For the last several years, it seems you can’t walk down the street without seeing a pair of UGG boots, regardless of the season. While these may be the most prevalent example of suede and shearling, it is by no means the only example. Suede and shearling has been used for hundreds of years, historically for its incredible warmth and more recently for its comfort and style.
Specifically, suede is the underside of a leather hide. Since it was never exposed to the elements it is softer and suppler than full-grain leather with a slight nap to it. Shearling is a sheepskin pelt with the wool still intact on the one side, thus making the other side a sueded leather, if unaltered. Though it shares some similar care instructions with smooth leather, sueded leather has its own set of guidelines to help keep it looking clean and new and with a little care, you can get years of use out of your suede or shearling.
Now that we have established that suede is a type of leather, remember that all leather needs conditioning to keep it from drying out and suede is no different. Pick up a conditioner that is made for suede and use it regularly. You will also find protectant and waterproofing sprays that are available specifically for suede and shearling. These sprays are much more important with suede because, unlike with full-grain leather, water will easily stain a suede garment (especially if it is light in color). Just be sure to reapply every few months to keep it working well.
Once your suede has been waterproofed, it is actually pretty simple to take care of. Now I personally only own suede/shearling shoes, boots, and gloves but I know several people with coats, pants, and the like. Obviously, the larger the garment is, the easier it will be to get dirty simply because there is more of it.
If your suede gets dirty, wait until it dries and then use a suede brush to get the dirt off. This works best with suede that has a longer nap it provides more of a barrier between the base of the leather and the surface.
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, things just get stained. If you find yourself with a stained suede garment, I recommend taking it straight to a professional cleaner who specializes in cleaning and restoring leather products. It is going to be pricy, but in my opinion it is definitely worth it.
There are some home cleaning solutions floating around, such as rubber erasers, sandpaper, and vinegar. While I am normally a proponent of DIY solutions and these may very well work, I have not tried and do not recommend any of them. DIY always comes with a certain amount of risk and in this case I feel that professional cleaners exist for a reason. Suede/shearling does not come cheap, so for the pieces I own, the risk does not outweigh the cost of replacement.
As UGG boots and their imitators remain popular, many dry cleaners are advertising the ability to clean them. Be very careful with this and be sure to ask questions about if they do it in-house, where they send it out to, what process they use, and what their guarantee or policy is because suede/shearling needs extra special care to avoid being ruined. When in doubt, or if you are at all unsure, visit a cleaner who specializes in suede and leather.
Finally, if you are interested in dyeing or re-dyeing your suede item, make sure that you pick up a dye that is made for it, not just a standard leather dye. Though a leather dye will work, suede dye is made with a slightly different consistency to account for the fibers found in the suede, and will give you a better result. Dyeing is a great option to consider, especially for shoes, if your suede is beginning to lose its vibrant color. Like with all dyes, the lighter the base you begin with, the more true to color it will turn out.
Remember that suede, as with all of your clothes, should be treated as an investment in your wardrobe. The benefit is that if treated properly, suede, like leather, can last you for decades. Just be judicious with picking your suede garment – just because you could wear it in 10 years, won’t always mean that you should.