Washed leather is one of the fashion world's favorite new materials, while Napa -- also called Nappa -- leather is an old standby that is still going strong. Napa leather is created via a special process of tanning and dyeing that results in a soft, smooth and pliable product with superb depth of color. Washed leather refers to a leather finish that imparts a lived-in and relaxed look. Washed finishes can be applied to many different types of leather including Napa leather. Therefore, it is possible to buy a handbag or jacket made out of Napa leather with a washed finish -- the result of both processes.
The popularity of denim clothing with special washes paved the way for a similar leather product. Both clothing and home accessories designers were eager to use leathers that impart a hip, weathered look. Celebrities embraced the style and the public followed. Designers have a wide choice of leathers with washed finishes including Napa leather, aniline dyed leather and untanned vachetta leather. The two primary washes are a water-based dye wash and a water-and-acid wash, which can be used singly or in succession. The result is an unusually soft finish with some of the color standing out and the rest a bit darker at the edges and margins of the garment. Washed leather finishes should be professionally leather cleaned.
The story of Napa leather is part of the history of the American West. As railroads connected Western towns, sheep and cattle were shipped to stockyards in Napa, California. Tanneries opened to process the resulting hides. In the late 1800s, the Sawyer tannery developed a special process using chromium salts and aluminum sulfate to tan unsplit lamb and sheepskin hides. The skins were dyed in large, spinning vats called drums. The process lasted several hours, resulting in deep, rich color. Napa leather used to refer only to tanned sheep and lamb hides and was originally used for gloves. Today cow, pig, goat and kid hides are also processed as Napa leather. Today Napa leather is used for clothing, accessories, home furnishings and upholstery for luxury automobiles.
Washed leather is sometimes confused with the new washable leathers. Washed leather refers only to the look of the garment. Washable leather, on the other hand, can be immersed in water and be hand or machine washed. One of the ways leather is made washable involves infusing the middle layer of leather hides with water repellent oils and wax emulsions. As the leather is washed, surface dirt is removed without the inner portion of the leather becoming damp or damaged.
Designers always are looking for new types of leather to add interest and longer life to their creations. Processes being developed today by leather and chemical companies may soon lead to reliably waterproof leather rain wear. One such process by DuPont, called Hydrology makes leather that is stain resistant, washable and able to shed moisture for up to four hours. Perhaps a Napa leather waterproof raincoat with a washed finished will be the next breakthrough product.