Basics in Leatherworking
Leather is an amazingly strong and durable material. If properly taken care of, leather can last significantly longer than vinyl and when the item is discarded it will biodegrade in a relatively short amount of time. Leatherworking uses slightly different tools and techniques than your average sewing project but is not significantly more difficult.
This is the first post of a series on making a leather shoulder bag. In this post, I will walk you through the tools you need and the basics for successful leatherworking. The pattern to make the exact bag in this series is available for download under the cut.
The pattern used for this series and to make the bag shown below can be downloaded here:
• Leather Needles – have a triangle point end which is ideal for working with animal skin. They also have a larger eye which accommodates thread designed to use with leather
• Thread – I use thread that is designed for use in fur but a waxed heavy duty polyester or cotton are easier to acquire options
• Pins – I use strong pins to create my sewing points in the leather but an awl also works (however it does make larger holes)
• Hole Punch – this is an efficient and clean tool for creating holes in leather – especially holes for belt clips
• Marking Device – I use a Sharpie for drawing my cutting lines on the wrong side of the hide but any pencil, pen, or chalk that leaves a clear line will do
• Straight Edge Cutting Tool – it is better to use a straight edge blade (with ruler if possible) to cut leather than scissors. With scissors it is difficult to get a smooth consistent line and small blips in the cutting show very clearly on leather
• Awl – can be used to make stitching holes and to pull thread taught
• Pliers – to prevent hand fatigue by holding the needle as you sew
• Cork Tiles – cork is cheap and easy to acquire and is a good surface to pin into when laying out your sewing marks
What Kind of Leather to Use:
Select leather based on what your end project is going to be. For my bag, I found leather that was not very soft or flexible because I wanted the leather to provide most of the structure of the bag. If you want to make an item of clothing, look for a soft, flexible leather without much defined structure.
Preparing for and Cutting Out Your Pieces:
Inspect the front of the leather before cutting your pieces. Because it is a natural material, there are variations in texture and grain. Decide where you want to cut your pieces and which areas to avoid for the project you are working on. Lay your pattern pieces on the back side of your leather. Use a marking tool like a pen, pencil, or Sharpie to trace each pattern piece onto the leather.
Use a straight edge blade to cut along the lines your marked on the leather. If you are cutting a truly straight line, I strongly suggest laying a ruler on the leather to help guide your cutting blade.
Creating Your Stitching Lines:
The single best thing you can do to have a beautiful finished product is to have evenly spaced stitches. The pattern for the bag in this tutorial (that is available for download) includes evenly spaced dots for stitching lines. Regardless of whether you decide to use a pattern or ruler to evenly space your stitches or you just wing it, your sewing experience will be significantly easier if you make starter holes.
After you have cut out your pieces, lay them flat on the cork tiles. Using a strong pin (like a quilt pin) pin through the leather in evenly spaced intervals to create your stitching lines.
IMPORTANT: Make sure the stitch marks are placed so the pieces that sew together align properly after constructed. (If you are using the pattern I created, this has already been done and if you follow the stitch marks on the pattern you will be in great shape).
For the outside of the bag, I constructed the seams with wrong sides together and the cut edges exposed. One of the beautiful things about working with leather is that the cut edge can be an interesting design detail. The stitching for those seams is simply a running stitch. I sew in one direction, then return and fill in the “missing” stitches so there is a consistent line of stitching for the length of the seam.
I made a lining for this bag from leather as well. To reduce bulk, I essentially put the edges of two pieces of leather against each other with no overlap. For those pieces, I did a stitch that tucked between the pieces of leather in a lacing pattern.
I put the needle through the leather back-to-front, between the two pieces I was joining together, and through the other piece of leather back-to-front. As easy as lacing your shoes!