Ultrasuede is a trade name, like Spandex, but like Spandex and Kleenex and Coke it’s passed into the vernacular and it’s used to describe any fabric that looks like suede.
For the moment, let’s stick to the trademarked product, Ultrasuede.
It was created in the 1970s out of a veritable chemical stew. It indeed looks like suede. It’s used for garments in place of animal hide, and has upholstery applications too. You’ll sometimes find the upholstery version under the name Alcantara, which is specifically for car upholstery and, by the way, it’s fandom’s best-guess at what the Tenth Doctor’s trenchcoat is made out of but no-one knows for sure as the costumer has said that’s one secret she’s taking with her to her grave. (Imagine me shaking my tiny fist at the heavens as you read that…)
Anyways. Ultrasuede has the same brushed finish as suede, but it’s cheaper than animal hide and easier to clean. Some newer ultrasuedes are machine washable but I had a pair of pants made from that fabric and the nap got kind of crushed and shiny after three or four washes, so I’d take it to the dry cleaners, regardless.
Unless your faux suede is specifically described as being okay to toss in the dryer, don’t do it! Even dryer-friendly ultrasuede should be pulled out while still damp – over-drying it will shorten the fabric’s life.
Ultrasuede comes in three varieties: Elite, which is heavy and crisp; Soft, which is medium weight and Light, which is the lightest of the three.
Ultrasuede can be hot and heavy to wear, and despite being cheaper than animal suede it’s pretty expensive – around $70 a yard. Part of what you’re paying for is the convenience of not having to deal with the challenges of animal hides and the rest of it is the fact that it’s a patented fabric and so it’s the only source of that particular formula.
There are other fabrics out there that mimic suede with varying degrees of success. There’s an upholstery fabric sold under the name “passion suede” which I’ve used for a Tenth Doctor cosplay pretty well. I like it in that it has the weight and napped finish of ultrasuede, but you can find it for as little as $10 a yard. Look for it in the upholstery section.
There’s also doe suede or cuddle suede, which as the name suggests, is softer and lighter in weight than Ultrasuede or passion suede. It looks more fabric-like than the other options I’ve mentioned, and the fuzz feels softer underhand. At around $9 a yard, it’s an economical option, but no-one is going to look at it and think it’s really suede unless you’re on stage or otherwise removed from your audience – a case of using the thirty-foot-rule rather than the ten-foot-rule.
I’ve also seen microsuede for $8 a yard. The nap on it is very short and the stuff is lightweight. If you were to flat line it, it might work out for you. I think it’s too light, otherwise.
When cutting out a pattern, use the “with nap” layout, of course. A rotary cutter and mat is the easiest way to cut faux suede, but scissors are fine, too.
Ultrasuede, Alcantra and passion suede should all be dry cleaned. Some doe suedes and minky suedes can go through a warm wash and a low-temperature dryer – read the directions on the end of the bolt when you buy it. Some seamsters suggest pre-washing faux-suede four or five times before cutting, as that will give it a very soft hand. By all means, try that on a swatch and see how you like it.
If you have to iron faux-suede, use a press cloth and a medium-warm iron. But try to avoid pressing it as you risk crushing the nap. If you need to get creases out, use a garment steamer.
Generally, faux-suedes are easy to cut – they won’t unravel – and can be sewn with a denim or regular needle. Use a denim needle on Ultrasuede and passion suede, and a universal needle on doe-suede and cuddle-suede. Polyester thread is best for this fabric, and you’ll want to use a Teflon foot or a walking foot when sewing it, as the texture can make it a little “grabby” and you don’t want it getting stuck.