First, lets start from the beginning. Until our modern age there was no material that could match the functional flexibility, durability and beauty of leather. Since the times of the Egyptians animal hides have been tanned for all types of applications from fine leather used for clothing to thick, strong leather used for harness.
Leather today differs widely from that tanned in the 19th century. Most leather available in the United States is not bark tanned in the same manner as it was a century and a half ago. True, some leather is still vegetable tanned but using barks (mostly Quebracho from South America) and chemicals as well as chemical dyes that are completely different from the period.
Tanning methods also took longer then than now. Even the cattle raised today for hides are bred and fed differently using accelerated feeds and generally slaughtered at an earlier age than cattle of the 19th century. Perhaps more significant, as a result of the passing of time and our “throw away society” we have unfortunately lost a lot of basic knowledge about the correct way to care for leather and worse, allowed misinformation to take hold.
The proper use of soap and how/when to clean leather has long been a serious question. Leather should be brushed and wiped down as often as used and, routinely thoroughly cleaned and conditioned.
|A careful cleaning and light conditioning will bring a lot of life back as can be seen in the second picture of the same glove. Photo courtesy - Eric @gluvluv|
The importance of simply brushing the leather should not be overlooked: “Brushing is often omitted, but it is almost as important as the cleaning of the surface of the leather, as the fine dirt is thus removed, and it does not interfere in anyway with the penetration of the conditioner into the pores of the leather or around stitches.”
The reason for routine cleaning is to prevent a condition known as “Age Hardening”. “This phenomenon is observed mainly with thicker leathers. It manifests itself by a darkening in the color and a loss of flexibility. In severe cases, the surface structure is damaged and cracks appear”. When the humidity is high, the leather absorbs moisture which partially dissolves water soluble materials present between the fibers. As the humidity reduces, moisture within the structure of the leather moves towards the outer surface, taking non-tans and other material with it. These are then deposited in the grain and flesh layers as the moisture evaporates. Over a period of time, months or years, there is a gradual build up of material in the surfaces layer. This physically restricts movement of the fibers, particularly in the grain surface.”
Age hardening as well as the wetting and drying effects from exposure to weather will attack thinner leather too and eventually cause the grain surface to harden, crack and curl. Doing the recommended cleaning will remove this build up of excess non-tans. Of course, a little oil will be removed at the same time and that is the reason for the crucial but judicious use of proper leather conditioning.
We will go into more details regarding proper techniques and steps for cleaning, conditioning and storing you leather in our next article. In the mean time we hope you found this article helpful.