How to Sew Leather

Do-it-yourself enthusiasts have a love-hate relationship with leather. There’s little doubt that it’s a great material—it’s warm, sturdy, and goes with pretty much anything. But working with it can be a hassle, whether you use your hands or a state-of-the-art sewing machine. It’s also more expensive than most textiles, so most people can’t afford to make a mistake and won’t even try. But there are ways to make the job easier. Here are some tips to help you out.

First, you want to check the material for imperfections. Not all leather will be smooth and perfect, and that certainly adds to its character, but you don’t want to find out after eight hours of work that your new leather pouch is riddled with scars and rips. Make sure the texture is something you’ll want to see on your final product.

Use cardboard patterns and weights to keep the material flat—leather is too heavy for textile pins. Trace the pattern with a color you’re sure to see against the material. Metallic pens are good for this purpose. Avoid using knives or cutters to score the leather, as this can make it fray faster and weaken the seams.

Most commercial sewing machines can handle garment-weight leather, the kind used for hats and light clothing. Fold the material over and decide if your machine can handle the thickness for sewing seams. You may also want to use specialized needles; these are thicker and heavier, and will pierce through the leather more easily. Heavy nylon or polyester threads work best, especially since you can melt them onto the seam for better durability. Avoid any cotton content if possible.

If you’re working on a structured piece such as a handbag, use interfacing cloth to line the insides. You can iron it to the leather—just make sure not to apply the heat directly. Most people find it easier to flat-stitch their seams from the outside, then cut away any excess. When ironing, hold the seams down flat with some double-sided tape.

In many ways, it comes down to how well your machine can work with leather. You don’t have to get a separate heavy-duty model for leatherwork, but you can expect to change your needles more often, work the presser foot harder, and generally spend more time on the project. But ask any leatherworker and they’ll agree—the outcome is usually well worth the effort.

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