Thrifting 101, Part 10: Cleaning vintage leather

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.)


  1. Whoa, nice job!! I'm seriously impressed. I'm SO ready to go thrifting with you. :)

    PS: Don't even get me started on the Lifetime Movie of the Week thing. I had a dream involving MJH, J Love, a bottle of vodka and a bunch of dashed dreams. Needless to say, I woke up thinking of you. Hahahaha....

  2. My mom always used wadded up newspaper to remove odors. She had put grape bubblegum in a Tupperware container and the plastic totally absorbed the smell. A couple of days with newspaper in there and the smell was all gone.

  3. Great post! I no longer buy leather though, but the remaining leather items I have are cleaned dilligently.
    Any advice on how to deal with suede?

  4. I love this tip, it really brings leather back to life, just like lotion on dry skin!! And nice score on the coach satchel, they are really made to last!!

  5. Wow, great find! Hope you get that smell out. I was LOLing at y'all Twitter convo re: vodka yesterday. Funny stuff!

  6. Holy crap, you are my idol!! One of the reasons I stay away from thrifting (other than worried that someone died wearing that item of clothing) is not knowing how to restore an item that hasn't been well cared for. Thanks for the tutorial!!

  7. Such a funny post, I loved it Elisa. I love how you turn this into a story about the person as well as the purse.

  8. I'm loving your blog, glad I found you. I'm going to give you a follow.

    Great tips on the leather cleaning. Those Coach bags are always about in my thrift stores, I've only ever bought an olive green one. Good job haggling. $10 is definitely a better price.

    Stacey Kay
    “Runway Inspiration, Vintage Decoration” {Promotional Video}
    Cleveland Free Press: Goodwill Huntingg Shopping Guides
    Blogger Spotlight: Girl with the Flower
    My Vintage Handbag Line

  9. OMG I love your little story about the bag's past life! You are a hoot and a half! I wish the vodka trick worked for your bag, though I mean if you were goon for the smokey boozy effect you'd be set! I think it might work better on fabrics and not leather, but I mean who are we kidding, it's probably best to save the vodka for drinking ;-)

    I also think either Meredith Baxter or Cybil Shepard need to take on the elderly boozy mother in our Lifetime Original Movie- it just wouldn't be right otherwise!

  10. WOW!!! I just found you via FierceFabFit via Twitter! This was a hilarious story!!! And you really worked the heck out of that bag. Coach or not, I think I would have left it right there, but I know next time buy it & send it to you to make it look FAB!!!


  11. As an thrift store shopper of vintage bags, I have found the same problems.
    Bag that I have been lucky to find in good shape: black coach station, lv bucket extra large, Dior shoulder, coach and db wallets. Today I found, a near mint small black coach station, black coach shoulder and a small blue coach kiss lock shoulder bag. Cost $22.00 for all

  12. Congrats on scoring your satchel. It's a beautiful bag despite the wear and odor. Glad you were able to rehabilitate it.

    I have a small Coach saddle bag my mom bought for me over 30 years ago. I haven't used it for a long time and it's collected a thick layer of dust sitting in my closet. Recently I thought it would be nice to start using it again and I'm so glad I found your post!

    I couldn't stop thinking about how my mom had a similar bag that she tried to clean with soap and water and she ruined her purse. She was so upset and I didn't want to make the same mistake.

    I also know I could bring it in to a leather care store but I was worried that they wouldn't understand the nature of the vintage Coach bags with untreated leather. They might apply a polish and ruin the leather patina.

    So thank you for some good, common sense, and proven approaches to cleaning my treasure. I'm going to give it a try in a couple weeks.

    BTW funny too that with all the designer brands now making bags similar to Coach, I still prefer the clean, minimalist vintage coach bags. They look great with everything and they really never go out of style.

  13. Love this post! I just bought a vintage Coach Willis bag and when I received the package in the mail, it too reeked of cigarette smoke. I look forward to using your tutorial to bring it back to life.

    And I certainly look forward to reading the rest of your blog!

  14. Can this be used on a leather skirt for cleaning?

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  18. Baking soda works well for odors on leather.... my cat peed on my boots and I used a paste of baking soda and water to deoderize them. Worked like a charm.

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  21. You deserve to be something special just for sharing what you do. Moreover...i am a longtime picker....thrift store junkie...and I found some old leather handbags and fantastic clothing at an estate sale and she was quite the smoker and stuff had been stored not very nice...but she had great stuff...and I have had it out in my garage because I have not had the time to figure out how to handle all the issues! I now know...THANK YOU!

  22. thank you, really easy to follow and understand your instructions (great product choices). my bag looks great.


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