Friday, July 2, 2010

How to sew leather... a few tips

Many moons ago - in what seems like another life - I followed my heart to Ireland and made leather bags, purses and wallets for about 5 years. I don't think I ever enjoyed the leather-working process, but the results were always very satisfying.

My relationship with leather hasn't changed since then. I'm a textiles gal at heart, but sometimes I think something will look good made in leather... so I make it.

It's a quirky, tricksy material to wrangle - and completely unforgiving if you make a mistake. I'm not a fan. However, I'm often asked for tips to make the job easier, so here goes...


1. Before you mark out your pattern placement, examine the hide and look out for scars, holes and imperfections.

You have to remember that these hides were once on animals - walking around in fields (or barbed-wire-fenced paddocks, if you're in Australia) and scars are are random feature. You don't want to cut out a pattern piece, only to have a hole or other imperfection spoil it (and have no hide left to re-cut).

2. You can't pin leather, so (unless you have a clicking press and press-knives), cardboard patterns and pattern-weights are the way to go. Trace around the patterns with with a special silver pen (or ... ummm.... a plain ballpoint pen or rotary cutter, if you're as completely reckless as I am).

NOTE: Garment weight leather can usually be cut easily with a sharp rotary cutter or scissors. Some people use a stanley knife and steel ruler (but I've nearly lost fingers doing that, so I can't recommend it).

3. Garment-weight leather can usually be sewn on a domestic sewing machine - as long as there is not too much bulk in the seams. It's best if you use a walking foot, wheel/roller foot or teflon presser foot on your machine. (The teflon feet below are actually from my industrial machine - I don't own a domestic version).

4. You can purchase special "leather" sewing machine needles, which will penetrate the leather more efficiently than normal machine needles and form a nice even stitch. Well worth it.

5. Use pure nylon (if you can get it) or polyester upholstery weight thread. Any cotton content in the thread can deteriorate with age. Synthetics are strong and durable (and the raw ends can be melted into the seam end to seal them).


6. Interfacing can be fused to leather if you need to add a bit of structure - use a rajah cloth to protect your iron and the leather. Cut the interfacing shorter than the seam allowances to reduce bulk.


7. Pressing seams open can be a bit tricky - garment leather generally doesn't hold a sharp crease well. Use double-sided tape to hold seams flat. (Although, try not to overdo the tape on areas that will later be stitched - it can gunk up your needle).

I prefer to flat stitch seams open from the right side of fabric.

..and then trim away the excess seam allowance to reduce as much bulk as possible.

8. Once the going gets tough - lots of converging seams, uneven bulk beneath the presser foot and layers of springy leather under the needle - you may find that your machine skips stitches. Try changing to a new (sharper) needle and use a teflon presser foot rather than a walking foot (I had to change machines in order to use the teflon foot).


9. If you have one of these little plastic gadgets (they come in different shapes and sizes and have different brand names), you will see just how useful it can be at moments like this. By sliding the plastic gadget under the presser foot, you can even out the pressure on the feed dogs of the machine, which will pull the leather through.


10. I'd like to make a 10th tip, just to be neat and decimal about things.... but I'll leave this one open as a question.... Do YOU have any leatherworking tips or questions to add to these?


...So anyway, what was all this leather-sewing business about...?




I was cold.
I think I look just about ready to join the French Resistance... although I believe I'm a tad late.

37 comments:

Buy Design said...

Handy tip no.10 Get someone else to do it for you. I can see why leather is not your favourite thing to sew.
By the way it's never too late to join the French resistance... All you need now is the 'Allo Allo' accent. Don't know if you got that comedy clasic in Australia or not but your beret would be right at home.

Cloudforest said...

I really like to work with leather, so I will add a few more tips ...
A. Use butterfly clips instead of pins to hold pieces together.
B. Use studs liberally to hold multiple pieces together when it gets too thick for your sewing machine. They look cool too. Make sure you get the right size stud setting tool, and thwack hard with a big mallet to set them.
C. You can cut difficult patterns, or cutout pieces for inlay or overlay with an exacto blade.

Liesl said...

You look fabulous, Nikki!

Thank you for another really interesting post and all those great tips. I have never tried sewing leather (and now I feel both informed ... and duly warned!)

sooz said...

The lady just keeps on giving! Good tips and man I want one of those plastic gadgets - any idea where to get them locally? And the hat is fantastic!

CurlyPops said...

Great tips. I think I should invest in some of those plastic slidey things to get over bulky seams.
The hat is fabulous!

Liam's Mummy said...

Your picture and the reference to joining the French resistance made me giggle. Those are great tips Nikki. I have a couple of pieces of leather that I haven't had the guts to use yet. One day.

beccasauras said...

10th tip- letaher needles are good for clear vinyl, too! Just yesterday, I found this out! Stops skipped stitches, like you say. I'm delaying buying a teflon foot, hoping my walking foot makes if a bit longer! Thanks for the rest of the tips, though, great hat!

Handmade said...

Cool hat - I always wondered what those plastic things were for in my sewing kit that came with the machine!! Some great tips!

Cath @ chunkychooky said...

One I will be leaving completely fort the experts- I use little peices here and there on my softies - you are right it is very unforgiving!

ambette said...

I've always wondered how one would go about sewing leather. I'm not sure that I'd ever be game to try making a complete piece out of leather, but it's good to have the tips if I ever want to use it for embellishments or handles or something.

Nice hat by the way!

Karin van D. said...

You look great! I have never sewn with leather yet but am sure interested in trying some time, so these tips and tricks will be very useful. Thanks for sharing!

Karin van D. said...

You look great! I have never sewn with leather yet but am sure interested in trying some time, so these tips and tricks will be very useful. Thanks for sharing!

Annie said...

You;re gorgeous too! Thanks for the tips - you look great.

Tanya said...

great hat.
Thanks- I think I will wait awhile for the leather experience!

flickettysplits said...

All the rest of the useful information aside .... I LOVE your use of the word "hide" in this post. So untamed.

Jodie said...

Nikki, that photo so has to be your profile pic !!!

Thanks for all the tips. I am loving the look of that plastic gadget as well..

Tania said...

Ooh, you do fabulous French Resistance! So anyway, Ms expert on leather sewing and tent mender and veritable font of knowledge. Don't s'pose you have any advice on mending protective trampoline pads? Now how's that for bringing something in from left field?

Bellgirl said...

Your pic reminds me of the French resistance woman from Allo Allo: "listen very carefully, I will say ziz only once!"

Rachel@oneprettything.com said...

These tips (and comments!) are fantastic! Thanks so much for these, I'll be linking.

colourdujour said...

HAHA Bellgirl took the very words right out of my mouth. You do look like Michelle on 'Allo 'Allo. If you want some good laughs, there are epidodes on YouTube.

You are amazing with all of the good things you come up with. Do you ever rest??

Miss Sews-it-all said...

Hello Nikki! We think this tutorial is great, and we want to share it with other sewers by featuring a link on WeAllSew.com! We’ll be featuring a link to this tutorial at our Free Stuff page all next week. Please let me know if you have any questions, or if you would not like to be featured through a link on WeAllSew.com. Thanks so much-Erika

Anonymous said...

I have a question - I have heard that you should never backstitch on leather, but tie the thread instead. Is there a special way to tie the thread? I would love some pointers. Thanks! - Mo

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure these are good tips

tip #11 - put a tiny bit of baby powder on the sewing machine surface to let the leather slide easier.

tip #12 - start 1/4 inch from the edge, and then sew then go back and sew the 1/4 inch in the opposite direction.

tip #13 - I use a paper stapler to staple pieces together before sewing. Make sure you're stapling where it doesn't show, and where you won't hit the staples with the needle.

Nancy said...

Thanks for taking the time to share this. I'm about to recover a couple of vintage hydraulic styling chairs. Lots of great tips! I'll try and follow up after I complete the project.
You look fabulous in that hat!

so not that girl said...

Love the post and these tips will come in handy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Thanks for the onfo on sewing leather on a sewing machine I am trying to sew a bear made from a fur coat and found your tips helpful. By the way I like your hat too

Anonymous said...

I have been sewing patches on biker coats,vests,etc..Recently I took in a vest for a biker chick . She lost some wieght and cause I thought I was getting that good. (WHAT A DUMMY I AM!) Seaming it back together I have been getting skipped stitches,loose,stitches,all the good stuff. I have a brand new household sewing machine,walking foot,correct thread and needle.. It has done really well with the patches and other stuff.....Since I am a preschooler at sewing,could you please tell me what the lil white plastic deal is or the name of it,,, please? And anyone willing to share any other tips before I throw this vest out the window and have an angry biker chick on my hands...Please and thank you in advance!
(Frustrated attempting to sew guy)

Matti said...

Guy who was sewing for the biker chick (better late than never?): the thing is called a Jeanamajig in some circles. I only know where to get one in the U.S. My suggestion is to Google the thing. It's also called a seam jumper, I think.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the tips..much appreciated. My question, the leather fabric I am sewing still twists and bunches. When I am done it is uneven and stretched. How can I fix this? What am I doing wrong?

Anh said...

Hi there,
What sewing machine did you use? Will it be easy to source it? I live in Australia so we don't have much resources as Europe.
I'm just starting out learning about making bags as I love leather handbags. So your tips were really helpful thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! You cover details on finishing touches that some bloggers skim over. I appreciate it a lot!

My Special Tip is: use rubber cement to hold a paper pattern to the leather while cutting.

I saw rubber cement in a leather kit and decided thats what it was for and it worked marvelously. I'm just having sewing issues now.

Anonymous said...

You can also use masking tape to hold pattern down for cutting and keeping pieces together while sewing. and reducing the tension a little can give better stitches and prevent stitches skipping

Anonymous said...

I am new to leather sewing, so I don't know it this works on leather, but when sewing fabric that stretches, the machine feeder will sometimes stretch the bottom piece. To solve this you can put a plain piece of paper under your work, sew, then tear the paper away when you are done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this.

I would add that if you are going to use a Stanley knife, to buy some Kevlar gloves. They're not expensive, and they reduce the risk somewhat.

I found mine as an accessory to those slicing machines that people use for slicing deli meats and such.

UteV said...

thanks for the great tips on sewing leather. Will try it soon. Have an industrial sewing machine and have been wanting to try it. Ute

Lyn... Australia said...

Thanks for the leather sewing tips. I am about to tackle a jacket after keeping the leather warm in the cupboard for about ten years. I have made up the pattern in wool and made some pattern adjustments, so now ready to cut into the leather. I was curious to know if interfacing could be used in the collar and front bands, so now I know. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, thanks for sharing :). I've mainly used thick belt & saddle leather so far (3-4mm/10oz). Re. Stanley knives, there are a couple of things that might help:
1. Single-hook blades, made in Sheffield, sold cheaply on ebay. I have a fancy proper (walnut handled) clicking/clicker's knife too, which I rarely use (waste of money) - the blades of the 2 knives are almost identical in thickness & shape, and both can be stropped/re-sharpened.

2. A safety ruler (has a guarded or raised area for fingers). Fortunately I found these early by chance - probably saved my finger-tips! I use the 12"/30cm Maun Safety Rule is made in England & distributed by Jakar - widely available on web for under £5. ;)

I use & like a "roundy" vintage Stanley 199 handle - I think they still make them - but any model will do.

-T