Let me first say that I don’t have the foggiest clue how to care for chrome tanned goods. I’ve never had any luck oiling shoes, which is probably okay, since I live in a relatively humid environment (not a hot humid one, but there’s enough humidity here that the moisture isn’t constantly being sucked out of everything.
Anyway, when properly cared for, your vegetable tanned leather goods will last you a lifetime. But, since your relationship with your leather piece starts when you take it out of the box, we’ll start there, too.
I’m often asked how to soften leather when people first receive their goods. I heard a rumor, when I presented luthier Austin Clark with his trout mandolin strap, that the Native American women used to chew their leather to soften it. Austin’s wife, Cynthia, spent the first few days of Wintergrass working the strap back and forth in her hands. With a little elbow grease, the strap quickly softened up.
This is the first bit of advice that I give all my customers – just use your new leather goods! They’ll soften up on their own. No leather chewing necessary. If you’d like to give it a little encouragement, I don’t recommend chemical conditioners or softeners, I also don’t recommend using anything that you find in your kitchen or bathroom. My preference is Lexol. It smells good, and doesn’t leave a greasy film on your leather. Now, how to apply it – I squirt a bit on a paper towel and rub it on my leather goods. Then let it soak in. Simple as that.
As your leathers age, if you use them the oils on your hands will get transferred to the leather and keep it soft. Though, if you want it softer, there’s nothing wrong with conditioning it now and again. If you live in a dry environment, I’d definitely recommend oiling your leathers. Also, if you don’t use them frequently, you will definitely want to take them out and oil them periodically. When leathers are left alone, they can dry out, and crack. Once they crack, there’s really nothing you can do other than enjoy the rugged finish your leather has just achieved.
Now, for cleaning. For vegetable tanned leather, a damp cloth (not soaked) should remove any surface dirt and grime. My leathers have an acrylic topcoat on them, so dirt and grime won’t really soak in. If you do things like I do, like keeping sippy cups of milk in your purse, then you’ll need to wipe your leathers off with a damp cloth now and again. Lexol does also make a leather conditioner, but I’d recommend testing it on a small patch before applying it to your entire piece. You never, ever, want to soak your vegetable tanned leather in water. It will get hard. It can withstand some water – the occasional downpour, a sprinkler, etc., – but leaving your water bottle open in your purse, upside-down, isn’t advisable (speaking again on experience here).
When it comes to repair, your best source is a local shoe repair. They’re all leather workers and have many of the same tools that whomever made your goods in the first place did. Plus, they’re local, so you won’t have to try to live too long without your trusted purse!
If you do need to store your leathers, keep them in a temperature controlled environment (not the basement or the attic eaves, but rather someplace that you can actually live, like your closet). For belts, many recommend storing them hanging up (and the Container Store has some great belt hangers, as well as just about everything else you might need) so that they don’t get permanently configured into a coiled shape. This may be more necessary with chrome tanned and “dress” belts than with veg tanned ones – I’ve had perfectly fine luck keeping mine in a coiled mess in my drawer. As for purses, I’d put them on a shelf, in a dust bag if you prefer (though since it’s really only to protect from dust, totally at your discretion!).
Does that cover it? The most important thing is to protect your leather from extremes – extreme heat, extreme cold, dryness, or excessive humidity. It can stand any one of those for a short period. Love your leather, and it will love you back for years to come!
(for more leather care information, About.com has a comprehensive article on how to care and clean different types of leather).
(the photo above is my “purse dump” – contents available at www.moxieandoliver.com, except for the camera!)