Friday, June 15, 2012

Sewing On Leather: Stitching and Seams

Now that I've confessed to fusing all kinds of fusibles to my leather with an iron, it's time to talk about how I'm sewing things together.

There's been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere recently about how useful (or not) tutorials are when written by novices or those who don't know good technique. I've never written a tutorial, but I do like to blog about  the techniques that worked for me as a part of my sewing journey. So, I feel the need to add this disclaimer: this is what is working for me on my very first leather project and with the tools and leather that I am using. I am not an authority; I'm a learner. And I welcome any and all comments and suggestions on better techniques. OK, on to the fun...

Stitching on Leather test scrap

As far as stitching goes, a slightly longer stitch length coupled with a leather needle seems to be the usual best practice. Do not backstitch (why make more holes?) and instead just tie off your thread ends. So all of that is what I did, too.

If you look at the test scrap below, you can see what happens when you pull out a row of stitches - it leaves a very visible line of holes! This test was enough proof to convince me to take things slowly!

The line of holes is the second line from the right (photo center).

Also, since you don't want to pin your leather, use small binder clips. I got some fun hot pink and lime green ones at Staples for $1.99 for 20, which beats the pants off of Wonder Clips, which seem to be pretty expensive on-line and I can't seem to find anywhere in the Garment District.

The Actual Sewing
Sewing Machine: Fancy Modern Viking vs. Granny's Kenmore
So, I was contemplating which machine to use for sewing this jacket - my computerized Viking Sapphire or my vintage Kenmore that was inherited from my Grandmother.

After MUCH testing on scraps and looking at the stitches and seams, I've decided on a compromise: I'll do most of the sewing on my Viking because of how easy it is to use and adjust as I go. Honestly, this is the machine I'm most comfortable using and it has a leather setting which worked beautifully. 

However, since the very best looking stitches that I made were on my Granny's old Kenmore, any stitches that will show - topstitching, etc., will be done on Granny. Also, since the old Kenmore sews slowly as a rule, one of the benefits is that it will slow me down and hopefully keep me from messing up the areas where the stitches will show.

Presser Feet: Teflon vs Rolling Foot

I really wanted the rolling foot to win, but the teflon foot won by a nose.

I've seen recommendations for both of these feet, and in my tests, there really wasn't a huge difference, but to my eye and hand, it just seemed like the teflon foot fed the two layers of leather more smoothly and evenly.

I also tested using my narrow zipper foot and that actually worked out pretty well, too. So I'm not really sure how big a difference any of these feet really make in the end. I plan to use the zipper foot for the zippers since I'll be sewing on the zipper tape and not the leather.

Opening the Seams
Again, I tested every method I could think of or had seen recommended for opening the seam allowances and "pressing" the seams open.

Finger pressing: This was fine to get things started, but not particularly effective. The seam stood up like a spine.

Finger pressing was ineffective

Rubber mallet:

Bashing with a mallet
Next I tried using a rubber mallet with the seam spread open over a piece of molding that I pilfered from my father-in-law (the mallet is his too). It was somewhat effective, although the seams didn't lay precisely flat even after much bashing.

Iron: I hope at this point you aren't surprised that I took a hot iron to my leather. And, quite frankly, the iron - used with a silk organza press cloth and my piece of molding - was easily the most effective method of  opening the seams. Honestly, they behaved perfectly and there seems to be no adverse effects whatsoever. 

Good old iron and pressing cloth

Glue and Tape:
Glue, binder clips and leather tape in 1/4" and 1/2" width.
To finish the seams, I tested gluing them down, topstitching and using leather tape in 2 different widths. The glue was very messy (read: making a mess is part of my baking process. But what works in the kitchen is not appropriate for the Craft Lounge.)

I thought I'd found a good solution when I tested the leather tape. It basically is double sided, super sticky, clear tape. It really held down the seams, but when I tried to topstitch, the only thing I accomplished was totally gunking up the needle to a point where it got stuck in the leather. Not good.

Leather tape in action.
Quite frankly, I don't think glue or tape is necessary. If there are any unruly seams that aren't going to be topstitched, then I would use the tape. But overall, I don't think I really need to do either of these things.

In the end, the verdict is that some seams will be top stitched and some will just be pressed open. And I'll see how it goes.

So, there you have it! And here you have the back of the jacket - stitched with my Viking and pressed open with my iron. Oh, and by the way, I had no trouble with the back shoulder princess seams. I've heard that leather doesn't ease well, but these seams eased together nicely.

My jacket is in a bunch of pieces at the moment, but I hope will be looking more jacket-like by Monday. Have a great weekend and stay tuned!


  1. I'm really looking forward to seeing the finished result. 

    I seem to have missed the discussions about tutorials.  I will admit to getting mildly irritated when a blogger states that "This is how to do XYZ", rather than "This is how I do XYZ". Overall, though, I'm just grateful that any blogger takes the time to post a tutorial because I learn so much from them, even if I end up trying out two or three different techniques until I find one that works for me. 

  2. Interesting!  Great pics too.  Last year I tried a leather top and a shearling vest.  Both turned out fine and wearable despite me being a complete novice.  Leather is actually pretty easy to sew with aside from the bulk and the fact that there are no second chances when it comes to holes.  I wish I could have read all this before I started, it would have given me some confidence.  I'd like to try a jacket someday, but the cost of skins does make me pause!

  3. Trisha - this process is so interesting and I can't wait to see your finished jacket.  As for the tutorials I give pretty much the same disclaimer when I post something on my blog especially since I feel that there are others out there who are so much more proficient than I am! 

  4. Exciting!  Can't wait to see more of your jacket in progress.  I am going to (hopefully) be playing with a faux suede later this year and while it definitely won't be as nice as your leather, I expect some of the technique will be the same, so I find this post super useful.  I want to get that leather book you recommended earlier too!  Also, when I was sewing my rubber-backed raincoat fabric earlier this year, I noticed that the teflon foot worked a lot better than the rolling foot.  I felt like the rolling foot didn't get quite as much pressure and so the top layer moved a bit faster than the bottom layer.  Of course, with the rubber I noticed a bit improvement using the teflon over the regular feet, but it sounds like the improvement might not be as noticeable with leather?  In any case, thanks for posting your observations, very helpful!

  5. I'm really enjoying watching this come together.  Where did you find leather tape? And what is this leather setting? I have a Viking too and I wonder if I have it on mine.

  6.  That was exactly the difference with the rolling foot - the top layer moved slightly faster than the bottom layer.

  7. I found the leather tape online at Wawak -

    My SM, which is computerized, has a row of buttons for you to select what you're sewing on heavy woven, light weight knit, etc... and it automatically adjusts the presser foot pressure, stitch length, advises you on the tension, etc. One of those buttons has what looks like a hide on it, and that one is for leather. So, it adjusts the stitch length etc for you.

  8. I agree! It's not particularly hard to sew. You just have to go slow and be careful!

  9.  That was part of it - the "there is only one correct way" sayers. But it was more about poor techniques and bad information being perpetuated by novices. And, I don't know about everybody else but I think a lot of this can be found on Pinterest since it's so easy to perpetuate by repinning. There's a lot of shoddy tee-shirt refashions out there...

  10. Thanks, Carolyn! You know what, the day after you post your first tutorial, I'll consider posting mine about 15 years later. ;-)

  11. Excellent tips! I find myself running to Dmitri here at Mood whenever I need tips on sewing leather. I keep telling him he needs to teach a class here at Mood...

  12. Thanks for Sharing and looking forward to more progress posts.

  13.  He should! I think it would be AMAZING if Mood offered classes or mini-classes on various fabrics and the sewing techniques to use on them.

  14. Excellent tutorial! I really admire how you have taken the time to make and show samples of all the possibilities. I've been preaching this for a long time.

    I have been one of those blogging critics of the inferior tutes put out there but inexperienced bloggers. This post IS NOT that at all. It is very informative, shows how a less experienced sewist can learn the proper techniques by experimenting before committing to fabric, follows the "sewing rules" , ie, good pressing, and is beautifully photographed and clearly written. Excellent job. I will follow you and am looking forward to more tutes. I can always learn more.

  15. This is such great information. I'm getting ready to get serious about working / sewing with leather and this is a great starting place. But more importantly - thank you for "playing" It gives me some great ideas.

  16. Thanks Clio, I'm extremely interested in your tutorial, I'm a novice so ANY advice is great!

  17. Dear Clio, Thanks for your honest opinion. Your inquiring mind and willingness to experiment have saved me a ton of time, and I haven't even started yet (lol). I have been sewing for over 50 years, but I have never done a project in leather (or leather-like). Because you exposed many of the pitfalls for me already, I feel confident to take on a leather project. Thanks for blazing the trail.

  18. Thanks Carla - with all your experience, I'm sure you will find it easier than you expect! Good luck!