My very first leather project ended in disaster, not because I had chosen the wrong leather or made a mistake in cutting the leather. It was a disaster because of the toddler-esque stitching. The stitches were all over the place, and my first project was an abysmal failure!
Learning the what, where, and how of leather stitches has been crucial to my success as a leatherworker.
Leather stitches can be either functional or decorative. The most common hand stitch used is the saddle stitch. Decorative leather stitching uses the same stitches as embroidery. Hand stitching is stronger than machine stitching and can be done with either one or two needles.
Initially, leather stitching seems like the easiest thing in the world until you’re faced with the stitching of a specific project. It is easy to feel overwhelmed as you wonder which leather stitch you should use?
Will it be strong enough or pretty enough? What thread should you use, waxed, unwaxed, synthetic, natural, etc.?
Related: Gray Leather Sofas | Faux Leather vs. Real Leather | Leather Cutting Tools | Leather vs. Fabric Sofas | Living Rooms with Leather Furniture | Bonded Leather vs. Faux Leather | Types of Leather Sofas | Faux Leather vs. Microfiber | Leatherette vs. Faux Leather | Faux Leather vs. Synthetic Leather | What is Faux Leather | Faux Leather vs. Vinyl | Types of Ropes
Machine Stitching Leather?
The majority of leather stitching in the clothing, upholstery, and automotive industry is done by machine. Machine-stitching allows two pieces of leather to be rapidly stitched to produce a uniform finish.
What Thickness Of Leather Can Be Machine Stitched?
Machine-stitching is best performed on supple, thin leathers that are easily bent around a seam. The thickness of bridle or harness leather can make machine stitching very difficult. The needles will keep breaking if the leather is too thick!
Very thin leather, like calf Nappa, can be stitched on a small home sewing machine. However, an industrial sewing machine will be needed when stitching more than two layers together or when stitching thick leather.
As a general rule:
- Leathers between 0,8mm and 1mm can be stitched on a home sewing machine.
- Leather between 1mm to 3mm need to be stitched by an industrial sewing machine.
- Specialized industry-specific sewing machines are required to sew leathers that are 3mm or thicker.
Which Threads Are Suitable For Machine Stitching Leather?
Sewing machines can be pre-programmed to specific stitches allowing all the seams to be perfectly formed with minimal variation. Machine-stitching can only be done using unwaxed nylon or polyester thread. Cotton threads should never be used with leather, as the tannin in leather degrades cotton.
Hand Stitching Leather
When studying traditional leatherwork, one of the fundamental skills to master is hand stitching. Hand stitching is formally defined as the manual application of stitches to a specific project.
Hand stitching is an incredibly time-consuming process. As you gain experience with stitching leather, you will become faster. However, hand stitching will always be slower than machine stitching.
Both hand stitching and machine stitching requires attention to detail and technical skill. But the errors made in hand stitching will be more evident than those made in machine stitching. It is much easier to obtain a regular uniform stitch line when machine stitching than hand stitching.
Which Threads Are Suitable For Hand Stitching Leather?
Hand stitching can be done using waxed or unwaxed threads. Waxing the thread before stitching protects the thread from moisture and mildew.
Traditional leather stitching was done using sinew thread. Modern leather artisans primarily use synthetic sinew, nylon, or polyester in their leather projects.
Does Hand Stitching Cause Your Hands To Become Sore And Tired?
A leatherworkers hands become more tired and damaged when hand stitching than machine stitching. It requires significant effort to pass the awl through the leather, especially if the leather is very thick.
Beginners will often complain of hand pain after completing a project. This pain will eventually subside as they learn the correct stitching techniques. Their skin will toughen up, and the muscles strengthen, preventing muscle fatigue associated with early stitching attempts.
It is not uncommon to find that traditional leatherworkers are retiring younger than expected due to permanent damage to their hands. Professional leatherworkers will often have thick calluses across their palms and fingers.
Why Do Private Leatherworkers Prefer Hand Stitching To Machine Stitching?
Despite these drawbacks, hand stitching is still the preferred technique in high-end products using heavy leather. New leatherworkers and experienced artisans prefer hand stitching for the following reasons:
- The tools required for hand stitching are much cheaper than those needed for machine stitching.
- The stitches in hand-stitched items are more durable, robust, and stronger than machine-stitched items.
- Although hand stitching is more difficult to master than machine stitching, there is a greater sense of ownership and personalization when you do eventually master hand stitching.
Is Hand Stitched Leather Better Than Machine Stitched Leather?
Both hand stitching and machine stitching have advantages and disadvantages. Which stitching technique is best will depend on the project being completed and which factors are weighted as being most important, i.e., cost, time, appearance, and strength.
Principles Of A Machine Stitch
Machine-stitching requires the use of two threads. A top thread is passed partially through the leather where it hooks or locks around the bottom thread, which has also been partially passed through the leather.
The top thread is then pulled back to the top and the bottom thread to the bottom in preparation for the next stitch. This type of stitch is called a locked stitch regardless of the stitch pattern used.
The Delicate Balance Of Stitch Tension In A Machine Stitch
The integrity of a lock stitch is dependent on the preservation of stitch tension. Stitch tension will be lost if one of the threads frays or snaps. It may also be lost if the leather is damaged and tears along the stitch line.
Once the stitch tension is compromised, the stitch will begin to run. A stitch that runs refers to a stitching line that has become unstitched. If you have ever pulled on a thread in your shirt, and the seam has unraveled, you will have firsthand experience witnessing this phenomenon.
Principles Of Hand Stitching
By contrast, hand stitching refers to a needle and thread passed through the leather pieces from front to back and then back to the front. Even two-handed stitching is essentially one thread passed through the leather in a specific pattern using two needles.
Do All Modern Sewing Machines Use A Lock Stitch?
Modern sewing machines are capable of producing a wide variety of stitch patterns. However, even the most advanced sewing machine still employs the lock stitch and cannot recreate the same stitches used for hand stitching.
A few high-end sewing machines are marketed as performing a saddle stitch, as you would find in a hand-stitched product. This marketing strategy is excellent for convincing people to buy the device but is technically inaccurate.
These machines can use a thicker thread mimicking the strength of a saddle stitch but are still reliant on lock stitch principles.
Which Technique Produces A Stronger And More Durable Stitch: Hand Stitching Or Machine Stitching?
Hand stitching is much more durable than machine stitched items. If one stitch breaks in a hand-stitched leather piece, the stitch line will not become unraveled.
Furthermore, hand stitching is stronger than machined stitching as less tension is placed on the thread in hand-stitched items than machine-stitched items.
Why Are Hand Stitched Items More Expensive Than Machine Stitched Items?
Hand-stitched leather items are more expensive than machine stitched items because hand stitching:
- It is more labor-intensive
- Takes more time
- Requires more skill to do well
What Hand Stitches Are Best Used For Functional Leather Stitching?
When stitching a leather item, the stitch may serve one of two purposes:
- Decorative embellishment to enhance the appearance of the project.
- To join two leather edges together to ensure the structural integrity of a leather project.
What Stitches Can Be Placed When Doing Single-Needle Stitching?
When hand stitching a project, one or two needles are used. One-needle stitching is where one needle is threaded onto a single thread and used to place the stitches. When the needle is threaded through the leather, the first stitch is placed near the end of the thread opposite the needle end.
Single needle stitching may be used to create the following stitches:
- Running stitch
- Single stitch
- Embroidery stitches
Single needle stitching is not widely used for large stitching sections as most leather artisans prefer two-needle stitching techniques for functional stitching. Single-needle stitching is often the preferred method for the placement of embroidery stitches and other decorative stitching.
What Stitches Can Be Placed When Doing Two-Needle Stitching?
Stitching with two needles is sometimes called two-handed stitching. When using a two-needle stitching technique, a needle is threaded onto either end of a single thread. The threaded needle is then passed through the leather, and the first stitch is made using the middle of the thread.
Two-needle stitching techniques can be used to create the following stitches:
- Saddle stitch
- Box stitch
- Butt stitch
- Cross stitch
- A modified cross-stitch (as used in the automotive industry for steering wheels)
- French seam stitch
- American or baseball stitch
Two-needle stitching is the most widely used stitching technique when hand-stitching. With practice, two-needle stitching is performed quickly without compromising the strength or appearance of the final stitch line.
What Stitches Are Best Used For Decorative Leather Stitching?
Decorative stitching rarely serves any structural purpose and is typically added for embellishment. Many of the stitches developed for traditional cloth embroidery can also be used successfully with leather.
Can You Do Decorative Stitching On Any Leather?
The best leathers to do complex embroidery on are the thinner, more flexible leathers. However, thicker vegetable tanned leather and even bridle leather can have simple decorative designs stitched into their surfaces, as seen in this horse bridle.
Must Decorative Leather Stitching Be Done By A Sewing Machine Or By Hand?
Leather embroidery and decorative stitching can be done by hand or machine. As with any machine stitching, there is a risk that the entire stitch line may unravel if a thread pulls loose.
However, when this happens to decorative stitching, it does not damage the structural integrity, but the leather’s appearance will suffer.
Automated and computerized industrial embroidery machines can be programmed to perform complex embroidery patterns. It is undoubtedly much faster to embroider using a sewing machine than to do so by hand. Despite this, many people still embroider using hand stitching.
Which Decorative Stitches Are Used On Leather?
The thicker the leather, the more laborious it is to stitch; this applies to functional and decorative stitches. Due to the difficulty of stitching thick leather, simple decorative stitches are used of leather with a thickness greater than 2,5mm.
The following stitches are widely used for both thicker and thinner types of leather:
- Stem stitch
- Straight stitch
- Blanket stitch
- Chevron stitch
- Herringbone stitch
- Cross stitch
More complex and densely packed stitched are reserved for soft, flexible leathers. The types of stitches seen in these embroider designs include:
- Cable stitch
- Chain stitch
- Lazy daisy stitch
- Fly stitch
- Feather stitch
- Seed stitch
- Fishbone stitch
- French knot
- Bullion stitch
- Satin stitch
- Hemstitching with variations
What Is Lacing?
Leather lacing is a type of stitching, where instead of using nylon, polyester, or sinew, you use leather strips for stitching. This leather “thread” can be a flat or rounded cord.
Traditional tack used by American cowboys, Spanish caballero, and Mexican vaqueros all used decorative lacing on their horse’s tack.
Lacing is different from leather braiding. In leather braiding, strips of leather are wrapped around each other to create a single cord.
Lacing, by contrast, is where the leather cord is passed through large holes in the leather. The leather cord is used to bind two pieces of leather together or embellish the leather border.
Lacing has been used for many generations and has demonstrated excellent durability. Varju and Company have a stunningly beautiful close-up shot of lacing on their website.
What Are The Different Types Of Lacing Stitches Used?
As with traditional leather stitching, a vast variety of stitches can be used when lacing leather. The lacing stitch chosen will vary according to the desired appearance.
The following stitches are commonly used when lacing leather:
- Whip Stitch
- Wide Whip
- Mummy Wrapping
- Back Whip
- Cross Stitch
- Bogin’s Stitch
- Round Braid
- Single Cordovan
- Double Cordovan
- Treble Cordovan
- Lazy S
- Dot Stitch
How Far From The Edge Must I Place My Stitch Line?
Choosing where to place your stitch line will affect the strength and appearance of your project. If the stitch line is placed too close to the leather edge, the stitch can rip through the leather edge. A ripped hemline is an unsightly mistake that affects the structural integrity of your project.
Placing the stitch line too far from the edge will leave a thick border that may gape open. Border’s that are not stitched firmly together will tend to bend backward, creating awkward profile lines.
The stitch line is placed at the same distance from the edge as the combined thickness of all the leather layers forming the seam.
If you stitch two layers of 2mm leather pieces together, the combined thickness is 4mm. Therefore, the stitch line should be placed at least 4mm from the edge of the leather.
How Big Or Small Should My Stitches Be?
There is no hard and fast rule to determine the ideal stitch length. Luxury bridles and horse tack often uses a stitch length of 12 to 10 stitch per inch. Each stitch will be approximately 2,1mm long for the former and 2,54mm for the latter.
Most bags, belts, and functional horse tack are made with a stitch length of 5-6 stitches per inch, with a stitch length of approximately 4mm.
The following factors all affect the choice of stitch line:
- The thickness and robustness of the leather being stitched
- The size of the thread and punched holes
- The desired aesthetic
- The intended use of the product, i.e., the strain the seam will be subjected to.
- The type of stitch being used.
There are stitch-specific formulas that are used to estimate the final seam strength. Understanding these formulas can guide you in determining the ideal stitch length. Two examples of these formulas are:
Lockstitch formula (the same thread is used for the needle and bobbin)
Stitches per inch x thread strength x 1.5 = estimated seam strength of a straight lock stitch
Chainstitch formula (the same thread is used for the needle and bobbin)
Stitches per inch x thread strength x 1.7 = estimated seam strength of a straight lock stitch
Stitching leather can be a difficult skill to master. Learning how to stitch leather correctly is essential to the quality of the finished piece.
Leather stitching may be functional or decorative, done by hand or machine. Machine-stitching is much faster and more accurate, but the thread is more vulnerable to damage. A damaged machine-stitched line will unravel due to the nature of the lock stitch used in machine stitching.
Hand stitching is slower and more challenging to master than machine stitching. One or two-needle techniques are used with hand stitching. Functional hand stitching is almost always performed using two needles.
Brain Kart: Decorative Stitches
The Thread Exchange: The Waxed Thread Guide
Varju and Co.: Leather lacing in practice
The Lexington Horse: Pessoa® PRO Fancy Stitched Tapered Bridle
Tack Makers: Fancy Stitch Horse Halters, Black Full
Koinor: Decorative Seams
Maze Leather: 7 Different ways to stitch leather by hand
American and Efird: Seam Engineering