Hand sewing is a very important skill in leatherwork, and it's fairly easy to master even if you have no previous sewing experience. Part of what makes leather hand sewing a bit different than fabric sewing is the fact that you are sewing through pre-punched holes like the ones we created in the last two lessons. These holes ensure that your stitches will be evenly spaced and mean that hand sewing leather requires somewhat less concentration and precision than sewing fabric. Leather needles are also fairly large and usually blunt, meaning they are easier to see and less likely to poke you.
In this lesson I'll show you some basic leather hand sewing skills, and then we'll use these skills to begin assembling the bag we're creating.
In this lesson I'll be using:
- Thick waxed thread
- Leather needles
- Strong sharp scissors
- X-acto knife
- Cloth tape measure
- Stitching pony
- Scrap leather
- Leather pieces of your bag with stitching holes punched
Step 1: Prepping Your Needle and Thread
The first thing you need to do when sewing leather, is cut some thread and thread the needle or needles you will be using. Leather hand sewing is usually done with a thick waxed thread. The thickness is important because a thinner thread might tear through the leather when the stitches are pulled tight, and a thicker thread also looks more proportional in relation to the stitch length and hole size you are using when you sew leather. The wax makes the thread easier to work with and also gives it a stickiness that helps stop it from unraveling. You could use unwaxed thread, but it won't be quite as sturdy.
To get the correct length for your thread, measure the seam you are going to be sewing and multiply it by about 2.5. This should give you enough thread to saddle stitch your entire seam (I'll explain this in a minute). However, it is usually not very practical to work with more than 3 feet of thread, so if your length is longer than that, you may have to start a second thread part of the way through your seam, which is perfectly ok.
Once you've cut your thread, thread it through the eye of your needle, and pull it through a few inches. Depending on the size of your needle's eye, you may need to pinch and flatten, or wet the tip of your thread to get it through the needle.
To lock your needle in place at the beginning of your thread you can poke it through the twists of the thread to create a loop, but I don't usually find this necessary, especially with waxed thread.
You normally don't tie a knot in the end of your thread when you sew leather. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, the holes you are sewing through are usually large enough that most knots would slip right through anyway. Also, you are often sewing seams in places where both sides will be visible and a knot would be very obvious and ugly. In leather sewing it is easier to lock your thread by backstitching in a way similar to a sewing machine backstitch. The wax on the thread helps these backstitches stay in place better than they would with normal thread. We'll learn how to do this in the next step.
Now you're ready to sew!
Step 2: Saddle Stitching With One Needle
Saddle stitching is the most common stitch for hand sewing leather. Unlike a straight stitch which looks like a broken dotted line with every other stitch showing, the saddle stitch fills in every stitch on both sides, creating one unbroken line similar to a sewing machine stitch. (It is basically just two straight stitches mirroring each other on each side of the leather.) This double stitching makes the saddle stitch stronger than a straight stitch, because if one thread breaks, the other will still hold. It also looks neater and more professional.
There are two ways to do a saddle stitch: the two needles at a time method, or the one needle, two passes method. Using two needles at a time is the traditional method, and makes it easier to create perfectly even stitches, but it is a little harder to master and really requires the use of a stitching pony. For this reason I sometimes use the one needle, two passes method. They can each be useful in different circumstances, so I will show you both.
To use the one needle, two passes method, begin sewing by inserting your needle into the first hole of your seam, pull your thread through, leaving a tail about 2" long, then pass the needle through the second hole of your seam creating a single stitch.
Then go back through the first hole, and then the second hole again, creating a loop that will lock this end of the thread in place.
Then proceed to sew down the rest of the seam normally creating a "dotted" line of stitching.
Pull each stitch tight, but not tight enough to buckle the leather if it's flexible.
When you reach the end of the seam, start sewing back the other way this time going through each hole in the opposite direction, filling in the opposite spaces between sewing holes. Try match the thread tension of this second pass to the tension of the first pass so the stitches look neat and even.
When you get back to where you started at the beginning of the seam, backstitch a few stitches to lock your thread in place before cutting it off close to the leather using a scissors or x-acto knife.
If you ever run out of thread in the middle of sewing, use this same backstitching method to tie off your thread before starting a new one.
Step 3: Using the Stitching Pony for the Two Needle Saddle Stitch
The stitching pony is a useful tool for hand sewing because it basically acts like another set of hands, holding your work in place while you sew. They can be a little more expensive to buy than they should be, but you can also make your own fairly easily by following this Instructable. Also, check out Jessyratfink's excellent Instructable for a slightly different explanation of this same saddle stitching technique.
To use the stitching pony, place the leather piece you are going to sew between the jaws of the pony and tighten the clamps. You may want to use two pieces of scrap leather or cardboard on each side of your piece to make sure it isn't damaged during clamping.
Now sit down on a chair with the stitching pony between your legs so it is held firmly in place. You can also just put it on a table in front of you and weigh it down, but it is designed to sit under your legs.
Cut yourself a length of thread appropriate to your seam, and thread a leather needle on each end. Pass one of the needles through the first hole in your seam (the hole closest to you) and pull the thread through so there is an equal amount on each side.
Take a needle in each hand and begin by passing one of the needles through the second hole in your seam, you could start from either side, but let's say you start with the right side.
Pull the thread snug to create a single stitch.
Now take the second needle and pass it through the same hole in the opposite direction (from the left side) while holding the first thread pulled forward. You want to stick this second needle into the second hole behind the first thread. This will help your stitches stay even.
Pull the second thread through from the left to right side. Now you have one needle in each hand on opposite sides again. Tug outward gently with both hands putting even pressure on the thread to create an even stitch.
Then start the process over again, putting the first needle through the next hole from the right, then the second needle through behind it from the left. Always keep up this same pattern you started with (right then left) to make sure your stitches stay as even as possible. If it is sometimes difficult to pull the needle through, you can use a pair of pliers to help.
When you get to the end you are going to backstitch with both threads to lock them in place. First make sure that your two needles are coming out of opposite sides of your last hole. Take one needle and pass it through the hole behind it, then pass the other needle through that hole from the other side. Keep doing this for about 3 or 4 stitches. Make sure you pull the threads very tight after each stitch so these double stitches aren't too bulky.
When you have backstitched enough, use a scissor or an x-acto to cut your thread ends off very close to your stitches. It helps to pull the thread as your are cutting it.
Step 4: Sew the Pocket to Your Bag
Now that you've seen the basics of saddle stitching, let's apply it to the bag we're creating.
First we're going to sew the pocket that we taped and punched in the last lesson. We need to sew this piece on before we assemble the rest of the bag because we won't be able to reach it otherwise.
Because these are flat seams, they are good candidates for being sewn in using the stitching pony and the two needle saddle stitch.
Clamp your pocket into the stitching pony with one of the side seams facing up, then cut yourself yourself a length of thread, and thread and thread a needle on each end. Thread one needle through the hole just above the pocket on one side seam, and start sewing with a saddle stitch down towards the base of the pocket. Make sure you don't pull your stitches too tight as this leather is pretty pliable.
When you get to the last hole, go up through all 4 layers, then out through the hole you poked beyond the edge of the pocket at the corner. This extra stitch will hold the folded corners of the pocket down nicely to the bag.
Now unclamp the stitching pony, rotate the leather so the bottom seam of the pocket is up, and keep sewing across the bottom of the pocket.
When you get to the end, create the same extra stitch at the other corner, rotate the leather, and then start sewing up the other side. At the top of the second side seam, backstitch with both needles about 4 stitches, then cut off your threads.
When I was done sewing, I trimmed the bottom corners of the pocket with scissors.
Sew the fringed pocket on in the same way with a saddle stitch using either the one or two needle method, and sewing above the line of fringe where you've punched the sewing holes.
Step 5: Create a Turned Edge Seam on the Front of Your Bag
Two seam variations that are often used in leatherwork are turned edge seams and cut edge seams.
Cut edge seams, which would be called exposed seams in sewing, are seams that leave the stitches, and the cut edge of the leather visible on the outside of your piece.
A turned edge seam is just a cut edge seam turned inside out so you don't see the stitching or the edge of the leather. Turned edge seams are more durable because the stitches aren't exposed, they tend to give your work a more polished look, and they are often used in chrome tanned leather projects because chrome tanned leather is usually more flexible and easier to turn. Veg tanned leather projects often use cut edge seams for a more rustic look, and also because the edges of veg tanned leather can be burnished, making them look good even when they're exposed.
Up until now I've been showing you cut edge seams, but now we are going to create a turned edge seam on the front of your bag so you see what that looks like, and how it's made.
To create a turned edge seam with the grain side of your leather facing out, you are going to sew your pattern pieces together inside out with the flesh sides facing out, and then flip them, like you would when sewing a garment.
The two pieces we are sewing together are the front of the bag and the gusset. When I am sewing two pieces like this together for the first time and I want to make sure they match up evenly, I often start sewing in the middle. To do this, match the center of your gusset piece to the bottom center of your front bag piece, then flip the gusset piece over so grain sides are facing in. Insert your needle into the hole at this center point and start sewing around in one direction. I used the one needle method here, but your could use the two needle method if you wanted.
Sew around the corners curving the gusset piece to fit around the curve.
When you get to the top of the seam, make a loop around the ends of the leather, then start sewing back down in the opposite direction, if you used the one needle method. (If you used the two needle method, backstitch here and cut off your thread, then start a new thread back at the middle to sew the other side).
When you've sewn both sides, your seam should look like this:
Now flip your seam inside out so the grain side of the leather is exposed and the stitches are hidden. Push on the seam from the inside to get the corners to pop out. It sometimes helps to trim a little off the cut edge of the seam at the corners, but be careful not to cut too much.
Step 6: Edge Binding
Most of the time it's fine to leave cut leather edges exposed with no hem, but sometimes creating an edge treatment can add structure to thin leather or help give your project a finished look. I decided to add a finished edge to the top lip of my larger bag because the combination of thinner leather and a larger design made the whole thing a bit too floppy.
After I had sewn the front turned edge seam, I sewed on a single edge binding that covered the top of the front piece and the gusset.
To do this, I first measured the width of these three pieces between seam lines, then cut a 3/4" wide strip of leather to this length (10").
I punched a line of sewing holes 1/8" in from both edges of this strip, and a corresponding line of sewing holes along the top of the bag.
Then I sewed the strip over the edge of the leather at the top of the bag with a saddle stitch creating a finished edge.
Step 7: Create a Cut Edge Seam on the Back of Your Bag
Now we are going to attach the back piece of the bag with a cut edge seam. You might not normally use these two different styles of seams on the same piece, but I want you to have a chance to try both so you can see what they look like and how they behave differently. Having a cut edge seam on the back of this bag also helps it lay flat against your body, especially if you are going to use it as an underarm holster or hip pouch.
If you are making the fringed bag, there are a couple of things you need to do before you sew this seam, so skip ahead to the next section.
When we sew the gusset to the back piece of the small bag, we are also going to be attaching the two small strap loop pieces by sandwiching them into the seam. To make this easier, use double sided tape to stick these two pieces down to the flesh side of the back bag piece at the top of the side seams. Sticking a needle through the top holes as you tape the pieces together will help you make sure sewing holes are matching up.
Now match the bottom center of the gusset to the bottom center of the back bag in the same way you did for the front seam, but this time with the grain sides out.
Begin sewing around the bag with your choice of saddle stitch.
When you get to the top of the side seam, you are going to sandwich the strap loop between the two layers of the seam and sew through all three.
Loop around one extra time to re-enforce the the top of the side seam and then sew back down the opposite way until you have repeated the same process on the other side and ended back in the middle of the bottom.
If any of the seam edges look uneven once you're done sewing, trim them until they look neat.
Step 8: Prepping the Fringed Trim for Sewing
When you sew the back seam of the large bag, you are also going to attach the fringed trim and the braided strap.
In order to sew the fringe into the seam, you need to punch a line of sewing holes along the top that will line up with the holes on the other pieces. Make sure you use a stitch punch with the same prong spacing as the other pieces.
Now line the fringed piece up on the flesh side of the back piece of the bag, with the sewing lines on top of each other. Hold the fringe in place with some double sided tape on the ends and center. Stick your awl through both layers of holes at each and and in the center to make sure they are lining up properly before you tape them together.
Step 9: Making a Braided Cross Strap
I incorporated a braid into my large bag design by adding a four strand braided strap across the front that holds the flap of the bag in place. To learn how to create this 4 strand braid and some other fun leather braid variations, check out my Instructable on Making Braided Leather.
To make my braided strap I cut a 1 1/4" wide strip of the same thicker black leather I'm using for the straps. The final braid needs to be 10 1/2" long with 1/4" seam allowance on each side to go around the front of the bag from back side seam to back side seam.
So allowing for how much the leather will shrink, the unbraided leather strip should be about 14" long.
Cut the braid into 4 equal strips, leaving 1/2" attached on one end. Then braid a four strand braid following the method I've shown you. When you get to 10 1/2", arrange the strands of the braid so they are sitting very close to each other, then stick a piece of tape across the flesh side to hold them together.
Use your stitch punch to punch a row of sewing holes through the strands of the braid. Try to situate the punch so all the tongs are making solid holes in the leather, not punching through the edges. Trim off the ends of the strands leaving about 1/4" seam allowance.
Punch another set of sewing holes in the un-cut leather at the other end of the braid.
Step 10: Sewing in the Braided Strap and Fringed Trim
Now you can sew both the fringed trim and the braided strap we just made into the back seam of your large bag with a cut edge seam.
Take the front of your bag with the turned edge seam, and line it up over the back piece with the fringe taped on. Make sure the grain side of your fringe is facing up and the flesh side of the back piece is on the inside of the bag. I started sewing in the bottom center to make sure everything was lining up right. Sew through all three layers, sandwiching the fringe between the gusset and the back.
When you get to the place where you want to attach your braided strap, (I attached mine 4" up from the bottom, but you could place it higher) sandwich the end of the braid into the seam so that it will loop over the front of the bag with the grain side facing out.
If your are sewing with one needle like I am, start back down the seam when you reach the top, filling in the other stitches. Repeat on the other side.
Step 11: Good Work!
You just learned a very crucial leatherworking skill! I hope you can see now, after tackling this leather sewing project, that hand sewing leather is really not that hard. Once you've practiced it a bit more it will become second nature. I actually find myself looking forward to the hand sewing portion of projects because I find it relaxing. I often save my hand sewing for times when I can sit in front of Netflix or listen to a podcast.
As you move forward, I definitely recommend using the two needle saddle stitching method whenever possible, because it does make for neater looking stitches, but the one needle stitch is perfectly acceptable too when using two needles is inconvenient.
Now that we've sewn our bag, it's almost done! In the next two lessons we'll add finishing touches by learning how to use a few more types of leather hardware.