What Water Does To Leather?

Wet Shrink Leather

When exposed to water the oils in the leather attach to the water molecules so when the water droplets dry up and evaporate, it depletes the oil content in the fabric. As a consequence, it loses its supple quality and flexibility when it is stripped of its natural oils. It goes as far as moving the dyes around, creating water damage spots and streaks on it, and completely ridding it of its evenness in color. The water stains will eventually affect its overall appearance with a spottiness that looks odd and makes it come off as dirty. Given that the water takes a long time to evaporate due to the contribution of external factors, the leather will begin to rot.

The Science Behind Leather Shrinkage: Unraveling the Mystery

Since leather is made up of animal hide, it has an element of breathability to it. This is primarily because the animal skin used consists of pores, especially hair follicle pores. This translates into the water seeping into the core of the fabric which produces sebum, an oily and waxy substance that both human and animal skin produces when it comes into contact with water. The main job of sebum is to cover, protect and hydrate the skin. Water exposure for an extended period of time can lead to the natural sebum that is contained within leather to excrete at a quicker rate than normal.

Moisture & Leather: How Water Impacts Leather's Structure?

However, it is important to note that water doesn't react to leather on a chemical level. But the properties of leather articles are subject to change with extended or consistent water exposure. When water comes into contact with leather, it permeates the surface leading to undesirable effects both visually and otherwise which are difficult to reverse.

Wet Shrink Leather

Wet Leather: Does It Really Shrink?

Direct exposure to heat such as the sun or high temperatures and water can result in the loss of moisture found naturally in the pores of the leather hide. It has the ability to dehydrate the leather, crack it up and shrink it from its original size.

Factors Influencing Leather Shrinkage in Wet Conditions

A problem found specific to chrome-free synthetic tanned leather is its sensitivity to moisture. Around 50 % of all car interior leather is chrome-free synthetic. If a convertible is driven around in the rain, or you leave a wet towel or swimsuit in the car mistakenly, moisture leaves through the finish, seam, or perforation holes. In addition to that, if the sun shines on moist leather, the matrix water, chemically added to the leather, starts boiling and the leader hardens and shrivels.

Managing Wet Leather: Tips to Prevent Shrinkage

  • Stuff the inside of the wet leather product with newspaper as an absorbent that maintains its original shape as well.
  • Let it dry naturally rather than with a hair dryer or radiator as this will speed up the drying process but at the risk of damaging the leather.
  • While the leather is still damp, apply a nice thick coat of leather conditioner. Massage it into the surface area and leave it to dry overnight or for at the bare minimum a couple of hours. The conditioner will absorb into the leather and replenish the natural oils it got stripped of.
  • For leather jackets: hang them on wide, padded hangers so that they are air-dried thoroughly.

Can Leather Be Saved After Shrinkage? Restoration & Repair Methods

Don't forget to clean and dry your leather with attention to detail, in case the water source contained any sort of impurities or bacteria especially found in rainwater. If your leather was exposed to water for a prolonged period that has resulted in it becoming brittle, then the best solution is to condition it to rehydrate it back to life.

  1. Let the water dry on its own.
  2. Clean the leather.
  3. Condition it
  4. Dry it.

Natural vs. Synthetic Leather: How Different Materials React to Water

Synthetic leather is lighter and cheaper compared to natural leather. However, since it does not consist of pores unlike natural leather, it is water resistant owing to its composition from polyurethane plastic. That doesn't in any way mean that it doesn't get wet just like natural leather. Too much water exposure can still damage it as it may absorb moisture from the edges and other places if not from its direct outer surface. Real leather however does not become 100 % waterproof even when sprayed with a water-repellent solution.

Leather is a high-quality fabric that lasts for years and can be handed down as an heirloom in terms of wardrobe essentials, which is why it is so important to ensure that you handle it with care at all times. However it is bound to come into contact with water in terms of rain, so aftercare is essential to protect it so it stands the test of time.