An Expert's Guide on How to Sew Leather by Hand
The saddle stitch offers a stronger suture than the traditional lock stitch created by sewing machines.
Have you ever wondered how to create or repair leather items without using an industrial sewing machine? Here, I'll show you how to make beautiful leather pieces using a manual saddle stitch technique. You will need the right tools, so be sure to stock up before getting started. If you want to delve deeper and learn more about hand-sewing leather, start by reading Al Stohlman's book The Art of Hand Sewing Leather. It's a favorite of mine and a phenomenal resource.
In this tutorial, you'll learn how to use the following materials for hand-sewing:
- Stitching groover (Try: Craftool E-Z Adjust Stitching Groover, $25, tandyleather.com.)
- Overstitch wheel (Try: Craftool Overstitcher, $20, tandyleather.com.)
- Stitching awl (Try: Craftool Pro Stitching Awl, $30, tandyleather.com.)
- Leather stitching needles (Try: Stitching needle, $4 for 10, tandyleather.com.)
- Waxed thread (Try: White Waxed Ultra Lightweight Cord, $5 per roll, mainethread.com.)
- Rubber cement (Try: Elmer's Rubber Cement, $3.50, dickblick.com.)
Step 1: Using Rubber Cement
To get started on hand-sewing leather, I like to use rubber cement; it helps hold the leather together while sewing, but it offers a light enough bond to allow a second chance to line things up to precision (which isn't always the case with other types of glue). Apply a light coat of rubber cement to both pieces of leather, then press them together when the cement is nearly dry.
Step 2: Work a Groove Into the Leather
Now that you have things secured in place, put a groove on the leather with a stitching groover. This tool does two things: It presents a nice straight line to stitch on and removes a small amount of leather to provide a trench that the stitch can sink into, which can help protect the thread.
Step 3: Mark Stitch Spacing
Utilizing the groove you just made, use an overstitch wheel to mark the thread spacing. As it's name implies, this craft tool marks exactly where to stitch and creates a shallow channel to sink your stitches further into the leather. Overstitch wheels come in different sizes that vary the spaced length of your stitching. We're using a number six size in this sewing tutorial. If you're unsure of which size to use, remember this rule: the number refers to the amount of stitches per inch.
Step 4: Use a Stitching Awl
Create holes for sewing into the leather. A stitching awl, used here, is the best tool for the job. The awl is reminiscent of an ice pick, but it has a diamond-shaped blade with sharp cutting edges to pierce holes into the leather rather than tear holes, as a round metal point would. When using it, pierce through the leather on each of the dots created by the overstitch wheel. Make sure that you keep the awl at a 90-degree angle when piercing the leather to ensure that the spacing is consistent on each side for uniform stitching.
Step 5: Lock the Needle
For any hand-sewn leather project, you will need a length of thread that measures three times the area coverage. For the saddle stitch, you will use two needles: one on either end of the thread. Here's a trick I like to use when sewing leather: lock the needle into the thread. To do this, run the waxed thread through the needle eyelet then pull it through further by about an inch. Next, pierce the thread with the needle point (as shown) and push this loop around the needle upwards towards the eyelet. With end of the thread that initially passed through the eyelet, pull out the slack that was created with this adjustment. Holding the needle, pull the loop over the eyelet to lock the needle in place. By securing the thread this way, you won't have to worry about it sliding off of the needle while you sew. Repeat on the other end so you have two needles on the thread, one on each end.
In the following steps, I will be using a stitching pony to help with the process. This model pictured here features a wooden "turn- key" with jaws that hold the leather in place while stitching and ensures a stable work station. This is an optional accessory, however it is handy to have around as an extra hand to help hold the project in place while working on it.
Step 6: Start to Stitch
To begin your stitch, sew through the first hole, making sure the lengths of thread are even on each side. Continue to sew through the same hole with both needles, each time passing through the same hole from opposite sides. Continue this back-and-forth sewing technique, pulling the thread snug with each pass, until you have reached the end of your project. If you are having difficulty with the needles getting stuck in the leather, try widening the holes further with the stitching awl or using a pair of needle-nose pliers to help pull through the leather.