Suede vs. Alcantara. How do they differ, and why are they so hard to keep clean?
They’re both soft, luxurious materials that have garnered popularity in the automotive world over the years. If you’ve owned a car with suede (likely Alcantara), you’ll know that the material can be a little high maintenance when it comes to cleanliness. And while the soft, supple feel of suede may lead you to believe it is delicate, it is, in reality, actually quite robust.
First off, suede or Alcantara. What are they and what makes them different?
Let’s start with the natural option; suede. Suede is a variation of leather that is very porous & breathable. You’re probably very familiar with suede, but if you’re not, it provides a soft, fuzzy, & napped textured surface. Some even liken it to peach fuzz. It’s flexible as well as pliable, but it is also very readily absorbent.
Alcantara is a brand name of a suede-like, synthetic alternative (other versions of synthetic suede exist, namely microsuede or ultrasuede). It shares many of the same characteristics of natural suede, but rather than coming from a cow hide, Alcantara is made from a blend of polyester and polyamide (the same materials that make up microfiber towels).
The two are very similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Both are used in various applications which include furniture, clothing, footwear, electronics and maybe most commonly automobiles. Because it is less expensive, Alcantara is typically used more readily. Alcantara also boasts claims of being flame retardant. This characteristic allows the material to be used in places like the seats of Formula One race cars and even SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules that transport astronauts in outer space.
Whether it’s the natural or synthetic version, suede materials pose some pretty distinct downsides. The most obvious being their tendency to absorb substances that they come in contact with. In the example of car interiors, Alcantara is very prone absorbing the oils from your hands & skin. When this happens, the small fibers that make up the soft, velvety texture become matted and begin to lay flat. Stains appear and the surface quickly begins to lose its original luster. The material can get so saturated with dirt & grime that the suede surface begins to have a greasy or oily feel to it. This is the point where the material begins to really lose its favor when in comparison with alternatives like traditional leather.
For years countless race cars have utilized suede or Alcantara steering wheels for their enhanced grip, but because they soak up oil so easily, it is almost sacrilege to place hands on a suede steering wheel without a pair of gloves on. But these days the material isn’t just holding its keep on the race track. We’re seeing it being included direct from the manufacturer in numerous makes & models of cars as well as trucks. And while it gets dirty easily, the upside here is that it’s also easy to clean. In today’s blog post, we’ll cover the basic steps we use around the garage for cleaning & maintaining our suede or Alcantara.
Enter the 2017 Ford GT. While it’s not exactly the most common car, Jay’s is spec’d with a steering wheel that is wrapped in, you guessed it, Alcantara. And as you can see from the pictures below, it’s a prime candidate to help us illustrate the steps required for restoring the natural look & feel of the suede-like material.
As you can see in the picture above, the fibers have been pretty matted down in the thumb wells, and there’s a couple of light stains. With just a couple basic detailing tools, we’re going to have this back to new in no time.
First, here’s the items you’ll want to get the job done right:
- A quality cleaning solution made specifically for fabrics
- A detailing brush with slightly stiff bristles (we chose a boars hair bristled brush)
- A few clean microfiber towels
We’re going to rely on our Fabric Clean solution to help do the heavy lifting here. A couple of light sprays directly on the area to be cleaned will do the trick. After allowing a few seconds for Fabric Clean to begin to break down the oils and embedded dirt, we sprayed the bristles on the boars hair brush and began lightly scrubbing the steering wheel surface in small, circular motions.
After agitating for 20-30 seconds with the brush, we took a clean microfiber towel and blotted up the froth that is lifting and pulling the dirt out of the fibers. The swirling motion is also helping to separate the individual fibers so they stand back up and provide the soft feel we're accustomed to.
Repeat this process in all of the effected areas. We’re working on a steering wheel today, but it’s not uncommon to find suede or Alcantara on arm rests, seats and even head liners. Regardless of where it is, the same process can be used to clean dirty sections.
Once the oils, stains, dirt & other grime are all removed, you’ll want to give the freshly cleaned area some time to dry out. We used a dry microfiber towel to absorb any excess liquid and also fluff the fibers. To help the drying process speed up a bit, we used a few blasts of compressed air.
In just a few minutes time, the wheel was back to looking and feeling brand new!
As you can see, the process of cleaning Alcantara really isn’t all that hard. It’s a little more work when compared to other materials like leather, plastic or rubber. But a little extra work goes a long way to keeping it clean and enjoyable for many drives to come!
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