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Machine Washing Leather-Trimmed Breeches
By Anna Carner Blangiforti
President and Founder, Leather Therapy Products

OLDWICK, NJIn Victorian times, coachmen and grooms wore buckskin or doeskin breeches that were kept white by the application of pastes and chalks. When the whole thing just got too messy, the thin leather was carefully hand washed. Then the breeches were stretched back into shape to dry on specially constructed “breeches trees.”

Caring for breeches didn’t get much easier when someone thought of stitching leather patches onto woolen breeches. Now there were two different materials to keep clean, each with its own persnickety care requirements. Modern leather finishing processes and synthetic fabrics have made cleaning breeches easier than it was in “the old days.” But not by much.

Riders still grapple with the problem of how to launder riding clothing constructed of materials with very different cleaning requirements. The detergent products that do a great job cleaning sweat and ground-in mud off fabric also pull the lubricating oils out of leather, leaving it stiff and uncomfortable when it dries. The inner fibers become brittle and eventually break down. Suede, the leather of choice for good saddle grip, has always been a challenge to clean and condition because fat- or oil-based leather conditioners stain it and mat its nap.

Given the cost of a pair of leather-seated breeches, riders have cause to be concerned about finding cleaning methods that extend the useful life of their garments. Thanks to the synergy between two recently developed companion leather care products, however, riders can now both clean and condition leathers right in their washing machine. The cleaning solution works during the wash cycle to deep clean grimy dirt and leave leather fibers with a negative ionic charge that attracts the more positively charged conditioning dressing during the rinse cycle. The dressing lubricates and relaxes the leather fibers. The procedure is not much different than doing other laundry and the result is soft, supple, deep-cleaned leather.

PREPARATION: Brush off any excess surface dirt from the leather. Quality-conscious manufacturers use leathers treated to stabilize their dyes. However, just as with different lots of fabric, dye permanence can vary from hide to hide. If you are concerned about leather dye bleeding onto the breeches’ fabric, test by sponging a dilution of the cleaner in water in an inconspicuous spot first.

WASHING: When washing lighter colors, set the washing machine for a small load on the permanent press cycle (warm water wash, cold water rinse). When washing darker colors, use the delicate cycle (cold water wash and rinse). Add the cleaning solution while the tub is filling with water. Put the conditioning dressing in your washing machine’s rinse cycle dispenser. The dressing also acts as a fabric softener but, unlike laundry fabric softeners, the dressing leaves no waxy residue sitting on top of the leather. It is designed to absorb deep into the leather’s corium to keep it soft and supple. Add the breeches when the tub is full.

DRYING: Remove the damp breeches and hang them or lay them flat to air dry away from heat or direct sun which can shrink leather fibers. If your washing machine does not have a separate rinse cycle dispenser and you don’t want to hang around the laundry room to add the conditioner when the rinse cycle starts, you can sponge the dressing onto the damp leather before you leave it to dry.

While new products now make washing leather-trimmed breeches a breeze, washing leather fashion garments still carries some risk. Breeches are designed to be hard working garments that can take a pounding in the saddle or in the machine. Washing machine agitators can be tough on leather fashion garments, however. Their lightweight linings may tear along seam lines like a piece of perforated paper where they meet the much stronger leather. Fancy buttons and trims are also more easily damaged.

So, machine washing every leather garment you own may not be possible. But who’s complaining, now that riders can throw grungy, hard-working leathers like chaps, half chaps, and sheepskin saddle pads in their washing machine and pull them out cleaned, softened and suppled.

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