In our latest installment of the Sneaker Ingredients series, we delve into the background of patent leather, one of the sneaker world’s most glamorous materials. Keep reading for the details behind this popular ingredient…
Considered a luxe material from the time of its development, patent leather is known the world over as the leather of style. Its high gloss, rigidity, and durability have accented the wardrobes of many since the early 19th century, and its uses include footwear, purses, handbags, clothing, watches – virtually anything that may benefit from the look or resilience of the material. Patent leather often begins life as a premium grade of fine grain leather, although modern processing techniques allow for various leathers to be finished into patent leather. The integrity of the base leather determines the condition of the finished product, which can be determined by appearance and feel; if the final leather has a robust but somewhat pliable elasticity and possesses a deep, mirror-like finish, it is considered fine quality. Conversely, if the leather flexes flimsily – not to be confused due to a thin cut of leather – and its finish appears translucent or muddled, it is likely either the base leather is of lower quality or the patenting process is poor.
The creation of modern patent leather is attributed to Seth Boyden, the man Thomas Edison deemed the second greatest inventor in American history (after himself). The son and grandson of Revolutionary War Minutemen, the Foxboro, Massachusetts native began in 1818 to explore the possibility of developing a leather that could be used in more stylish, dressy settings while retaining the original leather’s sturdiness and protection. Initially, Boyden’s process consisted of a series of treatments with layers of linseed oil being applied, then dried. However, the process gradually changed, as the lacquer formula‘s ingredients became more sophisticated. An 1854 patent file described a blend of “oil, amber, Prussian blue, litharge, white lead, ochre, whiting, asphalt, and sometimes copal.” Currently, although modern plastic processing yields synthetic options for lacquer development, linseed oil and dye are still considered foundational lacquer elements.
Today, the manufacture of patent leather is not much different from the time of the material’s invention. Tanned leather is coated three times with a polyurethane/acrylic solution and then vacuum dried. This seals the solution on the leather. In the second coating, dye is added and it is in this stage that patent leather receives its bold-colored look; the standard color is black but a variety of hues may be used. The third and final coating is clear and dries firm, glossy, and waterproof. In this final manufacturing stage, the patent leather has not been cut save for areas of different thickness or damage. The patent leather is then shipped to buyers, many of whom are footwear manufacturers.
Inherently good quality patent leather must not crack, the finish should be thoroughly dry and hard to the touch, and it should not scuff easily. Because patent leather is worn through all seasons of the year, proper care is required to maintain it. Basic cleaning consists of wiping down the patent leather with a damp, clean cloth with a small amount of mild soap, then removing any residue with another damp cloth, and finally drying with a lint-free, dry cloth. To polish, simply ensure the patent leather is free of dust and lint, then dab a small amount of patent leather cream onto a dry, clean cloth and gently burnish the area evenly. After waiting two to three minutes for the cream to infuse, buff the leather with a fine cloth or chamois. Due to patent leather’s tough characteristics, if this basic care is applied, the leather will maintain fine condition for decades.
Long used in formal wear, patent leather is also useful and desirable in athletic footwear for its strength and flashy appearance. Because it resists stretching, patent leather provides excellent medial/lateral support and mitigates torsion. Debuting in 1995, the Air Jordan XI became famous not only for the panache of its patent leather wrap but also for the tangible performance enhancement the patent leather provided by way of its rigidity, keeping the foot stabilized on the footbed. The XI began a trend of shoe companies using patent leather on an array of sneakers and use of the popular material continues today.
Despite its ubiquity, patent leather is still relatively new in mainstream athletic footwear production, with only approximately 15 years of history to examine. However, quite a few sneakers have skillfully utilized patent leather in that brief time span. Recent examples include: Air Jordan XI, Nike Zoom Kobe IV, Converse Weapon Evo, Li-Ning BD Doom, and Nike Air Max LeBron VII.
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