Working with leather is usually best done by hand, mainly because most people simply don’t have a commercial or industrial sewing machine to work with. Learning how to sew leather by hand isn’t that difficult and in fact, in many ways it’s much easier than using a machine. And while the saddle stitch is the most common stitch when working with leather, there are other types of leather stitching you can utilize if you choose that route.
Sewing leather by hand allows you to get neat stitches that are even and look great.
It also allows you to have control over the stitches and give the leather item a very professional and organized look, especially when you’re using the right stitch.
What to Know Before You Start Sewing Leather by Hand
Sewing fabric and sewing leather are two completely different skills. In fact, sewing leather can be much easier for numerous reasons. First of all, you’ll be sewing using holes that are pre-punched in the leather and therefore, it won’t require as much concentration as it does when you’re sewing regular fabric. With regular fabric, you have to concentrate on every step you make.
In addition, sewing needles used to sew leather are larger than standard needles and blunt instead of sharp, which means you can see them easily and they’re more comfortable to work with if you accidentally get “poked.” For starters, here are the items you’ll need to sew your leather project:
- Thread that is waxed and thick
- Needles made specially for leather
- An X-acto knife
- Scissors: sharp and very strong
- Tape measure made out of cloth
- Scrap pieces of leather
- A stitching poly
Preparing Your Thread and Needle to Sew the Leather by Hand
As you can imagine, your thread and needle have to be just right in order to work with leather. Not just any needle and thread will do. Learning how to sew leather by hand always starts with buying the right thread and leather needle.
Thread and needles made specifically for sewing leather are a must. Waxed thread means the thread is less likely to unravel along the way because it has a certain stickiness to it. While it’s possible to use thread that is unwaxed, this type of thread just isn’t as strong, which is why most instructions call for waxed thread and not unwaxed.
To estimate how much thread you’ll need, measure the length of the seam you’ll be working with and multiply that number by roughly 2.5. If the length of your thread ends up being more than 3 feet long, you might want to make it shorter and accept that you’ll have to start with another piece of thread during the sewing process.
At this point, go ahead and thread your needle, then pull the needle through several inches. You might have to fool with the thread some or even wet it at the tip in order to thread your needle. Remember, this is thick thread so working with it is a little different than working with standard polyester thread. When sewing with different types of leather stitching, no knotting is necessary. Instead, you’ll be backstitching regularly and the thread makes it easy for those backstitches to remain in place.
Saddle Leather Stitching Made Easy
The saddle stitch is the stitch most often used when sewing leather by hand, and you can sew this type of stitch with one hand or two. Unlike a standard hand stitch that ends up as a dotted line that shows every other stitch, saddle stitching involves sewing every stitch because you’ll sew it on both sides. In other words, you’ll end up with an unbroken line that looks similar to a machine stitch.
Because of this double stitch, you get a strong stitch in the end because if a thread breaks, you’ll have another stitch to hold it in place. Saddle stitches are always very professional and neat-looking. There are also two ways to execute a saddle stitch, as described here:
One Hand with Two Passes
While executing a saddle stitch with both hands is more common, using one hand is a little easier to learn. To start this stitch, you insert the needle into the very first hole in the seam. Go ahead and pull it through the hole while leaving a 2-inch-long tail. Next, put the needle into the second hole of the seam to create one single stitch. Finally, go back through that very first hole and then the second one again. This will create a loop that “locks” the thread end in place, which makes it very sturdy and steady.
When you get to this point, sew all the way down the remaining seam, which means you’ll create a “dotted” type of stitching. When you’re pulling the stitches, make sure you don’t pull them too tight. If the leather is soft enough and it starts to “buckle,” it means you’re pulling the stitches too tight. Once you get to the very end of your seam, simply sew backwards in the other direction, only this time you’ll be sewing the spaces that are opposite and between each sewing hole. Make sure the tension of your thread is the exact same as it was the first time so that your stitches will look very even and neat.
Once you get to your starting point at the part of the seam where you began, simply use a backstitch for a few stitches, which will lock the thread and help it stay in place. When you cut off the leftover thread, you should cut close to where the leather is and use either very sharp scissors or an X-acto knife. Should you run out of thread while you’re still in the middle of your sewing, use the backstitch at that point just like it was the end of the seam. Then, start your new thread to continue sewing.
Two Hands with Stitching Pony
A stitching pony can be a little expensive but is worth it because it’s just like having a second set of hands. It is made to place between your legs so that you can work on the leather piece with both of your hands. You can also place it on a table top and work with it that way, although most people don’t find this second method as practical or as comfortable as the first.
The leather piece is clamped in between the stitching pony, and if you’re worried about damaging the leather as you work, you can always include a piece of cardboard or a scrap piece of leather on both sides of your leather piece for protection.
After you cut your thread, thread a needle on both ends of the thread. Place one of the needles in the hole that is closest to you (the first one), then pull your thread until you have the same amount of thread on both sides. What you’ll do next is pass your needle through the second hole, and then you’ll want to pull at the thread until it’s snug enough to create a single stitch.
When you’re done, take your second needle and put it through that exact same hole, only from the opposite side. While you’re doing this, pull the first thread forward and hold it so that the thread doesn’t slip through the holes. To keep the stitches even, put the second needle behind your first thread into your second hole.
Once you pull your second thread through from one side to another, you’ll once again have a needle in each hand on opposite ends of the piece of leather. Tug it gently in an outward motion with both of your hands so the stitch is more even and steady. Afterwards, you’ll be starting over again to continue stitching, so you’ll want to place your first needle through the hole that comes next, and the second needle behind that.
If you’re working right to left, make sure you stick with this pattern all the way through. You can work left to right as well, but you’ll want to be consistent the entire time.
Another tip to remember is that when you’re working with leather, it can be hard to pull your needle through. Don’t panic or force your needle through the hole when this happens. Instead, get some pliers and pull the thread through that way. As long as you’re not pulling too hard, this method should work great.
Also, when you get to the very last stitch, you’ll use a backstitch just like you did in the previous method. If you backstitch for 3-4 stitches and pull your thread very tight each time you make a stitch, the double stitches won’t end up too bulky.
And at the end, just like in the first method, you’ll want to use either an X-acto knife or a pair of scissors to cut off any loose thread ends. Again, make sure you cut them very close to the actual stitches.
How to Sew Leather by Hand: 4 Top Tips
Learning how to sew leather by hand isn’t complicated, but it does take some practice to do it right. If you’re a beginner who has never worked with leather before, the following tips can help make it a little easier for you:
- Try using thin pieces of leather for your first few projects. Keep in mind that most of the leather articles you see are likely sewn by an industrial sewing machine and not by a person sewing by hand.
- Always practice on test scraps of leather before you start on your project. This is important because there are different types and thicknesses of leather, and you’ll want to make sure you practice with the actual type your project requires.
- If you’re using pins, test them out and always keep their use to a minimum. Why? Because pins can permanently mark certain types of leather. Different types of leather stitching can require different pins, but always test the pins out to make sure your leather isn’t damaged in the end.
- Always keep in mind that leather, suede, and vinyl should only be hand-washed and/or dry-cleaned, depending on the material and the project. Never put any type of leather item in your washing machine or dryer!
Different Types of Leather Stitching: Can You Choose Something Other Than a Saddle Stitch?
Learning how to sew leather by hand teaches you that you can use other types of leather stitching besides the saddle stitch. While the saddle stitch is the most commonly used stitch, here are a few others you can use when you’re sewing leather by hand:
- The “Z” stitch. With this stitch, the pattern is zigzag and looks like a continuous line of Z’s. On the other side of the leather, however, it tends to look just like a regular stitch.
- The Box stitch. This stitch is similar to the saddle stitch but is sewn at an angle. It is commonly used for projects that will be shaped like a box at the end.
- The American or Baseball stitch. Similar to the Z stitch, you’ll be making a V shape instead of a Z shape when sewing.
- The Cross stitch. This one is similar to the Z and Baseball stitches except that the shape will be in crosses instead of V’s or Z’s.
There are other types of stitches that can be used when sewing leather by hand, including the Butt stitch, the standard Single stitch, and the French Seam stitch. All of them serve a different purpose and have a unique look, so once you determine exactly what you want your leather item to look like when you’re done, it’ll be easy to decide which of these stitches to use.
When you learn how to sew leather by hand, which is sometimes the easiest way for beginners, you learn a lot about the feel of the leather and what it takes to make sure the stitches are nice and secure. It’s good to eventually learn the various types of leather stitching because you never know when you’ll have to use them.
Fortunately, sewing leather by hand can be done even by inexperienced sewers, and you’ll likely catch on faster than you think.