Have you ever wanted to sew on leather, but are just too afraid of the expense and trouble to give it a try? I have to admit, I shied away from it for years because leather is expensive and I just knew I would ruin it, never finish my project and wind up wasting money. Then came my handbag phase and I had to give leather a try.
I confess I learned a lot the hard way, but I kept my leather work small at first, so my lessons weren’t at great expense. I still only use leather for trims and special pieces, but its nice to know I can do almost all of my work on my home sewing machine. Here are ten of the best tips I learned during my leather sewing sessions. I hope they save you time, trouble and money.
- Inspect for scars on the leather before placing pattern pieces.
The best time to inspect the hide is before you buy it. Remember, these leather pieces were live animals and will typically have the scars to prove it. Anyone who has purchased a leather garment or piece of furniture has seen the warning included reminding you these mars are a natural part of the leather hide and not a defect. Still, inspect your leather prior to buying and again prior to placing your pattern pieces to make sure these scars are not in prominent places.
- Weight your pattern pieces down on the leather, or transfer them to cardboard. You will not be able to use pins to hold down your pattern pieces, so they will need to be weighed down in some way so you can mark them prior to cutting. It takes a little more time, but I prefer making the cardboard pattern pieces as they are much easier to trace.
- Use markers or grease pens to trace your pattern.
You cannot pin your pattern to leather or there will be permanent holes left in the hide. This is the reason for weighing down your pattern or using cardboard pattern pieces traced from the original. The marked areas will not show on the garment, so it is safe to use darker colors to mark light leather and silver or white to mark dark leather.
- Buy special leather needles.
Do this. Leather needles are made to cut through the leather and will make your sewing easier. Some very fine leathers may sew up nicely with standard sharps. The best advice is to have a good supply of different sizes of leather needles and sharps on hand. If you find you have a lot of broken or missed stitches, try a different sized needle.
- Use leather tape or binder clips to hold pieces while sewing.
Leather tape is a special two sided tape that will hold pieces together while you sew. Make sure the width is more narrow than your seam allowance so it doesn’t show through your seam or under your hem. This tape is also useful when finishing seams. Leather doesn’t crease like fabric when ironed, so the tape will hold seam allowance apart and down while you top stitch on the right side of the leather. When piecing your garment you can also use binder clips to hold pieces firmly together. These will not work, though, when finishing off your seams.
- Start sewing 1/4 inch from edge.
This is great advice for any heavy fabric that may need a gentle tug to move through the feed dogs. Start sewing about 1/4 inch from the edge of the leather and sew forward a stitch or two, then reverse to the edge. Continue sewing your seam as you normally would from there. Remember, since leather needles cut the fabric, keep your stitches long so you don’t create a perforation and completely cut through the leather.
- Use nylon or polyester thread.
It’s natural to think that a heavy material like leather will require a heavy thread, but that isn’t necessarily true with leather. The best threads for leather are synthetics since cotton can wear while sewing and deteriorate over time. The best thread is pure nylon if you have it, but polyester thread will also work nicely with leather.
- Use a teflon foot for smoother sewing.
A teflon foot will help smoothly guide the leather over the feed dogs to reduce or eliminate skipped stitches. If you don’t have a teflon foot for your machine, or an easy way to get one, try a sprinkling of baby powder. Just make sure you clean it out of your bobbin case when you are finished.
- Use sharp rotary cutter to cut leather.
How you cut the leather is a matter of personal preference. I am very picky about my sewing sheers and reserve them for nothing but fabric. I don’t cut out patterns or other paper with them. I don’t own a separate pair of shears for leather since I don’t sew with it often so decided to use my favorite sewing tool, a rotary cutter. I also find it easier to see the marks on the leather if using a rotary cutter – a tool for which I own multiple blades. Whichever tool you use to cut leather, make sure the cutting blades are very sharp.
- Decrease thread tension for thicker leather.
If you can adjust the thread tension on your machine manually, you will want to decrease it for heavier weight leather or multiple layers. If thread tension isn’t decreased you may see more broken threads or missed stitches.
I’m sure there are other tips and tricks for sewing on leather. What do you do to make it easier to cut out and sew on hides? Please share in the comments below.