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Napa Leather – What Makes it So Soft and Smooth

Sometimes you’re looking for a leather with particular characteristics that include being soft and smooth. That’s Napa leather.

Napa leather, or “Napa”, is a term used to describe leather that is generally soft, smooth, and durable. It is usually made using full grain leather, and can come from any animal. Most often, it’s from calves, lambs, and kid goats. Sometimes spelled “Nappa”, it is used in a variety of leather goods.

Quality sets Napa apart, it can be used in high-end leather goods, and it’s history is also intriguing. Let’s see why it’s such a desirable material.

What is Napa Leather?

Leather Backpack - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Backpack

Napa leather is really just a term used to describe leather that is incredibly soft, smooth, and strong. There is no firm definition of what “napa” is, so the actual leathers can range widely in thickness, finish, grain pattern, color, and even the animals it comes from.

Given it’s high quality, Napa leather is usually made from full grain leather. This cut of leather contains the outer layout of the hide, referred to as the “grain”; it hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. Generally, only the hair is removed on full grain leathers. The grain generally has densely packed fibers that are finer; this results in a surface that is very strong, durable, and can withstand tough use. For more info on grain leather, click here for an article I wrote.

Napa leather is frequently dyed different colors. These make it desirable, and suitable, for many types of leather goods. Various finished can also be applied, adding characteristics to the leather such as water and abrasion resistance.

Is It Napa or Nappa?

Napa is the technically correct spelling for Napa leather. However, Nappa has become a popular way to spell it over the years, thus resulting in many references to it as Nappa leather. When referring to it either way, folks are likely to understand what you are talking about.

And after all, remember that Napa (or Nappa) leather is just a term, and not even in itself a references with a strict definition. To understand a little more about the Napa name, let’s explore its history.

History of Napa Leather

Napa, California - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Aerial View of Napa, California


Where the Napa Name Came From

Native American tribes roamed and lived around much of North America prior to the settlers moving in from Europe. In modern day Napa county, two tribes were the primary inhabitants. They were the Wappo Tribe, and the Patwin Tribe. It is conceived that the word, Nappa, was likely an English pronunciation of a local Native American word (click here to read more about that from a local Napa Valley newspaper post).

As cities often do, local words were used to inspire city names. Such was likely the case when the city of Napa, founded in 1847 by Nathan Coombs. California would be granted statehood in 1849, and thus the city of Napa would become Napa, California.

Prior to 1849, city related documents and maps all seemed to have spelled the location as Nappa, with two p’s. From the granting of California’s statehood, it appears all city related records have only the spelling as Napa, with one p. It would remain that way throughout the remaining history and into modern-day.

Who Invented Napa Leather

It is said that Napa leather was first developed by Emanuel Manasse in 1875. Manasse was born in Germany in 1842, as the son of a leather tanner. He moved to New Jersey, in the United States, in 1864. Later, he would move to Napa, California in 1871.

While here, he worked for the Sawyer Tanning Company (founded in 1869), carrying on with the family trade. While here, it is told that in 1875 he developed a leather that was soft, flexible, and very well suited for glove making. Given the area in which it was developed, it went on the be called, Napa leather.

Manasse would go on to become partner at the Sawyer Tanning Company in 1880. He would lead a successful and wealthy life. The Napa leather as it was known would go on to become a familiar term in the leather world; referring to high-quality leather that is soft, flexible, and great for fine leather goods.

Is Nappa Leather Genuine Leather?

Leather Jacket - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Jacket

Nappa leather is real leather. It also is usually one of the highest qualities of leather, made from the Top Grain of the hide. The hides used to make Napa leather often come from calves, lambs, and kid goats. Their hides are usually more soft, and supple, translating into a finished leather that maintains some of those qualities.

Nappa leather is not “genuine leather”, by the definition of genuine leather. For reference, genuine leather can come from any layer of the hide, and undergoes treatment to the surface to provide a more uniform, “corrected”, appearance. It can be sanded or buffed to remove surface imperfections, then dyed (or spray painted) or stamped/embossed to give it a final surface appearance.

Napa leather is often made from Full Grain leather, and this is a higher quality than genuine leather. Napa leather might also be referred to as “Genuine Nappa Leather”, which is just a marketing statement to refer to something as being Napa leather. Which again, is a just a term itself, referring to leather that is smooth and soft.

What’s The Difference Between Leather and Nappa Leather?

Nappa is just a term used to refer to a specific quality of leather that is very smooth, soft, and pliable. So while leather is a general term that can refer to a variety of types and qualities of the material, Napa refers to a specific group of leather within that larger set. Napa leather is certainly real leather.

While leather in general can have different treatments done that alter it’s surface, Napa leather usually has a natural, high-quality, uncorrected grain surface.

How is Nappa Leather Made?

Leather Washing Drum - Napa Leather Tanning - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Washing Drum

Napa leather is made through a process called tanning. Tanning includes of up to 25 steps and can take from days to months depending on the process used. Often, Napa leathers are tanned using a chromium tanning process that takes only a few days. Chromium tanning is known for producing leathers that are soft and flexible.

Chromium tanning also yields leathers that take and hold colored dye relatively well. This produces a very visually appealing, and soft leather suitable for a range of leather goods including bags, gloves, purses,wallets, and a number of fine leather goods and personal accessories. Napa leathers also come in many colors making then both physically soft and visually stunning.

What Brands Use Nappa Leather?

BMW Leather Upholstery - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
BMW Leather Upholstery – Liberty Leather Goods

Napa leather is very popular in automobile upholstery, especially from manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Bentley.

Luxury good makers use Nappa leather in personal accessories such as gloves, handbags, and wallets. Designs include Coach, Prada, Gucci, and Tumi.

What is Nappa Leather Used For?

White Leather Gloves - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
White Leather Gloves

Napa leather is used for a wide rage of high-quality leather goods. Some of the more popular uses include:

  • Wallets
  • Handbags
  • Briefcases
  • Travel Bags
  • Luggage
  • Pouches
  • Jackets
  • Notebook Covers
  • Automobile Upholstery
  • Furniture Upholstery
  • Hats
  • Shoes
  • Gloves

Leather Working with Napa Leather

Leather Luggage - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Luggage

Leather working with Napa leather is very desirable for those that enjoy a softer leather. The uncorrected grain surface can be appreciated when one is familiar with how few unfinished leather surfaces are actually smooth and blemish-free.

Also, the softness of the material makes it feel very good in the hand. This makes it a nice leather to work with. It also makes it a very nice leather when experienced during everyday use in a finished leather good. Often grabbing for a wallet, or purse, or putting on Napa gloves, the benefits of the material become more recognized over time.

Napa leather generally cuts smoothly and is easy to sew. It can be formed around objects (such as in furniture or auto upholstery). It can also take shape well in smaller applications such as shoe accents and in card holders or small wallets.

Overall, Napa is a fine leather to work with.

Napa Leather Care & Maintenance

It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods, especially napa leather. Since they are comprised of natural fibers, keeping the surfaces clean and restoring/conditioning them with oils will help them stay strong and looking great.

One thing to keep in mind: for any step in leather care, generally test on a small area to ensure the cleaner or finish that you are applying will not react poorly with the material. Once you know it’s safe, clean away 🙂

Napa leather, if unfinished, is especially sensitive to cleaners. Even large drops of water can darken the material.

How to Clean Napa Leather

Microfiber Towels - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Microfiber Towels

Napa leather can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. It’s a tricky balance between having the cloth too wet and staining the leather (if it’s unfinished), vs. too dry that it won’t penetrate and remove dirt, dust, and grime. Leather that is dyed will have less issue with staining.

Some of the moisture will air-dry from the surface, so while it might sound like any water equals instant stain, it usually takes more than a damp cloth to leave any visible traces.

If the dirt is deeper, it has difficult stains, or you want to thoroughly clean the leather, a dedicated leather cleaner might be a helpful choice. Check for a leather soap intended for very soft leathers, to ensure it is gentle enough to clean without doing damage.

How to Condition Napa Leather

If the Napa leather has no surface finishes applied, the leather fibers dry out more quickly than on other types of leather. Thus, it is important to more frequently condition unfinished Napa leather.

Generally, this involves applying a wax, oil, or cream onto the surface and letting the leather absorb it in. When conditioned, the leather is more supple, flexible, resistant to scratches, and feels better in the hand.

Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth. Conditioner is generally applied in small circles, allowed to soak in, then the excess wiped off with a clean, lint-free cloth.

A protective finish can be applied at this stage, if preferred. The benefit is it will help the leather be a bit more water and scratch resistant. The potential downside is that it will introduce a layer on the leather surface that hides some of the desirable look and feel of natural leather. Protective finishes are usually natural waxes or synthetic waxes/acrylics such as resolene.

Usually, a well-cleaned and conditioned Napa leather piece is best, without a finish applied.

How to Waterproof Napa Leather

If you’ve purchased a Napa leather good that you plan to use in very wet conditions, or created a piece that you’d like to protect from the elements, it is possible to waterproof it.

A wax protectant can be added to it to help make it water resistant. Once cleaned and conditioned, the wax can be applied to the leather thoroughly. After a few minutes, the wax is generally buffed out and leaves the leather with a surface that is smooth and has a pleasant shine. It also provides a barrier that helps repel water.

For more lasting, and durable finished, acrylics can be applied to the leather surface. An example is a resolene, which essentially leaves a thin, transparent plastic coating over the leather’s surface. However, the stronger the layer of water proofing (often a type of wax), the more difficult it is to later reach, clean, and condition the leather underneath.

Supple Leathers - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Supple Leathers

How to Fix a Scratch on Napa Leather

There are a few ways to fix and repair scratches in leather. Generally, you’ll try a simpler method before moving on to the next, depending on how large and deep the scratch is. Since natural leather has many fibers in it, and originally had oils in the skin, adding oils back into it is usually a first step to try in fixing a scratch.

For small scratches, rub your finger over it to try and buff it out. If the scratch is deeper, try applying some leather conditioner to the scratch and surrounding area, then buff it out after a short while.

If the scratch is very large or deep, you might need to try a leather filler kit. They usually have a substance that can be squeezed into leather cracks/cuts to fill them in. The substance generally has color matching options available so it’s a close visual look to the existing leather. Follow the specific instructions on the kit, though usually once it’s dried the surface can be smoothed and conditioned.

How to Fix Tears in Napa Leather

Tears in Napa leather can often be fixed by sewing. The fixed tear will usually never look as smooth/finished as the original piece (those joined fibers actually made up the original hide), though ripped or torn leather can definitely be joined back together. Usually a fine, strong thread can be used to sew through small holes, and mend the tear.

For smaller tears, leather glue can be used. It will join the two torn areas. If a glue is selected in a color that is near the original leather color, it will be less noticeable. If the glue available is very different in color, once dried, the glue can be painted with an acrylic paint that closely matches the leather color. Acrylic paint is beneficial as it will have some flexibility to it, usually helpful if applied onto a leather good.

How to Store Napa Leather

Closet Leather Storage - Napa Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Closet Leather Storage

Most leather should be stored in a cool, dry, dust-free location. Generally, leather products benefit from low-average humidity environments. Air flow is also beneficial, as it allows the natural fibers of the leather to “breathe”.

If kept in a sealed environment, the humidity might rise and the leather start to deteriorate, and mold. In an environment with too-low humidity, the leather can start to dry and that could lead to cracking and weakening of the fibers.

A good place to store Napa leather is a dressing room or closet that has an average livable temperature, humidity level, and frequent airflow. Some leather goods come with storage bags. They’re usually a breathable fabric that helps keep cut off. Storing it in one of these can be a great choice if available.

Napa leather is a high quality leather with very desirable characteristics and an fascinating history behind the name. It is worth considering Napa leather for a future purchase or leather working project.

Related Questions

Is Nappa leather expensive?

Napa leather (Nappa leather) is a bit more expensive than vegetable tanned leather. For example, a 20 sq. ft. high-quality vegetable tanned cowhide might cost around $150, while the same quantity of Napa leather would cost around $200.

Is Nappa leather good for jackets?

Yes, Nappa leather is good for jackets. Since it is so soft and flexible, it makes for a very enjoyable leather to wear. Also, since it has been made from uncorrected, full grain leather, it is generally breathable, and comfortable.

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