This week I made an epic thrifting score. On my way out of a newly discovered thrift and vintage shop, I spied an ancient Coach satchel hanging on a shelf near the register. The asking price was twenty bucks, which I deemed astronomical considering how beat up the bag looked. On closer inspection, I saw the damage was far worse than I initially expected. Two dark stains were prominent on the back and bottom of the bag, a water stain embellished one of the bag's sides, and the entire thing was covered in dust and grime.
In addition, the bag smelled as if it'd spent it's life on the arm of a two pack-a-day smoker. I imagined the previous owner was named something like Tracy or Thelma, a woman who lived alone in a basement apartment with four cats and dined on TV dinners washed down with Pabst Blue Ribbon. This was a woman who listened to Dolly Parton and worked at a bowling alley. She was sassy, and wise-crackin', and wore Hanes sweatshirts decorated with puffy paint and rhinestones. Twenty-five years ago her boyfriend Hank surprised her with her very own Coach satchel for her birthday. I visualize this woman carrying the Coach during special events like casino night or bingo down at the Elk's Lounge, where it dangled from her arm while she took long luxurious drags from a cigarette. But all good things must come to an end, and eventually she and Hank broke up. No longer being able to stand memories of that miscreant, she pawned the bag for something really nice like a .38 revolver or electric rollers for her hair. And that's how it ended up at the thrift store. Or so I imagine.
I knew that with a little research on cleaning leather, and a lot of elbow grease, this Coach had potential. So I haggled the price down to $10 and walked it out of the store. As soon as I arrived home, I got to work.
Here's the bag before cleaning:
The first thing I did was remove the strap and wipe down the bag with a dry cloth to remove any loose dirt and dust.
Then I brought out products I purchased specifically for cleaning leather: Saddle soap, a dry white cloth, mink oil, three white cloths, and a pair of rubber gloves to protect my hands. I purchased all of these items at my local grocery store, though saddle soap is also available at most pet supply and equestrian shops.
I began by gently rubbing a generous amount of saddle soap with a cloth to the bag, moving in small circles. I repeated this process over the entire bag, paying extra attention to the grimiest parts - the bottom and handle.
When finished, I rubbed a dampened white cloth on the bag to rise off the saddle soap. (Failure to rinse the soap could cause the leather to become dry and cracked.) I repeated the entire process to remove as much dirt and grime as possible.
When I finished cleaning and rinsing, I rubbed the bag with a clean dry cloth to remove any lingering moisture. Then I hand-applied the mink oil, which is used to condition and make leather water-resistant. I used the same process as I did with the saddle soap - rubbing in small circular motions gently over the entire bag, paying extra attention to the seams, handle and bottom. Using my hands helped warm the oil, allowing it to penetrate further than if I'd used a cloth. When finished I gave the bag one final wipe to remove any extra mink oil and buffed it with the cloth to make the bag really shine. The entire process took forty-five minutes from start to finish.
Here's the finished product. The bag is lustrous, soft and gorgeous. And look at all that dirt left on the cloth - ewww.
As an extra step, beeswax can be used on the bag's hardware to polish and help zippers run smoothly. Cleaning and conditioning vintage leather should be done every six to nine months in order to prevent cracks and damage from drying out.
And the smell? Well, that proved to be far more challenging to remove. I sent out a tweet requesting advice for removing cigarette smoke from leather and received a number of suggestions. Erin of Work With What You've Got instructed me to air the bag outdoors in the sun for a few days, filling it with dryer sheets for good measure. Tina of T Minus, T Plus mentioned I put the bag in the freezer to kill the odor. Kate of Divergent Musings suggested I stuff it into a plastic bag with Odor Eaters. Juanette of Fashion Nette-Work voted that I spritz the interior with Febreeze, while Erica of The Put Together Girl recommended I spray the interior with vodka (which roused a pretty hilarious debate between Erin, Tina, Julie, and Juanette, who thought it sacrilege to waste perfectly good vodka on a bag.)
Initially, I went the vodka route. When finished, the bag smells like an alcoholic cigarette smoker. Then I did a bit of research and came upon a tip to stuff the bag with a tube sock filled with baking soda. Voila! Cigarette odor significantly vanquished.
Do you have a thrifted leather item you were wondering how to clean? Have these tips encouraged you to give it a shot? Got any further advice regarding cleaning vintage leather?
(Are you curious about the previous posts in my Thrifting 101 series? Up to this point, Thrifting 101 has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, and advice regarding thrift store etiquette.)