A Guide to Cleaning and Conditioning Vintage Leather

vintage leather jackets

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Cleaning and conditioning leather is very simple if you just think of leather as skin. Just as you need to clean and moisturize your own skin, leather needs to be maintained in the same way to stay supple, pliable, and resilient. If you keep your own skincare in mind while caring for your vintage leather jacket, hat, or other leather item, it is sure to outlast you.

Professional Leather Cleaning

If you have a very special or very delicate leather item, or if you do not want to take any chances cleaning it yourself, there are professional leather cleaners that can do it for you.

Many dry cleaners offer leather cleaning services through which your leather is sent off-site to a professional cleaning company and then returned to the dry cleaners.

Although this process is done by professionals, slight variations in color, texture, and shape may result; so be sure to clean matching garments together even if only one piece is dirty.

Cleaning at Home

In many cases, all that is necessary to clean leather is a damp cloth or a store-bought leather cleaner. This will remove any surface dust or dirt. Always follow manufacturer's instructions when using a cleaner specifically for leather.

If the leather has been in contact with perspiration, water, or is stiff, you may need a more substantial method to cleanse it.

items for cleaning vintage leather

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Hand Washing

  1. Treat or remove any stains on the leather before washing it.
  2. Using warm soapy water made with a gentle cleanser like baby shampoo, Dove (unscented), or soap flakes, rub the leather with a soft cloth to produce a lather in any area you want to clean.
  3. Wipe away excess lather with a clean cloth.
  4. Rinse leather thoroughly either by running through warm water or wiping several times with a damp cloth.
  5. Pat leather dry with a clean towel to remove excess water.
  6. Allow leather to dry flat in a warm place out of direct sunlight and away from a strong heat source (fire, heater, stove, etc.)
spot cleaning vintage leather

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Washing Leather in a Washing Machine

Some people claim that leather can be washed using a washing machine set on a very gentle (wool or delicate) setting with warm or cool water.

This method may not be worth the risk if you are washing a very old vintage piece.

If you choose to use this method, DO NOT use any detergent meant for washing clothes other than Woolite or Soap Flakes. Also, do not use more soap than is necessary to make the water slippery with a small amount of bubbles. Too much soap will make the leather dry and stiff!

Once the leather has completely dried, then it is time to condition it!

Conditioning Vintage Leather

Conditioning leather replaces the tanning oils that are depleted over time through wear, heat, and moisture. Reconditioning leather every 6-9 months will ensure that it never becomes stiff, dry, or cracked.

A leather conditioner is necessary for this step. There are hundreds of products available for this task, so read the label before using a leather conditioner to be sure that that particular product is suitable for your vintage leather item.

Do not use leather conditioners that contain waxes or silicone which do not allow the leather to breathe

  1. Always use a lint-free soft cloth when conditioning leather; microfiber cloths are ideal.
  2. Dampen the cloth with water before applying the conditioner to it so that there is not too much conditioner applied to the leather.
  3. NEVER apply conditioner directly to the leather: apply to a cloth first.
  4. Apply conditioner to leather by gently rubbing into the lie or nap of the leather until the entire surface has been covered.
  5. Several light applications are preferred over a heavy soaking of conditioner.
  6. Allow conditioner to penetrate the conditioner for at least 30 minutes before applying another coat.
conditioning vintage leather

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald