your bag.
  • Do not let your leather get wet.
  • Do not use baby wipes on your leather bags or accessories as they contain lanolin.  
  • Do not put your leather on or near to abrasives that can scuff or cut it.
  • Do not overfill your leather item as this will stretch it and distort its shape as leather is a skin, so avoid this in order to keep your leather looking sleek and new.
  • Do not leave stains you notice on your leather unattended, the longer it is left the more damage it can cause.
  • Do not store your leather item in a plastic bag which will prevent ventilation and suffocate your leather.
  • Do not iron leather.
  • Do regularly clean your leather with a soft damp cloth.
  • Do store your leather in a protective dust bag.
  • Do read the instructions regarding cleaning your leather bag.
  • Do use a high-quality leather specific cleaner.
  • Do avoid allowing your leather to come into contact with sharp edges or jewelry that can cause scratches.
  • Do rub some moisture into your leather using a cream or conditioner if it gets to dry.
  • Do test leather care products on a small inconspicuous area first to ensure they do not have adverse effects.
  • Do gently blot away excess water from your leather.
  • Do allow your wet leather to dry naturally away from artificial heat.
  • Do handle your leather with clean hands to avoid grease or oil being absorbed.

So, to conclude then, if you’re reading this the chances are, you’re a fan of leather. Its hard not to be, given leathers been around for centuries it has been used by our ancestors for everything from pouches to clothing, loved for its durable qualities (in fact a pair of 5500-year-old leather shoes have been found). Leather seems to exude a toughness or aura, perhaps borne from it connection to ancient hunting. And we agree it is a stunning looking and versatile material all be it with some attention required, after all it is a living material. The truth is if you care for your leather properly, following the guide and steps detailed in preceding lines, your leather will wear and age beautifully, taking on a rich deep patina, echoing the adventures of many years past.

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