Tips for Sewing Leather
Making leather garments can be intimidating. Leather skins are relatively expensive and there is no room for adjustments as stitching marks are permanent. I’ve discovered a few tips that make sewing leather look more professional.
Always, always make a test garment in medium weight muslin. Get the fit perfect before cutting anything in leather. The test garment can be taken apart and used as a pattern. I mark using chalk or a soft lead pencil. Ink pens tend to smear and the marks can be permanent. Even if used on the wrong side, pen marks can bleed through to the face.
I was surprised to learn that leather can be steam pressed. Many sources advise against pressing, but unless you use loads of heavy steam, it works just fine. Having a teflon shoe for your iron helps protect the leather. Teflon shoes are available from most tailoring supply sources and are specific to the iron. Here’s mine for the Naomoto gravity feed iron. Make sure you also get a steam diffuser, which is a piece of heavy felt lining the shoe. The diffuser spreads the steam more evenly and prevents marks from the steam jets. Both are available from Wawak and other sources.
Gentle steam pressing is effective at removing creases. Here’s a sample that I intentionally left folded for awhile and the result of steam pressing. Some sources advised using leather tape (also known as cold tape) to stabilize the seams. The tape can be difficult to source and is a PIA to stitch through as it gums up the needle. Narrow strips of lightweight fusible interfacing worked fine.
Darts can be difficult to press flat so I sew darts this way:
Cut away the dart. Spray a scrap of leather with temporary quilt basting spray. Carefully line up the sides of the dart and finger press gently to tack the dart closed. I position one side first; then align the second side. Doing this over a tailors ham helps get the proper contour.
I’m using a leather roller foot on my Bernina; the roller feet are are also available for industrial machines and probably other brands.
Here’s the settings for Bernina. I’ve positioned the needle left of center so it stitches very close to the roller. I’ve also threaded the machine with two strands of polyester thread and wound the bobbin with two strands. Topstitching thread was a little too thick and a single strand of thread didn’t seem enough. I was surprised that the machine sewed fine with two strands in the bobbin. No adjusting was needed. Be sure and use polyester thread. The chemicals used in tanning leather will degrade cotton thread over time.
I prefer the clean look of invisible zippers but they can be tricky to get right and you can’t remove misplaced stitch marks. Use a zipper at least 2 inches longer than the finished length. In this method you’ll need the extra length to pull the zipper slide out of the way for stitching. I stabilize the seam with lightweight fusible interfacing. Press it on the wrong side using an iron fitted with a Teflon shoe. Stitch the seam closed up to the zipper. Lightly steam press (I also use a press cloth or brown paper when working on the right side) and pound the seam open. I use a soft face mallet and place the seam over a rounded wooden stick to prevent the seam allowance from making an impression on the right side.
Measure the width of the zipper tape. This one is 7/8 inch. Mark exactly 1/2 of this width (7/16) on the inside seam allowance of each side of the zipper opening. Pin the zipper along the marked line placing pins within seam allowance only. Machine baste along outer edge of zipper tape.
Repeat for the other side of the zipper. The zipper is now basted in place but since the basting stitches are on the outer edges there is enough room to reach in with narrow nose pliers or a clamp and pull the slide below where the zipper will stop. Mark where the zipper will stop. Using a regular zipper foot (an invisible zipper foot won’t work as it doesn’t allow you to end exactly where the seam begins), roll the coil out of the way and stitch close to the zipper coil. Stop exactly at the mark. I pull threads through and tie rather than back-stitching which would weaken the seam in leather. Now pull the slide to the zipper top using pliers if necessary.
The stitching should look like this. Notice that the seam line stitches and zipper coil stitches don’t line up exactly. The zipper coil stitches are slightly further into the seam allowance. If the stitching lines weren’t offset just this small amount, you would get the dreaded pucker at the bottom of the zipper. Here’s the completed zipper installation totally smooth and no tell-tale sign of where the zipper stops.
Sewing hooks and eyes on the waistband for a closure won’t work too well. I use a hook and bar with prongs and a backing plate. The waistband has been sewn on from the right side. I’ve interfaced it with Petersham ribbon and added a rectangle of Ban-Rol (a rigid interfacing which resists tearing) to support the fasteners and prevent them ripping through the leather. I’ve used an awl to create small holes for the prongs. The hardest part is determining the exact location before punching holes.
Once the bars and hooks are in place, fold the waistband over and stitch close to the previous stitching. Trim on the underside.