Suede is leather with a smooth nap finish. It has a beautiful smooth and velvety texture, but is not as durable as traditional leather. It can be damaged when exposed to water and, once stained, can be difficult or even impossible to clean. Suede items need special cleaning implements and are expensive to maintain, but many people say it is worth it—simply because of its sophisticated look.
Leather is made from animal hide (often cows). The skin of the animal is tanned, though the process will vary to create different “grades” of leather. For example, full grain leather is not sanded or split. It only uses the highest quality of hide—with no imperfections or damage. This is very expensive but also very strong.
Other leather is split, or cut into two layers. The outer layer is called the grain split, while the inner layer is called the flesh split. If the leather is quite thick, it can generate middle splits, too.
The flesh split is often used to make suede. It is sanded down with an emery wheel, creating that soft texture. Sometimes, grain split can be processed into suede, but generally this is called “nubuck” and is quite expensive. Some suede is made from synthetic materials. This holds up better against water and stains and is generally preferred for furniture upholstery.
Suede can be used to make shoes and bags. These must be maintained with a special suede brush, which can flick off dust and dirt. Others recommend using a dry sponge. Since shoes tend to accumulate a lot of dirt and even (gasp!) mud, it is better to protect it with silicon spray.