Friday, April 4, 2008
Until you have worn or held an early 30s suede jacket in your hand you cannot imagine the difference a little tradition makes. Modern suede is, by leather world standards, a by-product of the tanning process. When tanning leather modern tanners must often split or skive a skin down to a desired thickness to create the kind of skin required for the usage. So if one is making a belt or a saddle, a thick full skin in a veg. tan is best suited as it is hard, inflexible and mouldable for shaping and carving. These leathers, like shoe leather, can be a full thickness but for jacket purposes one has to split the layers of the dermis to create the desired thickness. The skin side epidermis (where the hair was) is the most valued part of the skin, and then the underside is the "suede" side. The left over by-product piece is often what we associate with suede today, a crappy rough-ish surface usable only for Halloween costumes as chaps. Suede itself has become the bottom of the leather barrel, so to speak.
Not so for 1930s suedes, they were the creme of the fashion product of their day. As modern leather makers sell "butter soft" jackets, their sales pitch is a misinterpretation of the jackets produced in the hey day of real leather jackets. The signifier has become so detached from the sign that leather production barely understands where and why soft leather became a fashion statement.
The word Suede derives from the term "gants de Suède" which translates gloves of Sweden. Suede is the split side of a skin, that was treated and sanded to create an open pored nap. This made suede soft and porous and perfect for the glove making industry. 1930s suede is quite unique and unlike any I have ever seen. The inside is always the top grain of the hide and the suede side is always a super super fine nap with the hide grain showing through. It is more like chamois than suede.
Ok, a little side note...chamois (the shammy) is a kind of South American goat. Chamois is made today by splitting and sanding lambskins and using only an oil tanning process. Chamois is super soft, porous and water absorbent and used for all sorts of fashion and industrial applications. 1930s suedes are very hide like but with the same qualities of chamois. The garments made with this leather were a clear counter statement to typical garments of the day. They were an expression of excess, clearly not utilitarian, no good for rough wear or use. So as an expression of wealth you could own a hard leather jacket for working or riding, and a soft leather jacket for fashionable nights out. These two jackets are great examples of those kinds of suede.
(they are for sale on ebay as well, for now!!)
That is why 'butter soft" is the sought after leather, but unfortunately it has become a misnomer!
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