Tanning — the process in which animal skins become leather and are no longer subject to rotting — is not a new process. Tanned skins were likely the first clothing worn by early humans, and even clothe Adam and Eve in the Bible’s creation stories.
After learning to hunt, prehistoric man devised ways to soften and preserve animals’ skins. At first, they dried the skins in the sun. Then, they soaked the skins in water and dried them over a fire; the smoke emitted by burning leaves and green twigs contains elements called aldehydes that help preserve hides.
As a result, humans discovered vegetable tanning, soaking the skins with tree bark to preserve them. As civilization progressed, tanning became refined to present-day methods, which use tannic acids and chrome tanning agents in water to turn hides and skins into leather.
Today, water is typically used as the carrying agent for the chemicals, dyes and other solutions used in the tanning process. The suedes and leathers you accept for cleaning are no strangers to water and chemical additives, so wetcleaning them shouldn’t seem strange.
To better understand the relationship between water and leather, let’s examine the steps in the tanning process that involve the use of water.
First, the hides are soaked in chemically treated water to restore moisture and remove dirt and salt; the process, logically, is called soaking. After the soak, skins are washed in fresh water.
Next, the hides are placed in vats of water containing a blue lime solution and revolving paddles. Hair remaining on the hides gets loosened and certain soluble proteins are removed in this process, called paddling. Then, the dehairing chemicals are removed by soaking the skins in another water solution containing bating enzymes.
Later, the hides are pickled with acid in water so that they can better accept chrome tanning agents. When these are added, tanning takes place; the hides become leather and will no longer rot.
The leather is then retanned for additional softness by adding chemicals called syntans to water. A base color is blended and added to drums for vat dyeing, and later, the leathers are washed with water to remove any excess dyes.
The next step in tanning is called wetting back. A controlled volume of moisture is introduced to the leather by passing it through a fine mist of water to adjust the leather’s moisture content.
In short, water is used as a carrying agent throughout the tanning process: in soaking, washing, dehairing, enzyme soaking, pickling, tanning and retanning, dyeing, washing, and wetting back. And since suedes and leathers are no strangers to water, you should be prepared to wetclean them using a machine of any size.
However, I do not recommend trying to wetclean suedes and leathers with the same soaps and drying methods you would use on cloth items; doing so will result in color loss, shrinkage and hardening. Instead, use a detergent/conditioner designed for wetcleaning suedes and leathers. Follow the additive instructions, and you’ll be able to wetclean suedes and leathers in your own plant and pocket all of the money.
Start with one or two suede or leather garments at a time, and use any washing machine available. Armed with knowledge about the relationship between water and leather, you’ll have the confidence necessary to wetclean suedes and leathers safely.
Never again will you have to hand your customers a poorly cleaned suede or leather garment, or pay someone else to clean suedes and leathers to your standards. Your customers will appreciate your expertise, because they’ll get the same high-quality cleaning on suede and leather garments that they expect when you clean their cloth garments.