Leather garments and bags are luxurious and fashionable, but are usually quite pricey when purchased from a store. Making them at home seems daunting. But did you know you can sew with leather and vinyl (aka faux leather) on your home sewing machine? It’s much easier than you think. You’ll need to make a few adjustments, but it is totally possible.
Leather is one of the oldest fabrics out there. Leather making is an ancient art that dates back more than 7,000 years. Ancient civilizations dried hides in the sun and softened them by pounding them out. Then, they salted and smoked the hides to preserve them. During the middle ages, the Arab people refined and improved the art of leather making, and leathers became highly prized artifacts. The Egyptians began to develop leather-making skills as well and used this material for clothing, tools, gloves, arms, and decoration. The Romans also used leather for footwear, clothing, shields, and harnesses. It really does have a long and storied history.
Fast forward to the present day, the process of leather making has been streamlined even further. Leather is now widely available commercially, and many faux leather substitutes have hit the market. Leather’s popularity only continues to grow, with the global leather goods market estimated to be worth over $629 billion dollars by 2025.
Leather jackets, bags, shoes, jewelry, pants, dresses, and skirts are everywhere these days. They’re stylish while also being practical, as leather is a sturdy material that lasts when taken care of. In this tutorial, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to make fashionable leather garments from home.
Leather Vs. Vinyl
The first thing to decide when beginning a leather project is whether or not you want to use real leather. Vinyl, or faux leather, is made to look almost identical to the real thing and can easily be used in place of leather for certain projects. There are, however, a few key differences between the two fabrics.
Leather is made by tanning animal skins or hides. Leather is thick, flexible, and soft to the touch. Vinyl is a synthetic fabric made from a combination of resin and plastic. It has a variety of uses, from records to flooring, but is most popular as a vegan leather substitute. They can look nearly identical to each other; however, leather is much more durable and long-lasting when it’s properly cared for. Leather also becomes softer over time, while vinyl is subject to cracking and splitting.
When it comes to sewing, there isn’t a huge difference between working with leather and working with vinyl. Vinyl often has a fabric backing on the wrong side that makes it easier to sew. Sewing on the right side of leather or vinyl is usually tricky, as the shiny surface can prevent the material from gliding through the sewing machine.
When deciding whether to work with leather or vinyl, consider the cost, as well as the durability. If you’ve never sewn with leather before, it may be a good idea to start with vinyl. Since vinyl is cheaper, you can afford to make more mistakes. Vinyl is also not made from animal products, so people who follow a vegan diet may choose to go this route.
If you’re a bit more experienced, or you want a product that will last a long time without splitting or cracking, we recommend investing in real leather.
How To Sew Leather
Once you’ve decided between sewing with leather and vinyl, you can begin planning your project. Follow the steps listed below to ensure that your leather project comes out clean and professional.
Choose The Correct Thickness
While you can sew leather on your home sewing machine, you won’t be able to run just any type of leather through without hassle. You’ll need to choose a thickness of vinyl or leather that your machine can handle. Since leather is so thick, it’s best to avoid sewing two layers of leather on top of each other. For areas like pockets, use leather/vinyl on the flap and fabric underneath.
For leather, we recommend choosing lighter varieties, like sheepskin or thinner goatskin. Heavy leathers should really only be sewn on specialized machines with strong motors. For vinyl, choose one with thin to medium thickness.
It’s also important to pay attention to the finish of the leather you choose. Leathers come in all types of finishes, from matte to satin to suede to patent. For home sewing, we recommend choosing a matte or satin finish. Shiny finishes like patents won’t work on a home machine, as they are too sticky.
Select Leather Needles
Did you know there are special needles made just for sewing leather? Leather sewing needles are extremely sturdy and sharp, so they can pierce through the leather without skipping stitches.
When choosing a needle, look for one that is appropriate to the thickness of leather you’re sewing. The thicker the leather, the larger the needle you’ll need to pierce through it. Generally, leather needles will be in sizes 14-18 for average leather thickness.
Pay close attention to your stitching, as needles can easily be bent or become blunt when working with such thick material. If you’re working in a dimly lit space, we recommend investing in a sewing machine LED light, so you can see if your machine begins to skip stitches. If you noticed skipped stitches, replace your needle and keep going.
Select Your Foot
Sewing leather is easiest with a roller foot or a Teflon foot, rather than a regular foot. Leather or vinyl will stick to the bottom of a traditional foot, while a roller or Teflon foot stops it from sticking and feeds the fabric through evenly, keeping the tension and allowing for even stitches. A walking foot is also a great option here.
If you can’t get your hands on a specialty foot, you can sew your leather with tissue paper. Placing tissue paper over your leather as you sew helps the foot glide across the leather without sticking. Then, you can just rip out the tissue paper when you’re finished. Rip the tissue paper out carefully so you don’t cause loops in your stitching.
Use A Hammer
It may sound strange to hammer fabric, but since leather cannot be pressed or steamed, a hammer is a great alternative. When a pattern calls for seams to be pressed, gently hammer them. Select a hammer with a large, flat hitting surface. If you need your seams to be really flat, you can place a bit of leather glue between them before hammering. This will help to reduce bulk so the machine can stitch the layers together with ease.
Select High-quality Thread
Since leather is so thick and tough, you’ll need a strong, high-quality thread that won’t break as you sew. We recommend a strong polyester thread. There are also specialty leather threads that work well for topstitching and seams that need to be durable. Avoid threads that are 100% cotton, as the chemicals in leather can rot this thread over time.
While pins usually make discrete holes in fabric that are invisible to the naked eye, the marks they make in leather are much more noticeable. Avoid pinning any area that will be seen on the finished garment. Instead, you can use clips, double-sided tape, or even leather glue. If you choose to use leather glue, choose one that dries clear. If you must pin, do it along the seam allowance, where the holes won’t be visible on the finished garment.
Use Longer Stitches
When sewing leather, it’s a good idea to use longer stitches, as shorter ones can perforate the leather. When straight stitching, we recommend using a length of 3.0. While most of your leather sewing will use straight stitches, zig-zag stitches can hold down raw edges and add a unique decorative look. Use a zig-zag stitch with a width of 5.0 and a length of 2.5.
Sewing leather can seem intimidating, but if you utilize the tips and tricks above, you should be able to follow any pattern with ease. Leather and vinyl do behave differently than other fabrics, but if you learn how to work with them and keep your patience, you’ll be able to create beautiful, fashionable, durable garments without a hassle.
The most important thing to remember when working with leather is to invest in quality tools, like sturdy needles and thick thread. Since leather is so thick and sturdy, cheap materials won’t pierce through it or last through use. By upgrading your materials and making some adjustments to your machine, you’ll equip yourself and your home sewing machine to handle the unique challenges that working with leather presents.
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