When considering types of leather that are water resistant and have a high-shine, patent leather is often first to mind. It adds a classy touch to a wide variety of leather goods.
Patent leather originated in the late 1700s when layers of oils were applied to dyed leather, and dried. The resulting surface was durable and water resistant. Oils have since been replaced with synthetic materials, and this high-gloss leather is commonly used in shoes, wallets, bags, & accessories.
I learned some interesting things about where patent leather came from, how it is made, and even how it got its name. Let’s explore some more.
What is Patent Leather?
Patent leather is a type of leather characterized by having a very clear, shiny, polished surface. The surface is generally water resistant, or water proof, and helps provide durability by protecting the leather underneath.
Due to it’s shine, patent leather is often used in more formal and dress leather goods including shoes, handbags, and belts. The glossy surface is prone to scratches and must be cared for well. Originally, this type of leather was made from natural leather coated in various oils. Over time, it has become much more common for it to be made from faux leather with synthetic coatings. It is sometimes referred to as “enameled leather”. Here is a video that talks through some of the material characteristics.
The lower production costs of faux synthetic materials allowed patent leather to surge in popularity in the 1960s. Today, it can be made in virtually any color, and is used across all sorts of leather goods including boots, handbags, purses, pants, skirts, costumes, belts, watch bands, hats, backpacks, glasses cases, wallets, and personal accessories.
History of Patent Leather
The history of patent leather spans thousands of years, though the most significant advancements have happened in the last few centuries. Let’s dive in!
Patent leather has its roots in, believe it or not, rubber. Natural latex from the Hevea tree was first used thousands of years ago by the Olmec civilization in the Mesoamerican region (modern-day Mexico). Then, in 1736, Charles Marie de La Condamine brought samples to France’s leading Scientific Society. Knowledge of rubber began to spread around Europe and England.
Uses for Rubber
In 1770, Joseph Priestley in England observed that the material worked very well for rubbing pencil marks off of paper. Thus, it gained its nickname, “rubber”. Tests and discoveries with the rubber material continued, and it was also referred to as “elastic gum” and “caoutchouc”. Caoutchouc in liquid form was first available in England, before it reached Europe.
Hand’s Patent Leather
Then, in the 1790s, a gentleman named Hand from Birmingham, England (a city in England’s West Midlands region) obtained a patent for preparing leather in such a way that it is water proof. I researched and checked for the original patent on the British Library website, though discovered via the Library’s link to a detailed list of all British documents that the patent is only available for viewing, physically, at the British Library in London. That would be a long trip from the USA, though if you’re nearby London, try a visit!
After being granted the patent, Hand’s method was discussed, in 1793, in a British publication. The publication covered all sorts of topics at the time, ranging from news, major events, scientific research, travel stories, and most anything that would be of general interest. Here is a link to read about Hand’s Patent Leather in The Bee, Or, Literary Weekly Intelligencer (Volume 17, page 299).
Description of Hand’s Patent
The Bee describes the new leather finishing method as:
“A gentleman of the name of Hand in Birmingham, as I am informed, has of late obtained a patent for preparing leather in a certain way that he has discovered, by means of which, leather is said to be rendered perfectly impervious to water, and when soiled, requires only to be wiped with a sponge to restore it to its original lustre.
The glaze and polish of that leather is indeed surprisingly fine, and far exceeds any thing of the sort we have seen where the flexibility of the leather is preserved. This glaring we are assured consists of nothing else than a varnish made of caoutchouc in oil of turpentine or some other oil, and then exposing it to the air until the oil be entirely evaporated. This, though a much more expensive process than the employing the native juice by itself, and probably much less perfect also than that would be, may still be of use in many cases.”
As with most new technologies, The Bee goes on to talk about the increased cost of this new material and it’s likely exclusivity to higher social classes and more formal and dress uses.
“Leather prepared as above is so much enhanced in price, as to render a pair of shoes made of it about nine shillings dearer than if made of common leather, which must necessarily confine the use of it to a very few only.”
And it is due to Hand’s work and his patent on this leather production method, that it got its name, and glossy, waterproof leather is commonly referred to as “patent leather”.
Following Hand’s patent, additional advancements were made by others that helped lead to the patent leather we’re most familiar with today. They included:
Edmund Prior – Painting & Coloring of Leather
In an 1800 issue of The Repertory of Arts, Manufacturers, and Agriculture, a London publication relating to useful information and advancements from around the world, describes a patent granted to Prior as:
“Edmund Prior, of Brook-street, Holborn, Leather-feller; for a method of painting and coloring all kinds of leather. Dated November 4, 1799.”
Charles Frederic Mollersten – Leather Coloring & Gloss
On January 23rd, 1805, Mollersten describes his invention in The Repertory of Arts, Manufacturers, and Agriculture, a London publication relating to useful information and advancements from around the world. It covers the coloring and gloss of leather, and is introduced as:
“Specification of the Patent granted to Charles Frederic Mollersten, of Hackney Wick, in the County of Middlesex, Gentleman; for a Chemical Composition and Method of applying the same in the Preparation of Hides, Skins, and Leather, Silks, Taffetas, and Linen, and to all Articles already made of Skins and Leather, thereby coloring and giving a beautiful Gloss to the same, rendering them Water-proof, and impenetrable to hot to corroding Liquids, and at the same time preserving them from Decay, and keeping them soft and pliable.”
Seth Boyden – Introduction of Patent Leather to America
Seth Boyden was born in Foxboro, Massachusetts on November 17, 1798. He would be a farmer, watch repairer, and inventor. In 1815, he moved to Newark, New Jersey. In the later half of 1818, by happenstance, he came in possession of a piece of patent leather from Europe. Supposedly, it was a front piece from a German military cap. Intrigued by this, he set out to make his own type of patent leather.
Seth was able to figure out a process based on analysis of the military cap front piece, and he began selling patent leather in America. By 1824, his patent leather sales totaled $9,703.06, quite a large sum of money for the time. A modern method to produce glossy, water-proof leather now existed in the United States. The book, The History of Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey dives more deeply into his history.
1960s Surge in Popularity
After World War II, industrial production levels were high, many advancements had been made in materials technology, and there was increased demand for consumer goods. The Space Race was on and space-age fashion was on the rise.
Shiny, glossy leather looks futuristic and quickly became popular. Patent leather was made in a variety of colors and use extensively to make outerwear, shoes, boots, and bags. Additionally, more and more synthetic materials were being used. This included faux leather instead of real leather, and synthetic clear coatings to give it the patent leather look.
With higher volume and lower cost patent leathers available, it became an instant classic in use all around the world. After the surge in the 1960s, it is still popular today.
Why It’s Called Patent Leather
One of the first inventors to produce a leather that was waterproof also obtained a patent covering the method of production. Thus, because this new type of leather was made through a patented process, it was easily, and commonly referred to as “patent leather”.
Natural Patent Leather vs Faux Patent Leather
When considering the difference between patent leather and leather, originally, when the first types of patent leather were produced in the late 1700s, genuine leather was the type of material worked with. It would be colored or dyed, and covered with a protective finish to give it the patent leather look and water resistance.
Once faux leather became available (and relatively inexpensive) in the 1900s, it became a very popular choice for the base of patent leather. Also, since patent leather involves a thick protective coating on it, the quality grains of natural leather were covered and hidden. Thus, covering faux leather led to a very similar, and much less expensive result.
Due to that, most patent leather today is made from faux leather. Additionally, the glossy coatings on patent leather are mostly synthetic as well. The combination of inexpensive faux leather and inexpensive coatings has seen it become a widely available material. It is used at all quality levels and across many types of faux leather goods.
Alternative to Patent Leather
Over the years, some material types have been made that have a similar appearance and functional properties as patent leather. One of the most popular is Corfam.
In 1963 at the Chicago Shoe Show, DuPont introduced a type of “poromeric” leather substitute. It’s goal was, to by 1984, have Corfam comprise about 24% of the United States shoe market. While it was shiny and water repellent, the material was not very breathable and as comfortably flexible as real leather. Also, the low cost and high-performance of PVC leather made it a more appealing product.
By 1971, DuPont had stopped selling Corfam. While their hopes and goals for it were optimistically reasonable, the market did not respond. The c&en archives provided a detailed look into the rise and fall of Corfam (click here the visit their site).
What Patent Leather is Used For
Today, patent leather is used in many types of commercial goods. The most popular uses include belts, handbags, backpacks, purses, clutches, wallets, boots, formal shoes, casual shoes, sneakers, pants, costumes, outerwear, watch bands, and personal accessories.
Popular Manufacturers That Use Patent Leather
Many popular brands use patent leather in their finished goods. Some examples include:
- Chanel makes purses and clutches
- Hermes uses it in bags
- Christian Louboutin uses it for shoes
- Allen Edmonds makes shoes
- Prada also uses the material in their shoes
- Valentino makes shoes
- Coach makes totes and bags
How Patent Leather is Made
Patent leather is generally made during the “Finishing” phase of leather production. For more details on how leather is made, click to view this article I wrote about the entire leather tanning process. Since what makes leather “patent” leather is the surface finish, it can be done with different materials, and in different ways. In all methods the resulting leather is flexible, durable, and water-resistant.
Here is a video of the coating being applied:
Once leather is tanned and ready for the patent finish, the shiny coating it can be applied. Centuries ago, this was often a mineral oil or linseed oil applied as a lacquer finish. The leather would be dyed and the coating applied on top. sometimes, the lacquer would be dyed and applied onto the leather surface.
In more modern manufacturing, the coating is most often a polyurethane or acrylic coating. They are both plastics that allow the material underneath to be flexible. They can both also be applied clear, or dyed to include a color that shows through on the finished product’s surface.
Depending on the production process, the glossy coating might be applied in layers. This can be done to make the surface thicker and stronger. It also might be done to introduce colors and color variations into the finished products. Additionally, layers of different finishes can be applied to introduce different characteristics into the finished material; for example, protective layers, high-gloss layers, and UV protectant layers.
The coating on patent leather can be applied in different ways depending on desired end results, and scale of production. For small projects or samples, it can be done by hand and applied with brushes.
For larger production processes, it’s commonly done either by spray application, or coated by pouring the coatings over material passing through conveyors.
In spray application, the coatings are sprayed onto the base material (natural or faux leather) and allowed to dry. The next coating is then sprayed on top. These layers of coatings are applied until the final, protective surface coating dries and the patent leather is ready.
Here is a video showing surface application:
In conveyor applications, the coating material is poured onto the base material, then passed through dryers to accelerate the drying process. Next, another layer is poured on, and then dried. This continues until all the layers are added, and the final, protective surface is applied.
Popular Questions About Patent Leather
Is patent leather good quality?
Patent leather is, generally, plastic covered leather. In many cases, it is plastic covered faux leather, which is also plastic, thus making it plastic covered plastic.
When considering it as a leather, it is not a great quality leather as the plastic coating covers up the natural qualities of leather. However, when considering it as a plastic coated material that is shiny and water resistant, it can be a quality option if those features are preferred.
Due to the outer coating being plastic, it will degrade over years, and possibly discolor if exposed to UV rays. It can also stain if in direct contact with darker colors/plastics. It is a great-looking and very eye-catching material, though not extremely durable.
What is the coating on patent leather?
The coating on modern patent leathers is usually a polyurethane or acrylic coating (plastic). They can be clear, result in a high shine, and remain flexible once dried. Pigment can also be added to the resin coatings to add color. Additionally, additives can be put into the coatings to increase desirable performance factors such as scratch resistance, abrasion resistance, and UV resistance.
Is patent leather more expensive?
Patent leather is generally less expensive than natural leather. Since it is essentially a plastic coating over a leather or faux leather base, it can be produced much less expensively. This often results in lower costs for patent leather goods.
Does patent leather crack?
Yes, patent leather cracks. Since it is composed of a plastic coating, over time the plastic begins to weaken and degrade. Due to the flexing of these goods from wear (shoes while walking, bags from opening/closing and general use, etc.), the plastic will begin to crack over time.
What kind of paint can I use on patent leather?
Acrylic paint is generally best for painting on patent leather. Since these goods are usually exposed to flexing and bending during use, it’s important to use s paint that will also be flexible when dry. High-gloss acrylic paints are good options.
How do you stop patent leather from scuffing?
Due to the high-gloss finish, patent leather is very prone to scuffing. While it can’t often be stopped (just from everyday wear), it can be cleaned up sometimes with a damp cloth, or if needed, light use of nail polish remover. This is often a way to fixed scuffed patent leather shoes.
Is patent leather water resistant?
Yes, patent leather is water resistant, and in most cases, waterproof. Since it is made by applying a plastic surface to the underlying material, it is a very water resistant.
Does patent leather scuff easily?
Yes, patent leather scuffs very easily. Due to it having a shiny, smooth surface, it is very susceptible to scuffing and scratching. Here is a video showing how to easily remove scuffs:
Why is patent leather yellow?
Patent leather is covered in a clear plastic layer. Over time, the plastic begins to degrade and takes on a yellow tint to it. On lighter color patent leathers, such as white, the yellowing of the plastic is very visible. On darker patent leather goods, such as deep blue or black, the yellowing of the plastic surface layer is not as apparent to the eye.
Is patent leather vegan?
Most newer patent leathers are vegan, yes. Patent leather used to made by applying layers of oil on top of natural leather. This would provide a smooth, shiny surface, though hide the natural surface qualities of real leather.
Since the plastic surface covers the underlying material, which doesn’t necessarily need to be natural leather, in more recent times patent leather is plastic coated faux leather. As most faux leathers are made of plastic, it is essentially plastic coated plastic, which is vegan.
Is patent leather actually leather?
No, most patent leather is not actually leather. It used to made (a century and more ago) by applying layers of oil on top of natural leather. Newer patent leathers are mostly plastic coatings applied over plastic materials, thus making it a plastic material and not actually leather.
Can patent leather be restored?
Patent leather is a plastic material, and thus generally challenging to restore. Some scuffs and scratches can be buffed out, and solutions used to polish the surface. However, strongly discolored, heavily scratched, or cracked goods are difficult to restore, if possible at all depending on the extent of the damage/wear.
How do you keep patent leather shiny?
Patent leather has a plastic surface, and is best to clean with a damp cloth and buff out any dirt to give it a shine. In cases of scuffs or scratches, light amounts of nail polish remover, or mineral oil can be gently applied to buff out the surface. Always try on a small, inconspicuous area first to see if the shining method is compatible with the specific material you’re working with.
Here is a video showing how to clean and shine patent leather shoes:
Does patent leather stretch with wear?
Since it is made from plastic, it does not stretch like natural fibers (such as leather) do. It is flexible, though stretching will often crack or weaken the material. In some cases, heat can be applied while wearing the material to try to stretch it in very small amount. Overall though, patent leather does not stretch with wear.
Patent Leather Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and stored safely, this material can look nice and perform well for a few years.
How to Clean Patent Leather
Due to it’s finished surface, patent leather can be cleaned gently with a wet cloth. Ensure the cloth doesn’t have loose fibers and lint that could transfer to the surface. A microfiber cloth could work well. Also, test in a small area first to make sure the cloth will not transfer any color to the items surface (belt, bag, purse, etc.).
If the item needs additional cleaning, a very soft brush can be used to help loosen dirt and grime. Wet it slightly and work it over the leather, being careful not to press to hard. The bristles of the brush should be doing most of the work. After this step, going over it with a damp cloth can help clean off any remaining dirt/dust. Let the item dry off before using or storing.
If what you are trying to clean goes beyond dust/grime, and is a stain from something, additional care might be needed. First, consider what type of stain it is. Knowing the substance can help determine what the best method to clean it is. If it is something common, and gentle cleaner might work.
If it’s something more significant, look into cleaners made specifically for patent leather. They will be made to treat the stain while helping to maintain the surface finish. As with most cleaners, always test in a small, non-noticeable spot first to ensure it will not discolor the bag. Definitely don’t want to make a second stain while trying to clean the first 🙂
How to Condition Patent Leather
Since patent leather has a protective surface finish, it doesn’t need to be conditioned. And functionally, it really can’t. The surface finish protects the material underneath which is usually plastic. It also serves as a barrier that conditioner can not penetrate.
Thankfully though, the protective surface makes it’s very easy to clean with a damp cloth. This is an easy way to always keep faux leather products looking great. If the surface layer begins to wear away, additional protectant can be applied to help restore it.
Some of these products will be applied with a cloth or applicator, and others sprayed on and wiped off. Make sure to read the instructions on any finish you plan to apply, and test on a small area first (to make sure it will not discolor the surface) before applying to the entire item.
How to Fix a Scratch on Patent Leather
Fixing a scratch on a patent leather piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repair kit. Since the material is a plastic mix, it will require replacement of the material that was scratched away, and evening/smoothing of the glossy surface to a shine to match the material around it.
Typically, leather repair kits have color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled.
How to Fix Tears in Patent Leather
Tears in patent leather are harder to fix than scratches. Since patent leather is a plastic-coated blend, fixing tears might require a repair kit that includes a filler. The space created by the tear might need to be filled.
Depending on the size of the tear, this can be done with fabric, flexible glue, or the color-matched liquid that comes in the repair kit. Since the item will likely be sat or or used and need to flex, the material used as a filler will need to be flexible once dry too. Sewing the tear is an option too, depending on the size.
Once the tear is filled, just fix the remaining scratch that is visible above it. Pour the color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled. Also, evening/smoothing the repaired glossy surface to a shine to match the material around it might be needed.
How to Store Patent Leather
Patent leather should be stored in a cool, dry place. Keeping it out of direct sunlight is key, as the sun can discolor the protective finish.If you have patent leather clothing or accessories, storing them in a closet or drawer works great. Keeping them away from extreme heat, and sunlight, are key.
Additionally, some lighter-colored ones, such as white, absorb colors from others good and garments. It is important to keep them away from sustained, direct contact with other materials. When storing them, it is best to place them in a storage bag of a light, neutral color, intended for the safe storage of patent leather.
Some specialized patent leathers are finished with protectants that reduce damage from the sun. This allows them to be exposed to UV rays without becoming damaged as quickly as those not treated with special finishes. Be aware of what types of finishes the leather you’re using might have, for optimal maintenance and use.
While most leathers offer an array of material benefits, a unique quality of this material is a finish that is smooth, shiny, and water-resistant. Depending on what you’re looking for in a future project or purchase, patent leather might be a great option.
How do you get stains out of patent leather?
To get a stain out of patent leather, try rubbing it gently with a damp cloth. If the stain remains, try a gentle application of nail polish remover, and buff to a shine. This is often most helpful when looking to clean white patent leather.
Can you wear patent leather in the rain?
Yes, patent leather is water-resistant, and in most cases, waterproof, and can be worn in the rain. It is a key benefit of the material, making it versatile in different weather conditions, good most seasons through winter, fall, spring, and summer.