Nubuck vs Suede: Which Is the Better Fit for You?
There are as many different kinds of leather as there are ways to process them and before you make any purchases, you should really understand how to differentiate between them. Even though there are all kinds of different leathers that you can go out and buy we are going to focus on today are nubuck and suede.
Before we go any farther, let’s clarify that the two are not the same material going by interchangeable names. Even though they are both soft and have a velvety texture, they are different. In this article, we are going to detail how each type of leather is processed and what exactly makes them different from each other.
What Exactly Is Leather?
Leather has been around pretty much as long as mankind itself and is seemingly never going to go away. This makes a lot of sense considering how multi-functional the fabric has proven to be over the centuries of its existence.
But what exactly is leather? How did the material come to be? It’s been long since discovered that our early ancestors would take the leftover hides (or the skin of the animal) from the animals that they hunted for food and used them to make shelter and clothing. Nowadays, the way we procure the material is pretty much the same; the remains of the animals used for their meat and wool.
Truth be told, you can get the rawhide skin to make leather from pretty much any kind of animal you can think of. There are of course the more obvious choices of cows, sheep, pigs, deer, and goats; you do also have the option of the more exotic and seemingly unusual choices such as kangaroos, alligators, sharks, snakes, and fish. That last one might seem rather strange to some, but it is a viable option if you feel inclined to own fish made leather.
Now to specify an animal hide isn’t actually leather until it’s been processed to become as such. The simplified explanation of the general tanning process– or the way to change rawhide into leather – is to put the hide through a chemical change that makes the structure of the material malleable, tough, and flexible. The process to create nubuck and suede is not quite the same as what’s just been explained here, though.
So How Is Nubuck Leather Made?
Processing nubuck leather involves sanding the outer side – which is commonly known as the top grain – of the animal, said animal typically being a cow. What this does is raise the naps (short protein fibers) and gives the top grain a sleek, smooth, and soft surface.
The process of sanding the hide’s outer side comes with the additional benefit of getting rid of whatever blemishes may have been on it, cleaning it up so to speak. Having the nubuck dyed or stained is another way to remove any visible flaws on the leather’s surface.
How Is Suede Made?
Before even getting down to actually processing the suede, it is important to know the exact animal that the hide came from in addition to its age as this can make or break the quality of the final product. Once that’s been determined, the leather is turned inside out and then it has the tougher outer skin removed. This process leaves what is called the underside; i.e. the part of the animal that was touching the flesh. This technique is what’s called “splitting the hide” and leave you with the only the soft underside to work with.
The sanding once again raises the nap; albeit longer in this instance and gives you a soft, flexible, and smooth surface. After the actual processing has been completed the suede can be dyed another color from it’s natural brown if the maker so chooses. The similar feel of the two types of leather lends to the assumption that they are the same thing from plenty of people. A key difference between suede and nubuck (and most other kinds of leather) is that it is often thinner and softer along with commonly being made from cow and sheep hide with the latter being higher quality.
Nubuck vs Suede: Pros and Cons
The more uninitiated among us might not think so, but there are downsides to certain kinds of leather. Nubuck and suede are no exception to this rule; they both have their pros and cons and it’s better for you if you know about them before you buy.
Right off the bat, one of the best things that can be said about suede is that it’s delicate. The part of the hide that is used along with the processing method means that it is a thin and supple kind of leather which makes it fantastic for clothing that is flexible and lightweight. Because suede is so light and soft though, this means that it isn’t as tough as nubuck is either. There’s also the fact that suede without the protective waterproof coating is incredibly prone to water damage and can end up suffering stains that can never be removed.
If you’re looking for the more durable leather of the two, then you’re wanting nubuck. Whereas suede is soft, nubuck is much tougher and long-lived. This extra durability, when compared to suede, comes from the fact that, as we’ve already discussed, nubuck comes from the top grain of either calfskin or cowhide. One problem that can crop up during the making of nubuck is that whatever blemishes the hide had on it before processing will still be on the material afterward. Of course, as stated before, manufacturers are in the habit of dyeing the fabric for this very reason, so it’s not really that big a deal as far as cons go.
A more concerning issue to take into account before buying any nubuck products would be that the rough surface makes the material easier to become dirty and stained. Another thing to keep in mind is that nubuck isn’t so great at developing an “aged look” or patina over time. If you want something that’s going to be able to pull of the older but distinguished look that certain materials are able to do – like suede and leather can – you might want to steer clear of this fabric.
Why It’s Important to Waterproof Your Nubuck and Suede
Nubuck, suede, and water aren’t really what you would call the best of friends. If you’ve ever had a pair of boots made of these materials that weren’t waterproofed and they’ve gotten wet; you probably already know how this story ends. The shoes didn’t really survive or at least didn’t survive without major injury. This “injury” goes far beyond the appearance of the shows however, it can actually warp the footwear to the point where they actually fit differently from when you first bought and wore them. If exposed to water over the course of a long time; the shoes can even become hard to put on, much less wear and the damage is typically unable to be fixed.
Making sure your shoes are waterproofed can even help you to prevent health issues if you can believe it. If water always ends up trapped inside of your shoes, the skin of your feet can eventually become damaged by the constant exposure to moisture. Plenty of health issues like athlete’s foot or trench foot can occur if the feet are left in moist conditions for too long. Needless to say, if the appearance and ability to wear your shoes doesn’t convince you that waterproofing them is important – your foot health should.
How to Waterproof Nubuck and Suede
Now that you know why you need to waterproof your nubuck and suede, you should learn how to waterproof them. First thing’s first though. You should be made aware that depending on the manufacturer, the fabric of the footwear may have already been waterproofed.
When buying a pair of shoes, if possible, be on the lookout for any labeling that says so. If they have been waterproofed then you don’t have to have to worry about doing this yourself. At least not for the first few times you wear them. This protective coating is going to wear off eventually, so it’s best to be prepared and just buy the waterproofing when you purchase the shoes as well.
One such way that you can protect your nubuck and suede from water damage is to use waterproofing spray. A good thing about this product is that if it works for one of them, it’s likely going to work for both. Waterproofing sprays coat the fabric of the shoe in a layer of repellent that is flexible, allows the material to breathe, and will most importantly – keep your feet dry.
In order to apply the waterproofing spay, all you need to do is:
- First, you should properly clean the footwear
- Make sure to shake the can very well
- Evenly coat the waterproofing spray over the shoes
- Let dry for a few minutes
- Once dry, re-apply the spray and let dry once again
- When using a spray on a suede or nubuck shoe, make sure that the waterproofing agent has an acrylic copolymer
- These sprays carry a strong scent so your best bet is to either treat your shoes in an area that has very good ventilation or outside (the latter is the better option)
- Apply several coats to provide sufficient protection from moisture
- Waterproofing waxes should NOT be used on nubuck or suede as it will ruin the “fuzzy” feeling and can even stain
Which One of These Is the More Expensive Fabric?
The cost of leather is pretty dependent on the kind of animal hide that it’s coming from. As a rule of thumb, if it came from a cow, buffalo, or pig; it’s going to be pretty on the cheaper end of the scale and pretty hardy. If it’s coming from a goat, sheep or lamb; you can bet that it’s going to be more expensive. If we’re being totally honest, suede and nubuck are among the more expensive leathers apart from nappa (which is the most costly of the three).
Of the two types of leather that star in this article, nubuck is the more pricey of the two. The reason for this is because nubuck is made by using the more expensive part of the animal – the top grain. As a result, the fabric is prized for its toughness and longevity while managing to be softer than regular leather. This leaves suede, which is processed from the underside of the hide, as the third runner up in regards to costliness.
So When Is Suede the Best Option?
We’ve dissected pretty much every difference between these two fabrics by this point, so now it comes down to really one thing: which one is best for what occasion?
First up, we are going to start with suede. This material, as we’ve said plenty of times already, is really soft and pliant. It’s better suited for delicate things or at least things that you don’t intend to go roughing it in. This is a fabric that gets dirty very easily so it is better suited for when you’re feeling fashionable or are going out for a night on the town. Think of it this way: suede is used for things like gloves, clothes, shoes, and handbags. That should be enough of an indicator that this isn’t a rough and tumble fabric.
When Should I Consider Wearing Nubuck?
You now know what occasion suede is best suited for; now you’re probably asking, “Ok. So nubuck would be for pretty much the exact opposite, right?” Well, kind of. Nubuck is definitely better suited for work boots that can withstand lots of work and strenuous effort. The material is tough enough to withstand you doing some manual labor and unlike suede is more resistant to staining. That being said, you can also have a nice pair of nubuck shoes that you might want to and can wear when you’re just out and about. All in all, nubuck is quite a bit more multifunctional in this regard than suede is.
Or, an even better option would be, you making the decision on which fabric you would prefer. After all, at this point, you have been armed with more than enough knowledge to make an informed decision as to what kind of footwear you’d like to wear. Hopefully, you’ve found this article to have cleared up whatever confusion you may have had an even learned quite a bit about both nubuck and suede after reading this.