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Material World: understanding Suede and Calf Suede

In the first instalment of a four-part series, we explore the characteristics that set our leathers above the rest, starting with the go-to material for spring: suede

Material World: understanding Suede and Calf Suede

In simple terms, suede is the soft, fibrous underside of a cow’s hide. Sounds straightforward, but like most things in shoemaking there’s a lot more to it than that... Thankfully, at Crockett & Jones, we’re dab hands when it comes to making fine suede shoes to last the years, thanks in no small part to our Head Leather Buyer, Mr Steve Horne.

Steve’s something of a Northampton shoemaking authority (to those who know him!), he’s been in the trade for 40+ years, 15 of which have been with C&J, assessing the quality of skins we buy, to ensure all the leather we use meets our rigorous quality standards. He works closely with our preferred European tanneries to source only the best ‘A grade’ materials for our shoes.

‘I always describe our choice of tanneries with a car analogy,’ he says. ‘We use the best French and German tanneries because they make leathers that are like German cars ; they’re strong, reliable and you can travel the world in them. Some tanneries make skins that are impressive on the outside, but are not so reliable in performance.’

As you might imagine then, Steve is meticulous when it comes to the suede we use for our Mainline Collection. ‘We only use the best suede for Mainline,’ he explains. ‘Cow’s leather can be up to an inch thick when it comes off the animal, so it is split into different pieces of varying quality. We use top quality suede which has a dense, healthy fibre structure. These maintain their shape and strength over time – and make for shoes that are comfortable and durable.’

Today, our main repello suede colours are waterproofed during the tanning process to ensure a high level of water and oil resistance – so long as you keep them clean. So, if you spill your drink on a pair of our Harvard II loafers or our Hardwick Derbys, you’ll do them no harm, as long as you brush them down promptly.

Alongside our Main Collection shoes, the Hand Grade collection uses ‘reverse calf suede’ of truly exceptional quality. As the name suggests, reverse calf comes from a younger animal that’s only four to six months old. It’s called ‘reverse’ calf because the skin is un-split. In fact, all our Hand Grade suede shoes are made from luxury full-grain leather that’s sewn with the suede nap on the outside of the shoe. The result is a material that is strong yet supple, as Steve explains. ‘The fibre structure of the leather is fresher, finer and more supple than older skins. That’s what we’re interested in.’

The colour of our suede also reinforces its quality: ‘we get a great vibrancy and depth of colour into our suede,’ says Steve, ‘we couldn’t do that with cheaper materials.’ Shoes like our Cranleigh in mid-blue, or the Cadogan loafer in tobacco benefit from this with their bright, summery colours.

So, as you contemplate your next pair of C&J shoes, spare a thought for our new season suede models. They’re built on decades of meticulous attention to our suede, and Steve’s unbeatable eye for quality.

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