Updated: Nov 2, 2022
How To Sew Leather with a Standard Sewing Machine
When I tell people that I sew leather bags, they always respond, "You must have a fancy machine for that!" Nope, couldn't afford such a thing. In fact, I started sewing leather with my mom's old Singer and when that broke down I bought a low-end Baby Lock programable machine that has more bells and whistles. Whether you've got an old or updated machine, the process is the same.
It took a lot of trial and error for me to figure it out so I'll share what I learned to save you the trouble!
Tip #1 - Choose garment leather
The leather used in the production of jackets, coats, skirts, and pants is softer and more flexible to allow it to move with the wearer's body. As a result, garment leather is thinner than the typical hides used for most leather craft and is suitable for machine sewing.
Tip #2 - Choose the correct machine accessories
When sewing with garment leather you need to use the correct accessories. These include:
Leather needles - Leather needles have a thicker shaft so they will penetrate leather without bending. They also have a larger eye to accommodate thicker thread if you want extra strength in your seams. In addition they have a chisel point to make a clean stitch without damaging the leather.
Singer and Schmetz both offer leather needles and you can find them at Joanne, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, and most sewing machine supply stores.
Walking foot - One of the biggest challenges of machine sewing with garment leather is that it stretches. When you're sewing two pieces of leather together with right sides facing each other, you'll find that the top piece stretches out longer than the bottom piece. This makes your project a twisted mess. The solution is a walking foot. My machine came with a walking foot along with the standard foot, zipper foot, and others. If yours didn't, check the manufacturer's site for one.
It's a bit tricky to install a walking foot because there is a little arm that needs to fit onto the needle screw holder while you tighten the presser foot holder screw. It takes a little practice but when you get the hang of it, it's no problem.
Longer stitch length - When you sew leather, even with a machine, you are making a permanent hole in the material. If you use a standard 2.5 stitch length, you're likely to end up with a line of holes that splits the leather along the seam line like perforations in a piece of paper. I find that a 3.5 stitch length works well although you will want to experiment with your particular piece of garment leather to figure out what will work best.
Tip #3 - Choose clips
Pins will make a permanent hole in leather, too. To hold my leather together when I'm sewing I use binder clips that are designed for paper. They are cheap and come in a variety of sizes to fit your project. In the picture above you can see pins holding my lining to a zipper, and a pink binder clip holding the leather to the lining.
Tip #4 - Measure twice, sew once
When I'm sewing a project with fabric, I often find myself "un-sewing" a seam that I messed up. Inside out, upside down, wrong sides together - you name it, I've done it. Sewing with leather is a challenge for me because that's not possible. Once the needle has made the holes in the leather for a stitch, you can't undo them. Sometimes I can smooth the leather a bit with my fingers and make them less noticeable, but sometimes they just stare back at me. If you are a more precise sewer you won't have this problem. But if you are like me, remember to test your stitch on a piece of scrap leather first and double check that your pieces are lined up correctly before you start sewing.
One more thing...
Remember to use high-quality leather cleaning and polishing products. I prefer waxes over creams because they don't leave wet spots on the garment leather. Blackrock leather is a family-owned company in the U.S. and they make excellent products:
With these tips, you can sew leather projects from garment leather with your standard sewing machine. It takes practice (remember when you were learning how to thread your machine?) but it is rewarding once you figure it out. I've made hundreds of leather bags and you can too!
I would love to see your leather creations. Send me a pic in an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.