As robust as it may be, leather has an Achilles’ heel: water. Understanding what happens when leather gets wet is essential for its proper care and maintenance.
What Happens When Leather Gets Wet?
When leather comes into contact with water, the resulting effects can be both immediate and long-term, damaging the material, affecting its appearance, and reducing its lifespan. These potential consequences can range from changes in texture and color to the growth of mold and mildew.
Shrinkage and Hardening
Leather that has been soaked and then left to dry will often shrink and harden. The heat, whether from direct sunlight or a heating device, can cause the water in the leather to evaporate too quickly, leading the leather’s fibers to contract significantly. As a result, the leather becomes stiffer and less flexible than it was before.
Stains and Discoloration
Wet leather often results in water spots or stains, especially if the water contains any impurities. The spots are typically darker than the leather’s natural color and can be difficult to remove water stains once they’ve set in.
Mildew and Mold
Leather is a natural material and, like all natural materials, it’s prone to mold and mildew when it gets wet and isn’t dried properly. The dampness creates an ideal breeding ground for fungi, which can lead to a musty smell and discoloration, damaging the leather beyond repair.
Loss of Essential Oils
Leather contains natural oils that keep it supple and prevent it from cracking. When leather gets wet, these oils can be washed out, leading to dryness and increasing the risk of cracking over time.
Why is This Happening?
Leather is created through a process called tanning, which converts the otherwise perishable animal skin into a non-decomposing material. It involves the use of various chemicals that stabilize the collagen proteins in the hide to prevent them from putrefying.
When leather gets wet, the water interferes with the bonds between the collagen fibers. The structure of the collagen fibers in leather is such that they are tightly bound together, providing the material’s natural strength and flexibility. When water penetrates the leather, it swells and pushes these fibers apart. This change in configuration is what causes the leather to become less supple and more rigid after it dries.
Prevention and Care
The first step in protecting the leather from water damage is prevention. Applying a high-quality water repellent can provide a degree of protection. It’s important to note that these products don’t make the leather entirely waterproof but reduce its absorbency, preventing the water from penetrating the leather immediately and giving you time to wipe it off.
If your leather does get wet, it’s essential to dry it slowly, away from direct heat and sunlight. Fast-drying leads to the problems described above—shrinkage and hardening. Pat the wet leather with a soft cloth to absorb excess water, then let it air dry at room temperature.
Regular conditioning is also key to maintaining the health and longevity of your leather items. Leather conditioners help restore the natural oils that are lost when leather gets wet, keeping it supple and less prone to cracking.
How Can You Use it?
While water can generally cause damage to leather, when properly harnessed, its effects can also be beneficial in leather crafts. Water is an essential element in leather molding and shaping, a technique known as ‘wet molding’. By soaking the leather in water, it becomes malleable and can be formed into specific shapes or contours. Once the wet, shaped leather dries, it retains the molded shape, offering a wide range of possibilities for creating personalized leather goods like wallets, holsters, and cases. Similarly, water can also be utilized in tooling or carving leather, making the leather pliable enough to accept intricate designs. After drying, these designs stay embossed on the surface, adding unique textures and patterns to the leather crafts. However, it’s crucial to handle the wet leather carefully during these processes, ensuring it dries slowly and naturally to prevent unwanted hardening or shrinkage.
While leather may seem invincible due to its durability, it is a material that requires care, particularly when it comes to contact with water. Water can cause a host of issues, from aesthetic problems like staining and discoloration to more serious issues such as shrinkage, hardening, and mold growth. Understanding these effects and taking steps to prevent them can help ensure your leather items stay in excellent condition for years, if not decades
Is it safe to wash leather in a washing machine?
No, washing leather in a machine is not recommended. The agitation, detergent, and extensive exposure to water can distort the leather, wash out its essential oils, and possibly lead to shrinkage and hardening.
Can I use a hairdryer to dry my wet leather item?
Using a hairdryer is not advised, as the intense heat can cause the leather to shrink and harden. It’s best to dry leather slowly, away from direct heat and sunlight.
How often should I apply a water repellent to my leather goods?
The frequency depends on how often you use the items and the conditions they’re exposed to. For frequently used items, applying a repellent every 3-6 months is usually sufficient.
Are there different types of leather that respond differently to water?
Yes, different types of leather can respond differently to water. For instance, suede and nubuck are particularly susceptible to water damage, while full-grain leather tends to be more resilient but still vulnerable.
Is it safe to wear my leather jacket in the rain?
While a light drizzle may not harm your leather jacket, it’s not designed to withstand heavy rain. If your expensive jacket does get soaked, be sure to dry it properly to prevent damage.
What should I do if I accidentally spilled a drink on my leather sofa?
Blot the spill immediately with a clean, dry cloth. Don’t rub the spill, as that can spread the liquid. Once the area is dry, use a specialized leather cleaner to prevent staining.
Can I waterproof my leather shoes?
While you can’t make your leather shoes fully waterproof, you can enhance their water resistance. Using a water repellent can help protect them from water damage, but they should still be avoided in heavy rain or puddles.
Does dyed leather react differently to water compared to natural leather?
Dyed leather can sometimes bleed color when it gets wet, especially if the dye isn’t properly fixed. Like natural leather, it can also stain, shrink, or warp if exposed to water.
Is there a type of leather that is naturally water-resistant?
Some types of leather are more water-resistant than others due to the nature of their tanning process. For example, waxed or oiled leathers can repel water to some degree. However, no leather is naturally waterproof, and all leather can suffer damage from prolonged or repeated exposure to water.