Leather is an expensive material, but it is still just a material. You can sew with it as you would sew heavy canvas or denim, using most of the same tools, versus the specialized tools you would need to make saddles and cases or saddlebags. Still, leather is less forgiving than cloth, and it requires more caution because you cannot use pins or pull out bad stitching without damaging the material.
Things You'll Need
- Sewing pattern
- Leather material
- Tailor's chalk
- Two-sided tailor's tape
- Heavy shears
- Sewing awl or heavy-duty embroidery needle
- Heavy-gauge sewing-machine needle (such as a denim needle)
- Heavy-duty top-stitch or embroidery thread that matches the leather color
Lay out your pattern on on the unfinished (underside) of the leather. Rather than pin the pattern to the leather, use small bits of double-sided tailor's tape. Trace the pattern with tailor's chalk.
Cut out your pieces with heavy-duty, sharpened shears. Leather crafters usually use a round knife, a half-moon-shaped blade with a handle; this is unnecessary for lighter clothing leather. Sharpen your shears after you cut each piece because leather will dull them quickly. Save two scraps of leather that you will use to test your sewing machine.
Tape, rather than pin, the pieces together. This ensures the leather lays flat and passes easily through your sewing machine. It is a heavy material, prone to bunching and jamming a conventional sewing machine.
Adjust your sewing machine for longer stitches. The shorter stitches you use on cotton will weaken leather, causing it to split with wear.
Load your sewing machine and bobbin with heavy-duty top-stitch, embroidery or upholstery thread. Also load it with an 80/12 needle for light-weight leather such as kid or calf leather, or a 100/18 needle or stronger for heavier materials.
Test your machine on your scrap pieces of leather before you attempt to sew the finished piece. The leather should pass as easily as would a heavy material. Adjust your machine as needed for tension and needle height.
Test the more complicated stitches, like triple thicknesses, bunching sleeves and button holes.
You might find that the leather still bunches in heavier thicknesses and complicated stitches. If so, do not use the pedal; crank the machine by hand, slowly, which should work.
Hand sew any pieces that will not feed through your machine. You can use a sewing awl, a leather crafting tool that works much like an embroidery needle. You also can use the heaviest available embroidery needle. Punch holes first with a fine awl; do not attempt to push through the leather with your sewing awl or embroidery needle.
Sew according to the pattern. Sew slowly so you can correct mistakes or adjust the material before damaging the leather.
Tips & Warnings
- Your shears cannot be sharp enough. Keep your sharpening tool handy and sharpen between cuts.
- Your needle also cannot be sharp enough. Sharpen it frequently during the project.
- You might break a needle on this heavy fabric. Have a spare on hand.
- A good source of leather is a consignment shop; a large man's jacket provides enough material to make a smaller man's or woman's jacket.
- Do not attempt to make heavy-duty items such as motorcycle jackets, saddle bags and so on with normal tools. They are simply not strong enough for heavy-gauge leather. See Resources for leather and leather-tools retailers.
- Leather is very unforgiving; it will show every puncture and scratch. Sew slowly; when in doubt, sew by hand.
- "Leatherwork Manual"; Al Stohlman; 1984
- "Leatherwork: A Manual of Techniques"; Geoffrey West; 2005
- Threads Magazine: Machine Needle Know-How
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