Roughout and suede: both fuzzy “reverse” leathers, but more than a little different from each other. So…different how? And how should you care for each?

Let’s break it down.

Let’s Fire it Up: What Is Roughout Leather?

With each piece of full grain leather (leather that hasn’t been split or thinned out in any way), there’s typically a smooth, finished side, also called the grain; this part was the animal’s epidermis, the outer layer of skin.

When you flip that leather over, you’ll see a rough, hairy texture (referred to as the nap). This was the part of the animal’s hide that connected to muscles and subcutaneous fat, known as the hypodermis; along with the dermis (the soft middle layer), this makes up the corium. When the leather is flipped over to expose this corium on footwear (or any other leather product), this is most commonly referred to as roughout leather, or sometimes reverse leather or fleshout leather.

leather hide cross section

Cross section of animal hide. Source

Okay, So What’s The Appeal of Roughout?

Roughout leather is utilized not because it’s somehow stronger or more water resistant than the grain side. Instead, the advantage of roughout is that it has a fairly static appearance, and doesn’t show wear quite as easily as smooth leather. Also it, uh, just looks cool. 

Whites Boots 350 Cruiser Distress Roughout8

White’s 350 Cruisers in Seidel Distress Roughout

How Do I Take Care of Roughout Leather?

Because roughout maintains its appearance quite well, there is honestly so much less need for routine care than with smooth/grain-side leathers. You can use something like a stiff bristle brush to scrape and scrub roughout leather to even out the look of the nap, or remove bits of dirt and dust if needed. The great thing about roughout is that it can go a lot longer (like, a really long time) before it needs any sort of conditioning. Roughout is a fantastic choice of leather for footwear like work boots, where a neglected appearance doesn’t matter as much (or is often even held as a point of pride).

red wing iron ranger 8083 hawthorne muleskinner

red wing iron ranger 8083 hawthorne muleskinner

SB Foot Hawthorne Muleskinner Roughout on Red Wing Iron Rangers, worn quite hard for about four years

So What’s Suede, Then? How’s it Different?

We’ve explained how roughout is simply the underside of a piece of leather, the corium that exists below the grain. When you alter that corium, either by buffing it or by splitting it away from the grain, you get suede. Suede is desirable for being a leather that also has a fuzzy nap, but with a more uniform appearance, and generally much shorter. This neater look makes it more desirable for a casual or semi-casual style of footwear or clothing.

Alright Then Are There Different Kinds of Suede? Whadaya Got??

There are a couple different kinds of suedes. Split suede is one that most people are likely familiar with. This is where the corium has been separated from the grain completely, creating a leather that is thin and semi-permeable. (Often, hides are split by tanneries to create multiple sides of leather; one or two split suede sides, along with a top grain leather side.)

viberg service boot sweet potato veg suede

Viberg Service Boot in Sweet Potato Veg Suede

While split suede is the industry standard, there’s also a high-end version with superior tensile strength and water resistance. With full grain suede (or full reverse suede), the corium is sanded or buffed slightly to achieve an even nap, and the grain layer is kept intact. It’s similar to roughout leather, but with an even nap and slightly less thickness. The best-known full grain suede is C.F. Stead’s Janus calf suede.

How Do I Take Care of My Suede?

So here’s the thing about suede: you CAN baby it—by keeping it from getting too much dirt and grime on it. Or you can just let it ride totally unchecked, which can end up looking pretty darn cool especially if you commit to not really caring about what happens to it—with that “damn, dirty suede is cool” effect heightened on a lighter colored suede, like snuff or even light tan/white.

alden roy boot—snuff suede—plain toe—trueblance

Alden Roy boots in CF Stead Snuff Suede. Three years wear, basically zero care.

Here’s another thing about suede: most suede, while not waterproof, is a lot more water resistant than plenty of people believe. More importantly, getting your suede rained on is almost definitely NOT going to ruin it (although that Seinfeld episode was quite good). Even a soaked suede pair of shoes or boots, properly dried out, will likely be more than fine.

One thing that will do some damage to suede is anything that’s especially oily or greasy—we wouldn’t recommend, say, rubbing a bunch of mayonnaise on your suede boots. But that’s true of plenty of leathers. The upside on suede vs smooth/grain-side leathers is that you can use a suede spray like Saphir Super Invulner to keep that oily stuff at least somewhat at bay—you just need to wipe it quick and cross your fingers.

Beyond that, the same basic care routine applies for suede as well as roughout. Using a stiff bristle suede brush can clean out dirt and even out the nap. For especially grungy-looking suedes, you can also use more intensive products like suede shampoo, although again, it’s not really going to remove truly oily spots.

How Do I Make Suede or Roughout More Water Resistant?

You can increase the water resistance of suede or roughout by applying something like the aforementioned waterproofing spray or a wax. This is something that the wearer can put on themselves, or oftentimes tanneries will give their leathers a finish of visible wax, or invisible waterproofing. Suede with a wax coat is simply referred to as waxed suede, whereas waxed roughout is often called waxed flesh

unmarked durango ranch mosto waxed suede

Unmarked Durango Ranch Boot in Mosto Waxed Suede

Engineer Boot Redwood Waxed Flesh

Wesco Engineer in Redwood Waxed Flesh

There you go—all the basics you need to know about roughout and suede!