Have you ever wondered what your shoes (or boots) are made of?  I mean all the parts of your shoe:  the top part you see, the inside part that your foot rests on, the part that meets the ground?

Many of my customers are interested in buying footwear that is sustainable. That is, they’d like to invest in footwear that, with proper care and upkeep, will last for many years. MooBuzz is a part of proper care and upkeep, but the goal of this article is to do more than just sell product. I’d like to help you figure out what type of materials to look for if you want to take sustainability into consideration when you make a footwear purchase.

As a cobbler I have a few reasons to be concerned about what your shoes are made of. Primarily, I need to understand the materials I’m working with so that I can determine whether your shoes can be repaired and, if so, how best to repair them. Secondly, I want to know what your shoes are made of so that I can make them look their best when I clean and polish them before giving them back to you.  I’m also concerned about what your shoes are made of because I’d like them to be around for a long time before they end up in a landfill.

In my view, footwear sustainability has two parts: what shoes are made of and how they are made. This article gives the basics on how to figure out what your shoes are made of.  In Part 2: How are my shoes made? we talk about how materials and construction methods combine to make shoes more or less sustainable.

Materials:

The materials your shoes are made of will affect a number of things. Principal among them are:

  • How they look
  • How they feel
  • How they wear (how long they’ll last)

It’s best to focus your attention on four major areas:

  1. The upper – the exterior portion of your footwear that is not the sole. In my experience, sometimes the shaft of a boot is not included in this definition and may be a different material.
  2. The lining – this is the part of the shoe that is on the inside of the upper. It touches your skin (or your socks).
  3. The welt – this is the part of a shoe that holds the upper to the sole. Not all shoes have a welt.
  4. The sole – this is the part of the shoe that touches the ground.

Sometimes manufacturers will give you information about the insole and/or the sock lining in addition to the four areas listed above. Today the terms insole and sock lining are used almost interchangeably and refer to the material inside of the shoe that is directly beneath your foot (your foot rests on it).  Many shoes have removable insoles/sock linings. In some footwear the insole is fixed in place.

Where can you find out what your shoes are made of? It could be in one of the following places:

  • On the shoe box, if you have it.
  • On the bottom of the shoe. Typically shoes that are all leather will have a symbol or wording indicating such on the waist of the shoe-that is, under the arch on the outside of the sole. On some shoes a sticker on the bottom will list the materials.
  • On the inside of the shoe, either on the lateral side near the heel counter or under the tongue. Sometimes, when there isn’t much room at the sides, the materials will be listed inside towards the front of the shoe. You might have to look really hard. Sometimes it’s under the tongue of the shoe and barely visible.
  • On the manufacturer’s website. This can be difficult if the shoes are no longer made, but you can get a general idea of what kinds of materials that manufacturer tends to use. Sometimes you’ll find this information in the “Details” section of the manufacturer’s online description.

Material information is noted in one of two ways – it’s either written out in words or indicated by some standard symbols.

If it’s written out in words it may be on a sticker or label inside the shoe that says something like, “Leather Upper Balance Man-made.” This means that everything other than the upper is made of man-made materials. That includes the lining, insole, and outer sole. Or the label might say “All Man-made Materials.” Wording is fairly straightforward. Not incredibly detailed, but understandable.

The symbols, on the other hand, can be a bit cryptic. Typically they appear in a two-column table with a symbol indicating the part of the shoe on the left and the material on the right. Below the symbols may be some information about style, size, and country of origin.

Example:
Shoe parts symbols - outer sole, insole, upper and shoe lining
Symbols of shoe materials - textile, leather, and other

What does it all mean?

Leather: An animal skin that has been preserved and prepared for use by a chemical treatment called tanning. This can be anything from full-grain leather to a thin suede split. (A useful guide to types of leather)

Textile: A fabric-knit, woven, or nonwoven (e.g., felt)-made with either natural or synthetic materials.

Other Materials: Could be anything, typically man-made and typically not leather.

Soles can be made of a number of different materials. Here are some abbreviations you may encounter:

PU or PUR: Polyurethane

TR or TPR: Thermoplastic Rubber

EVA: Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (also called ‘crepe’)

Now that you know what your shoes are made of, here are some tips on care:

Shoe and Boot Care:

Unless your shoes or boots are brand new, always clean them before treating them with a polish, waterproofer , or other product.

MooBuzz is made for use on smooth leather. If you have a suede or textile shoe you will need to use a water and stain protector (often a spray or dauber-type application) specifically formulated for those materials. Many man-made materials don’t need waterproofing.

If your label says leather, try MooBuzz in an inconspicuous area to see if you like the results. (MooBuzz may darken light-colored leather.) If you like it, treat your whole shoe or boot.

Exceptions: Suede and Nubuck

MooBuzz isn’t intended for use on suede.

Nubuck is leather, similar to suede but the nap is on the grain side. Because the nap is on the grain side, Nubuck is not as fuzzy as suede and can be made to look similar to smooth leather by applying MooBuzz. The result is darker, smoother-looking leather. Over time the Nubuck may go back to its original appearance, but the change can be drastic so be sure before you MooBuzz your Nubuck. Putting MooBuzz on your Nubuck footwear will ensure that it’s conditioned and waterproof and may make it easier to care for in the long run.

Recap – care of shoes and boots:

Smooth Leather – MooBuzz (Try it on an inconspicuous area to see if you like how it looks.)

Nubuck – Maybe MooBuzz (MooBuzz will make Nubuck leather look like smooth leather. Try it on an inconspicuous area to see if you like how it looks.)

Suede or Textile – Use a silicone-free water and stain protector made for suede and/or textiles.

Man-made Materials – Wipe with damp cloth.

@featured image credit

Featured image photographic image in this illustration is a derivative of Factory  by Daniel Mee, used under CC BY.

Several years ago a customer of mine brought her entire class of second grade students to my shop to learn about leather and how shoes are made and repaired. My assistant and I were a bit concerned that some of the students might become “emotional” when they found out where leather actually comes from. I began my presentation by asking the kids if they’d ever seen leather and if they knew where it comes from. It turned out that not a single student knew where leather came from. Some brave students guessed that leather was a plant, some thought it was fabric, and most had no idea. Some of them looked a little confused when I explained leather’s origins. Although none of them became “emotional” during their trip to the shop, I imagine there may have been some interesting dinner-time conversations at home that evening.

I assume you know what leather is and where it comes from. You might be surprised, however, by what passes for “leather” these days. This Glossary is not an all-inclusive list of types of leather and their relative properties. Rather, like a field guide, it gives you some basic information to help you quickly determine what your footwear and accessories might be made of, why they look they way they look, and to help you figure out how to care for them.

If some information in this Glossary sparks an interest in you – great! Leather is truly an amazing material. You can find tons of information online. If you’re really interested, peruse the websites of companies that actually make leather (e.g., Horween, Hermann Oak Leather®). If you want, you can dive really deep to learn more about the characteristics and uses of leather and its cultural significance throughout time.

I hope that with this guide I can, in some small way, pay homage to the creatures that “give it up” to allow us to have this amazing material, to the people who figured out how to tan it, and to the artisans who make beautiful products and continue a centuries-old craft.

Glossary

Leather: an animal hide (skin) that has been preserved and prepared for use by a chemical treatment called tanning. The majority of leather goods we encounter in the United States are made from cowhide, but leather can be made from any animal with skin (including pig, deer, moose, elk, buffalo, horse, goat, lizard, crocodile, alligator, sheep, kid, lamb, snake, etc.).

Most leather we encounter today is tanned using one of two primary methods: Vegetable Tanning and Chrome Tanning. This is over-simplified, but you know, field guide.

Leather example: vegetable tanned leather

vegetable tanned

Vegetable Tanned Leather: As its name implies, the vegetable tanning process uses various materials derived from tree bark and other vegetable matter to tan the leather. The “tannins” naturally occurring in tree bark and other vegetable matter gives the process of “tanning” its name even though many modern tanning processes do not employ vegetable matter.

This leather is stiff and firm. It can be molded with heat and moisture and will hold its shape. Typically used for items such as saddles, bridles, harness parts, stirrups, straps, belts, shoes, boots, knife sheaths, structured bags and cases among many other items. This type of leather will usually require a “breaking in” period. It uniformly absorbs dyes and responds wonderfully to oils and waxes. It can be embossed and tooled or “stamped.”

Chrome Tanned Leather: The chrome tanning process uses soluble chromium salts to tan the leather.

This type of leather is durable, soft and supple. It can be dyed in an almost infinite variety of colors and will produce uniform and consistent color throughout the hide. Chrome tanned leather is used for garments, upholstery, purses, pouches, bags, moccasins, and many, many other products.

The different tanning methods produce leathers with different properties. In an attempt to produce leather with a wide variety of desirable attributes, leather manufacturers create combination tanned leathers, sort of “hybrid” leathers, that have the properties of both vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather. Several types of leather use a multi-step process to produce leather with specific characteristics.

Veg Chrome Retanned: This is hide that has been vegetable tanned and then re-tanned with chromium salts. The resulting leather is firm and tough yet flexible.

Chrome Veg Retanned: This is hide that has been chrome tanned and then re-tanned using the vegetable tanning method. The resulting leather is soft and pliable with good strength and toughness.

Chrome Oil Tanned: This is hide that has been chrome tanned and then packed with oils to produce a water and stain resistant leather.

Leather comes in different “grades.”

Full Grain Leather: A tanned hide, with the hair removed, whose surface, i.e., top layer, has not been buffed or otherwise corrected. This leather can be vegetable tanned or chrome tanned and can come in a wide variety of thicknesses. This is top notch leather and will hold up to wear and will age very well.

Top Grain Leather: A tanned hide that has had blemishes (barbed wire scratches, stretch marks, etc.) removed by sanding and resurfacing. It can be chrome or vegetable tanned. This leather can be tough but will not age well because the surface of the leather has been damaged.

Genuine Leather: A tanned hide which has had the top grain split off (see also “split”, below) and then a new surface created. Sometimes a finish will be applied to, or embossed on, the surface to make the split look like full grain leather. Can be chrome or vegetable tanned. If used for shoes soles this leather will act as a sponge and will not last very long.

Split: a tanned hide that has had the grain removed or “split” off. Much of the “suede” used in footwear and accessories has had the top grain removed resulting in a thin, weak, leather that looks like suede on both sides. Can be chrome or vegetable tanned.

Suede: a tanned animal hide with the flesh side (not the grain side) buffed to a nap. True suede will have a smooth or “full grain” leather on one side. Usually chrome tanned.

Nubuck: a tanned animal hide which has been buffed to a nap on the top grain side with oil to produce a matte, suede-like appearance. Nubuck typically does not have as full a nap as suede and can be “burnished” and made to look like smooth leather with wear or with the application of oil and wax. Chrome tanned.

Pull-up Leather: This is leather that has been combination tanned (chrome and vegetable) and then packed with greases, oils and waxes. When the leather is bent or pulled the oils and waxes temporarily move away from the crease in the leather and create variations in color. It can have a sort of “rough hewn” appearance with surface scratches appearing quite easily. Because of the high oil content in the leather these scratches can be buffed out with little trouble.

Chromexcel® Leather: Chromexcel is an excellent example of ‘pull-up” leather. It’s a combination tanned leather and is made only by Horween Leather Co. in Chicago. They have been making excellent leathers since the early 1900s. Here is an excellent explanation of the process Horween Leather Co. uses to make Chromexel and written by Nick Horween.

Shell Cordovan: This is leather made from the flat muscle (or shell) that is found just under the skin on the rump of a horse (or any equine, actually). It has amazing resistance to creasing because it does not really have a “grain” and will develop amazing patina over time. Items made from shell cordovan (shoes, belts, wallets, watch bands) will last multiple lifetimes with proper care. The supply of shell cordovan is very limited and the tanning process labor intensive. This makes shell cordovan some of the most expensive leather in the world and well worth the price. In addition to its Chromexcel® , Horween Leather Co. in Chicago has been making shell cordovan since 1905.

Christian Louboutin patent black toe shoe

patent leather

Patent Leather: Leather that has been highly finished with a deep lustrous, almost enamel, appearance. It can be chrome or vegetable tanned. Although true patent leather can still be found, much of the “patent leather” footwear made today is vinyl.

Embossed Leather: Usually a “split” leather to which a surface has been applied or a blemished hide that has been sanded and embossed to look either like Full Grain leather or an exotic hide such as alligator, ostrich, etc. Typically lacks the strength and durability of Full Grain or even Top Grain leather.

Coated Leather: This is usually split-hide leather that has been coated with another material, usually polyurethane. It is a way for manufacturers to use substandard leather and make it look like leather and get a higher price than if it were a completely man-made material.

Bonded Leather: Sometimes called “reconstituted” leather, it is a manufactured material including some proportion of shredded leather bonded to polyurethane and embossed or painted to look like leather. It is sometimes also just called vinyl. This material is used to make upholstered furniture, shoes, bags, purses and many other products.

Here is the schedule we share with our customers to ensure that the shoes they want to wear are ready when they want to wear them.

Since we’re in Wisconsin where we experience all four seasons we have divided this checklist into Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Going over your shoes and accessories before the season begins ensures that they’ll be ready when you reach for them.

Get ready for summer in spring. Prepare for autumn in summer

Get Ready for Summer in March, April, and May

Check over summer shoes and sandals.

  • Cleaning/conditioning
  • Heels/soles
  • Elastic/buckles/Velcro

Birkenstocks! Hiking Boots!

Take anything that needs repair to your local cobbler in March to make sure that it will be ready when summer rolls around.

Clean, condition, and waterproof your shoes and sandals as needed.

Check on your outdoor gear, too.

Prepare for Autumn in June, July, and August

Check over fall shoes and boots.

  • Cleaning/conditioning
  • Heels/soles
  • Elastic/buckles/Velcro
  • Zippers

Take anything that needs repair to your local cobbler in June to make sure you’re ready when the leaves turn. Fall tends to be one of the busiest times for cobblers and rush jobs may not be possible.

Clean, condition, and waterproof your shoes and boots as needed.

Check over book and lunch bags for back to school season.


Brace for winter in autumn. Think spring in winter.

Brace for Winter in September, October, and November

Check over winter boots and parkas.

  • Cleaning/conditioning
  • Waterproofing
  • Grippy soles
  • Zippers

Take anything that needs repair to your local cobbler in September to make sure that it will be ready when the snow starts flying.

Be sure to apply waterproofer!

Think Spring in December, January, and February

Check over spring shoes and rain jackets.

  • Cleaning/conditioning
  • Waterproofing
  • Heels/soles
  • Zippers

Take anything that needs repair to your local cobbler in December to make sure that it will be ready for the thaw.

Spring can get soggy. No time for holes in your soles.

Keep an eye on everyday things like work shoes and bags to make sure you catch damage before it gets really bad. It helps if you don’t have to bring in all of your shoes for repair at once.

It’s good to get in the habit of taking items in for repair as soon as possible. It’s easy to forget the damage only to find your favorite things unusable just when you need them.

Or at least until you’re sick of them.

(The following instructions are for smoother leather only, not for suede or Nubuck.)

how to clean boot graphic

Best Practice!
Before MooBuzzing, remove laces and gently brush dirt & grit from your leather shoes or boots.

Clean

Starting with clean, dry boots is key. Rubbing dirt and grime into your leather is bad.  Remove the laces if you want – we usually do. That way you can be sure no grit remains under the laces and you can get MooBuzz under there.

Even if your boots are brand new it’s important to wipe them down with a soft cloth to remove any dust or grit.

If you’re boots aren’t so new – just wipe them down with a clean damp cloth.

If they’re filthy – brush off as much of the dirt as possible before you wash them. Make sure to get in the nooks and crannies like between the upper and the welt and down under the lace stays if your boots lace up.

Got as much dirt off as possible? Good. Now you’re ready to wash.

I recommend washing your boots with a saddle soap or other mild cleaner. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Never submerge your boots in water while cleaning – always bring the water up to the boots. We do this with a soft, natural bristle brush.

soaking in a tub - no, tub holding water to apply to boot with sponge? - yes!

Best Practice!
Never submerge your leather. Always bring water to boot or shoes with a brush or cloth.

Dry

Whether you’ve just finished washing your boots or you got caught in the rain – allow your boots to dry thoroughly. Pat them down with an old towel if they are dripping wet.

Leather drying rules to follow: lots of air, no heat.

Don’t put wet leather near a fire or in an oven to dry. Heat causes excessive dryness which leads to cracking. Heat can also loosen adhesives and shrink some types of soling. Water combined with extreme heat can cause permanent shrinkage and hardening.

fan - yes, campfire, no

Best Practice!
Using lots of air to dry your leather is good. Do not put boots or shoes in an oven or near fire or heat.

Worst case – think boiled leather armor.

Patience is key.

** If you’ve cleaned your boots and they dry with a crystalline white line or ‘halo’ around the bottom, you may need to remove salt stains from your leather.

New boots need waterproofing - apply in circular motion

Best Practice!
Massage MooBuzz into your leather using a circular motion.

Condition and Waterproof

If you’re going to use a glove or a cloth, get that ready. Bare hands – also ok.

Grab your tin of MooBuzz and twist off the top. Scoop out a small amount and massage it into your boots using a circular motion. Repeat until you have covered the entire boot. Pay special attention to the seams and welt. MooBuzz your stacked leather heel or heel wrap and even the edge of your leather sole.

Let the MooBuzz soak into the leather for at least 20 minutes and wipe off any excess.

If you see any white haze – especially in tight spots like seams – don’t worry. That’s just a little excess MooBuzz. It will disappear in the final rubdown.

Finishing Touches

Give your boots a final buffing with a horse hair brush or a clean, soft cloth for a beautiful hand rubbed finish.

Replace your laces.

Your boots are protected. Get on with your life.

Before you apply MooBuzz…

Make sure your leather is clean and dry.  See our Blog Post:  “Condition and Waterproof to Make your Leather Boots and Shoes Last Forever”  for instructions on how to clean your shoes and boots.

Rubbing anything into the grit of dirty leather is just like rubbing your leather with sandpaper.

Not. Good.

how to clean boot graphic

Best Practice!
Before MooBuzzing, remove laces and gently brush dirt & grit from your leather shoes or boots.

Once your leather is dry and free of grit…

Apply MooBuzz using your hands or a soft cloth.

If you have sensitive skin you may want to use latex or nitrile gloves. In fact, just wearing gloves works great and more MooBuzz gets directly into your leather instead of being absorbed by your skin or a cloth.

Whether you use your hands, gloves, or a cloth, massage MooBuzz into the leather using a circular motion. The warmth of your hands and the friction of rubbing will melt the oil and wax mixture and help it move into the leather.

Less is more here:

New boots need waterproofing - apply in circular motion

Best Practice!
Massage MooBuzz into your leather using a circular motion.

You are not frosting a cake. Several thin coats are better than one thick coat.

(We mention this because some of our loved ones treat MooBuzzing like frosting a cake.  It just wastes precious MooBuzz. )

Buzzed.

Allow MooBuzz to absorb into the leather for at least 20 minutes.

Wipe off any excess.

Give your leather a final buffing with a clean, soft cloth for a beautiful hand-rubbed look.

Love your leather. Show it off.

Is all Neatsfoot Oil the same?

No.

There are two kinds of Neatsfoot Oil you are likely to encounter.

1 Neatsfoot Oil Compound

Often called Prime Neatsfoot Oil Compound or just Prime Neatsfoot Oil.

These products rarely list their ingredients.

Neatsfoot Oil Compound contains other ingredients to extend the oil. These additives may include petroleum derivatives or synthetic oils.

The added oils can cause leather to become brittle as it ages and may cause stitching to decay.

Petroleum additives can break down the glue bond on many types of footwear.

Another drawback is the vaguely chemical smell left on your leather and your hands after using one of these products.

closed tin made with 100% neatsfoot oil no petroleum

2Pure Neatsfoot Oil

No additives.

Pure Neatsfoot Oil is non-drying and will not cause leather to become brittle.

MooBuzz is made with 100% PURE Neatsfoot Oil.

Love your leather. Don’t use petroleum additives or artificial oils.

 

Why will you love MooBuzz?

Because you love your leather.

MooBuzz Conditions: restores moisture, leaving leather smooth and supple.

MooBuzz Waterproofs: protects from water and salt, preventing stains and scars.

Adding Neatsfoot Oil to Beeswax creates a paste that melts at the temperature of your body – making it great for applying by hand.

Put this stuff on your leather – it’ll give your moo a great buzz.
dreamy sketchy drawing of a cow with bee wings MooBuzz that's us

What’s a MooBuzz anyway?

A MooBuzz is a magical creature; part cow, part bee…

Just kidding.

Kind of.

MooBuzz is an all-natural, conditioner and waterproofer for smooth leather.

Made with just two ingredients:

Neatsfoot Oil (which comes from cows)

Beeswax (which comes from, yes, bees)

Our recipe contains no toxic chemicals which means it’s safe for you, your leather, and the environment.

Neatsfoot Oil (Moo) + Beeswax (Buzz) = MooBuzz

MooBuzz makes it easy to love your leather.

Okay, what’s a Neatsfoot?

“Neat” is an Old English word for domesticated cattle. Neatsfoot Oil is derived from the shin bones and feet of cattle.

100% neatsfoot oil is the best and that's what is in MooBuzz
We use only 100% pure Neatsfoot Oil to make MooBuzz.

Pure Neatsfoot Oil is pretty cool stuff. Unlike most animal fats, it is liquid at room temperature. This property allows Neatsfoot Oil to deeply penetrate leather fibers to soften and preserve. And, Neatsfoot Oil doesn’t stiffen up when the temperature plummets.

Bonus: Pure Neatsfoot Oil is non-drying and will not cause leather to become brittle.

Why use Beeswax?

It does not dissolve in water and remains very plastic at low temperatures. In fact, it is much more plastic than most plant waxes at similar temperatures.

These characteristics allow Beeswax to stay pliable when applied to leather and then subjected to cold and wet conditions.

It’s an amazing natural material.

Love your leather. Use MooBuzz.