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How to Hand-stitch Leather

How to Hand-stitch Leather main article image
Posted on June 11, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby

Whenever you admire a handcrafted leather item, be it a belt or a handbag, you can’t help but notice the sewing work that goes into it. Even and consistent stitches dancing along the seams in a thread that is perfectly matched in contrast to the color of the leather. Yes, there is professional, machine-sewn leather as you can see on luxury leather goods but that look can also be made with sewing by hand. That final look once completed has a total hand-crafted look and done in the right method of stitches holds up for a very long time. Sewn leather is also known as hand-stitched leather.

This article will go into the method of hand-stitching leather, and once you know how to do it, you’ll realize how easy, quick and affordable it can be for your own leather items. 

The Saddle Stitch

The stitch used in sewing leather is the saddle stitch. It leaves behind beautiful looks and is stronger than a stitch made by a sewing machine. The biggest advantage to working on your own hand-stitched leather is that you don’t need much space to work on it, even working at a kitchen table is a sufficient workspace. 

One thing is that the sewing itself can be tedious but once you get the gist of it, you’ll be stitching 2-3” a minute. 

Making a Groove

First things first, you’ll need to create a groove along the area that will serve as the space the stitches will be going through. You will need a groover tool which serves that purpose of being a guide for stitching chisels and reduce the chances of the thread snagging on the leather as it is fed through. 

A groover had a guide arm and a cutting head. You can set the guide arm to any measurement, but for small seam stitches, you would set the arm to 1/8th of an inch. Next, you would place the butt end of the guide arm against the edge of the leather and tilt it about 45 degrees and apply counter-counter-clockwise pressure as you slide down the leather to cut a groove. The line will look clean and parallel against the leather’s edge. If the first attempt doesn’t look like it was deep enough to create a thinned outline for stitches, you can try again, but be careful to not cut too deep that you’re actually cutting the leather. 

Here are some examples of a groover tool in action: 

The Leather Element: Using a Leather Stitch Groover

Grooving Leather

Making Stitch Holes

When making holes, you will need a stitching chisel or an awl. To use an awl, you can use an overstitch wheel to glide across the leather to create small marks that are pre-spaced for stitch distance. After that, you would use the awl to pierce the holes. Stitching chisels have different widths and various numbers of tines that can pierce the leather with the use of a mallet. 

Getting Ready for Stitching

You can take scrap pieces of leather to practice the grooving and get ready to work stitches. This way, you’ll learn at your own pace and gain some familiarity with the look and feel of your own created hand-stitched leather. 

So to begin sewing leather, cut the thread and thread the needles you will be using. Leather sewing thread is a thick waxed thread that is able to slide through the leather with each pull of the needle. It also adds a slight stickiness to prevent the thread from unravelling. The thickness helps add the strength of not just holding the leather together but will also keep in place whereas a thinner thread will tear through the leather. A thick thread will look better in proportion to the size of the leather anyway. 

To get the correct length for your thread, measure the seam you are going to be sewing and multiply that by 2.5 inches. This should give you enough to stitch the entire seam. It might get frustrating and easy to tangle your thread if you happen to be working with a thread that is longer than 3 feet so if you happen to calculate that length, work with a thread that is shorter and you can always work in extra thread along the seam if you run out. Thread the needle and pull a few inches out. When stitching leather, there is no need to knot the end of the yarn. Most knots could slip right through the holes, plus leaving a knot at the end of a piece of leather would be visible. When it comes to leather, you would lock in the thread with backstitching. 

So a straight stitch in sewing looks like a dotted line with every other stitch showing. The saddle stitch comes in and fills the stitches in on both sides. Each side of the stitches mirrors the other. So if one stitch breaks, there is always another to hold it down. The saddle stitch always makes leather pieces look clean and professionally done. 

There are two ways to complete a saddle stitch—one method is done with one needle and the second is done with two needles simultaneously. Using two needles is a traditional method and is held in place using a stitching pony so both hands can work the stitching. For starting out, a one needle method can be easily done, you will simply be making double passes through the stitches. 

Begin your first stitch by inserting a needle through the first hole of the seam, pull through and leave a tail of thread about 2 inches long. Pass the thread through the second hole and pass the thread through once again. 

Next, go back through the first hole, and then the second hole again, creating a loop that will “lock” the end of the thread in place. Then proceed to sew down the rest of the seam normally creating a “dotted” line of stitching. Continue to single stitch across the seam, creating a broken dotted line, and once you hit the end, you will go back to the other way to make that dotted line a solid line. Pull each stitch tight but not too tight. You will notice your work is too tight when the leather starts to buckle. 

When you reach the beginning of your stitches, back stitch back a couple of stitches to secure the thread in place before cutting it as close to the leather as you can with a blade like an X-acto knife. The backstitch method can also be used if you run out of thread in the middle of your work and continue with a new thread where you left off. 

Well, there you have it! Go ahead and try out leather saddle stitching of your own! 

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