With sewing leather being a critical skill in leathercraft, I always try to improve the look of my stitching. Recently, I have taken a closer look at all the parts that go into sewing leather, from the tools used to how to make the holes and stitching, each playing a significant role in the outcome.
Sewing leather is the process of connecting pieces of leather with thread. This strong bond can be achieved by hand sewing or using a machine. Tools required for hand sewing start at $20 and $400 for a machine. Working with thicker leathers may require more expensive tools.
Learning to sew leather will quickly expand your abilities in leathercraft. This article will cover the tools and techniques for sewing leather.
What Is Sewing Leather?
Sewing leather is a common technique used in leathercraft to create a semi-permanent bond between leather pieces. This can be done by hand with the use of hand tools, piercing pilot holes into leather for the needles to flow through. By hand sewing leather, the process is more cost-effective but is much slower than a sewing machine.
Sewing machines used for leather are another way to bond pieces together. However, the high initial investment cost of sewing machines makes them less accessible to hobbyists. Those who machine sew will find their production rate multiply, as most stitching can be done in a fraction of the time compared to hand sewing.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Sewing Leather
- Sewing Leather Overview Table
- Hand Sewing Leather
- Machine Sewing Leather
- The Best Leather Types for Sewing Leather
- Stitches for Sewing Leather
- Supplies for Sewing Leather
- How To Sew Leather Step by Step
- Tips for Sewing Leather
- My Personal Research Into Sewing Leather
- Helpful Sewing Leather Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
While technique often determines the final look of sewn leather, the supplies used will also play a significant role. The size of the needles used should be relative to the size of the holes. A needle that is too large for a hole may begin to stretch the leather and change the shape of the hole.
Similarly, thread size should also match the hole created. A thread that is too large will take up excess space, and it will be more difficult to achieve a slanted stitch. On the other hand, a thread too small will leave too much excess space, resulting in dark holes around the thread. Experimenting is key to finding the perfect supply combination for you.
History of Sewing Leather
The early history of sewing leather began in the stone age, when animal bones were pushed through lightly treated hides to create garments and other small items. These basic techniques quickly evolved as Ancient Egyptians developed modern sewing methods.
Their biggest innovation incorporates an eye to pull material through while sewing. In the middle ages, the increase in the value of sewn goods created a demand for seamstresses.
This boom in the industry led to innovation as skilled workers developed new stitching methods, including a cross, double, and baseball stitch. With the invention of the sewing machine in 1829 and its worldwide success, hand sewing has been largely replaced, with only hobbyists and dedicated artisans still choosing to hand-sew leather.
Sewing Leather Overview Table
|Stitching Chisels||Stitching chisels are the most popular hand tools for making holes in leather. They consist of a multipronged steel blade with even spacing, punching multiple holes at once. The shape of the hole is determined by the tip of the blade being pushed through the leather.|
|Pricking Irons||Similar to stitching chisels, pricking irons are a multipronged tool. However, this tool only marks where the holes will be made. Pricking irons are not designed to go through leather and may break when attempting to use them as stitching chisels.|
|Sewing Awl||Sewing awls are the most traditional way to sew leather. They are a fixed-blade tool pushed through the leather to create a single hole at a time. Sewing awls may have different-sized and shaped blades to produce various holes.|
|Heavy Duty Sewing Machine||Heavy-duty sewing machines are a step up from domestic sewing machines. They have stronger motors that often allow them to sew thicker materials such as leather. However, a heavy-duty sewing machine is not suited for multiple thick, firm leather layers.|
|Industrial Sewing Machine||Industrial sewing machines are created to sew almost any leather possible. They come in multiple arm shapes that may help when specializing in a leather product. Industrial machines are expensive but outperform other methods of sewing.|
Hand Sewing Leather
The majority of new crafters will start their journey by hand sewing. It is often the cheapest and most accessible way to sew leather, requiring minimal tools and no prior experience. Leather is a unique material that needs holes to be premade for needles to pass through. This will require a sewing awl or stitching chisel to create consistent small holes.
Once the holes have been made in the leather, two needles are attached to a single thread to saddle stitch the leather. Hand sewing may be slow, but the interlocking thread of a saddle stitch creates a more durable final product.
Machine Sewing Leather
While hand sewing is popular among crafters, those who expand their production often choose to use a sewing machine. Sewing machines are quicker, completing projects in a fraction of the time. While machine sewing costs more upfront, the saved time is often worth the investment.
However, not every sewing machine is capable of sewing leather. Its thickness, stiffness, and puncture resistance can easily jam home machines. Typically leather requires at least a heavy-duty machine for thin leather. Industrial machines are preferred, though, as they are made to pierce the thick material and can work with any leather.
In this in-depth video by Weaver Leather Supply, Chuck Dorsett covers how to use a leather sewing machine — providing tips on how to best set up the thread tension for leather.
The Best Leather Types for Sewing Leather
While every type of leather can be sewn, some qualities make some easier than others. A firm leather with a smooth surface will always be the easiest. These qualities allow easy hole punching and tight thread tension without causing bunching.
Typically this will be a vegetable tanned type of leather. Vegetable tanned leather becomes much stiffer throughout tanning than chromium tanned leather. However, all leather types have the potential to be good sewing leathers. Tanneries produce leathers differently, resulting in a wide array of hides. While uncommon, it is possible to find a stiffer chromium tanned hide that will be a great sewing option.
Stitches for Sewing Leather
When sewing leather, it’s important to use stitches that can handle the material’s thickness and durability. There are many ways to hand-sew leather, but three stitching methods stand out as the most popular: saddle, baseball, and cross stitch.
The saddle stitch is a sewing method that uses two needles to lock together stacked leather. With both needles on a single thread, the stitch interlocks itself, creating a slant and protecting the thread from unwinding when broken. For these reasons, saddle stitching has become the standard for handmade leather goods.
The baseball sewing method is used to wrap leather tightly against an object. Using two sets of holes to pass through, and two needles, the thread passes in a crossing over-under motion. This rolls the edge of the leather inwards while pulling together the leather to close the split completely. When pulled to tension, this pulls the leather downwards against the object, wrapping it tightly around.
A cross stitch in leather also uses two sets of holes, but its purpose is to sew leather together at their edges. Typically sewing requires materials to be stacked on one another to lock the pieces in place. With a cross stitch, the edges of the leather are brought together by wrapping thread around the hole.
Needles will pass to the parallel hole, then cross to the next empty one. Creating parallel sewing on one side and crosses on the other. When pulled to tension, the leather is pulled together at its edges. When machine sewing leather, it will create a locking stitch. The needle will pass through the leather with the thread, creating a loop.
While the needle is being pulled out, another thread is passed through the loop and pulled up into the material. This hooked part of the thread will sit between the material to not come undone. A locking stitch is fast and efficient but easily comes unwound when broken.
Supplies for Sewing Leather
The only supplies needed for sewing leather are thread, a tool to make holes, and needles. This keeps hand-sewing leather highly accessible for those not looking to spend much money. The tool used for making holes can be stitching chisels, an awl, or a hole punch.
Alternatively, foreign objects such as a nail can be used to create a crude hole for sewing. Once the holes are made, two needles are required to stitch the leather together. When using a sewing machine to sew leather, there are a few supplies aside from the machine itself. A leather needle is a great help for making holes more easily in the leather with the machine.
While optional, a roller foot is often a popular choice for leatherworkers. Leather can bunch up rather than slide through the machine requiring extra help. A sewing machine will also require a tough thread to hold leather together permanently. This will often be a polyester or nylon-based material.
Tools required for hand sewing start at $20 and $400 for a machine. Working with thicker leathers may require more expensive tools.
When hand sewing, leather harness needles are always the preferred choice. They are more durable, blunted at the tip, and have a smaller eye. These qualities are specially made for sewing leather, easily passing through the material while protecting the user from a needlessly pointed tip, as holes are pre-punched.
For sewing machines, there are also specialty needles to use for leather. The standard sharp point needle on sewing machines struggles to push through the leather. Instead, needles intended for leather have a spear shape to cut through the leather cleanly, resulting in a nicer final stitch.
Many different types of leather thread impact the look and durability of the sewn leather. The first leading choice is linen or polyester thread. Linen is a natural thread that provides a more traditional look but is overall weaker than its counterpart. A polyester thread is stronger but looks more synthetic. If a project requires high durability, it may be best to match a durable thread.
A key factor in the look of the thread is the shape of it. There are round threads and flat ones. A flat thread is best suited for straight stitching as the thread can sit perfectly in a grooved leather valley. Round thread, on the other hand, can provide a nicer look for slanted stitching, as it does not become twisted as easily as flat thread.
Awls are hand tools used in leathercraft to pierce holes for sewing. Their blades come in various shapes, sizes, and lengths, dictating the slope of the stitch created. Diamond awls are the most common, having a diagonal blade with extra width in the middle to allow needles to pass through more easily.
Flat awl blades have the same slanted profile as a diamond blade but remain the same width in the center. While this makes it more challenging to push needles through, it keeps the thread seated properly, creating a diagonal stitch with less space in the middle for a professional look.
Although not often used for creating sewing holes, there are also round-tipped awls. Round-tipped awls create a round hole that makes it very easy to pass needles through. With a round awl, however, there will be no slant to the stitching.
How To Sew Leather Step by Step
Sewing leather requires some special considerations compared to sewing fabric, as leather is a thick and durable material. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you sew leather effectively:
- Mark out a guiding line using wing dividers or rulers.
- Create sewing holes in the leather with your tool of choice, making sure to punch completely through the leather to create a viable hole.
- Attach a single piece of thread to two needles, and place them through the first sewing hole.
- After centering the thread, push one needle through the leather.
- In the same hole, push the other needle above or below the thread, being careful not to pierce the thread.
- Pull the thread to a light tension, and repeat the process, always using the same pattern to ensure consistency when sewing.
Tips for Sewing Leather
Sewing leather can be a rewarding but challenging task. Here are some helpful tips to ensure a successful and enjoyable leather sewing experience:
- Always keep hole-making tools sharp to create consistent sewing lines.
- Practice sewing scrap leather to achieve a nicer or different stitch.
- Experiment with hole spacing and thread thickness to find a look you enjoy.
- Hammer down sewn leather to close up holes and seat the thread properly.
- Always backstitch to help prevent the seam from unwinding if broken.
M. Mudzhikova, A. Mazari, A. Havelka, A. Mangat, and V. Bajzik, from the Department of Textile Evaluation and the Department of Clothing Technical University of Liberec, Studentska in Liberec, Czech Republic, studied the effects of thread tension in upholstery. They found that both too light and too much tension when sewing may cause the leather to break more easily — highlighting the importance of managing thread tension when sewing.
My Personal Research Into Sewing Leather
The goal for almost all crafters is to create a leather project as nice as they can. Sewing the leather plays a huge role in this. A poorly sewn line or uneven stitching can easily throw off the entire look of the project. To help others improve, I have researched various tips to improve hand-sewing leather.
Marking a consistent sewing, or groove line, sets the foundation for a good result. This line will tell a crafter where to make holes while keeping the distance from the edge the same. However, it is recommended only to mark one side of the leather. The biggest problem many crafters have is with the backside of their sewing lines.
When first learning the craft, punching a completely vertical hole may be difficult. Only marking one side of the leather makes it more difficult to tell if the thread lands slightly off-center. This technique can be beneficial when going through multiple layers of thick leather, as each punched hole is not always perfect.
Another great option for those looking to improve their sewing is to pre-punch holes. By doing so, there is less thick leather to go through, and a guiding line can be followed on each layer of the piece. This technique may also benefit those who make sheaths or other thick leather goods. Often hand tools may not be able to pierce all the layers of leather at once. Making the holes in advance will make sewing easier.
This method has unique cons, however. The punched holes must align as perfectly as possible, so consistency between the pieces is key. Starting point, distance from the edge, and spacing between holes must be near perfect for the project to line up. In addition, by making the holes in advance, the sewing technique may change.
Typically holes for leather have a single slant the entire way through. However, when pre-punching leather without specialty tools, the exit hole will be in reverse, causing a cross shape. This often affects how the thread sits in the holes, requiring adjustments to create a diagonal stitch on both sides.
There will be some elasticity when specifically using an artificial thread such as polyester or nylon. While this typically does not affect the sewing process, it may be one area that can be improved in projects. When a thread stretches after being sewn, it may cause inconsistencies and a slightly loose thread.
Artificial threads should be stretched before being used to prevent this. The stretch can be taken out of the leather by grabbing both ends of the thread and pulling firmly. Those who use natural thread, such as linen, will not have to do this, as the thread has no elasticity.
Hand-sewing leather is one part of the craft that can always be improved. There are plenty of variables that go into the final look of the thread. With these tips, any crafter can improve their hand sewing skills and push towards more professional-looking projects.
Helpful Sewing Leather Insights
What is the best way to sew leather?
The best way to sew leather is to saddle stitch it. This sewing method uses two needles and a single thread to interlock in-between holes. This helps prevent the thread from unwinding if it becomes damaged and is easily repaired.
Can you sew genuine leather?
Yes, all leather types can be sewn with the proper tools. An awl, chisels, needles, and thread are required to hand-sew. For sewing machines, it will depend on the strength of the machine. Heavy-duty or industrial machines are required to pierce through thick leather.
Will a normal sewing machine sew leather?
A normal sewing machine can be equipped with a leather needle to safely sew leather 3oz (1.2mm) and below. However, these machines will be quickly underpowered as the thickness increases. It is best to use an industrial sewing machine when possible.
Do you need a special needle to sew leather?
Yes, when using a sewing machine, it is important to use needles for leather. They will be less likely to break, avoid damaging the leather, and will more easily pass through the material. For those that hand sew, leather needles are also recommended. They have a smaller eye and blunted tip and are made from stronger material.
What tension should I use to sew leather?
Thread tension for leather will be ideally between 3.5–4.5. Since leather varies widely in both thickness and suppleness, it is always best to use scrap leather to adjust the tension as necessary when using new leather. Thinner leathers will typically require less tension and vice versa.
- Hand-sewing leather is more traditional, but machine sewing is much faster.
- Practice is key to achieving a nice-looking stitch on both sides of sewn leather.
- Carefully choose thread size and hole spacing as they change the final look of sewn leather.
For leather items, longevity is one of the most important factors. Leather is a highly durable material that can easily last decades. A material like this requires equally high-quality construction. By sewing leather using the proper thread and techniques, strong bonds are created and can hold together leather through hard-wearing conditions.
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