faux leather jacket

How to sew leather: Simple tips for less stress

Ever wonder how to sew leather?

Casually mention sewing with leather in a conversation to a sewing friend, and see if beads of sweat form on her forehead.

Whether it’s faux leather or the real deal, leather has a certain presence and an attitude that say a cotton twill does not.  Along with that attitude comes some tough sewing that might steer you away from even giving leather projects a try.

And while leather is not a fabric for beginners, a little practice and the right tools can go a long way in giving any intermediate and advancing sewist the confidence to tackle this special material.

Today we’re talking about how to sew leather. You’ll learn what kinds of things you can make with leather and tools for sewing with leather.  Plus we’ll talk about techniques you can use to make sewing with leather an actual fun and not terrifying experience.

Basics of leather

​Who would win: industrial sewing machine vs. home sewing machine

Leather is both very thick and has a tendency to stick.  So the question you must ask: can I sew leather with my home sewing machine, or is an industrial sewing machine better?

​No doubt the strong motor of an industrial machine will make sewing easier.  That being said, it’s 100% probable to sew leather with home machines.

Is hand sewing leather a good idea?

Yes, it’s possible to hand sew leather, but make sure that you’re armed with leather sewing needles for hand sewing.  It’s also helpful to have pre-punched holes for sewing leather by hand.  An ice pick or a stitching awl can help you make a line of holes in your leather that’ll make stitching a stitch line of hand leather stitches easy.  I have a friend who does a lot of leather work by hand for medieval reenactments, and he has special tools for pre-punching the holes.  Be sure to use thimbles and know that sewing leather by hand is tough work!  I once had to repair a zipper in one of my boots, and I had to use flat-head pliers to push the needle through the leather!

Real leather

There’s so many different weights and types of leather and faux leathers.

If you really want an education on leather, check out a leather dealer.  I’m lucky enough to have a Tandy Leather shop in my area.  The guys in that shop are unbelievably helpful!

Leather can be made from the skin of many different animals.  Cowhides, goatskins, pigskins, and lambskins are common types.  Within those types, you’ll find a huge variety of finishes, colors, and weights.  When you’re looking for leather, have your project in mind so you can make a good choice.

Leather is sold by the square foot.  Since the skin used to be on an animal, it’s not nice and square like yardage is.  You may need several pieces of leather to have what you need for a leather project.  

The nice thing is that there’s no grain to leather.  This is cool because you can just about use every last bit of the leather as you cram your pattern pieces on it puzzle-style.

It has some advantages over faux leather–mostly it’s more durable.  Real leather also is more luxurious to wear + it has a smell that is inimitable.

The big “but” here is that the up-front price on real leather is steep.  I have some leather tucked away for a jacket that I bought at the FIDM Scholarship Store in L.A.  That store is less expensive than most, and I still just about passed a gallstone over the price.  But real leather with all it’s hard-wearing ways can be a great investment that’ll get years of use.

If you want to sew with leather, start practicing with either faux leather or seek out an alternative source.  Leather is one of my top picks in 15 unusual  sources for sewing supplies at thrift stores, and for good reason.  I was able to find 2 whole leather coats for my Halloween sewing for $5.   

Faux leather

If you’re not into using leather for ethical reasons, you’re in luck because there are tons of options when it comes to faux leather.

You’ll see faux leather marketed sometimes as “vegan leather” or “pleather” or even “leatherette”. Pleather is an abbreviation of polyurethane leather.

Whatever the case, faux leather is made by adding a top layer of polyurethane or something similar to a base layer. Base layers can be knits, cotton, polyester, nylon or rayon.

And if they smell like plastic, it’s because they are at least in part. The process of making faux leather can involve laminating, plasticizing ingredients, stabilizers and lubricants to make the fabric more flexible.

The biggest advantage faux leather has over the real deal is price. You can find faux leather for a few dollars a yard vs. well, the price of leather.

On the downside, faux leather is easier to damage and it can actually be harder to work with.

The biggest thing to know when you go shopping for faux leather is to avoid the upholstery leather like the plague. Upholstery faux leathers are HEAVY. Can you make a garment from them? Yes, but the struggle will be all too real.

Always be looking for lighter weight fashion faux leathers. They’re made for making garments, and you’ll find them much easier to sew. Find some places to get both faux and real leathers in the Ultimate Jumbo Mega Guide to Online Fabric Stores.

What can you make with leather?

Leather is great for a variety of sewing projects.  Use it for leather belts, leather bags, keychains.  These basic, straight stitch sewing projects are a great way to get your feet wet with leather.  A 7-minute DIY zipper bag would be great here!  If you’re more advanced and want to attempt leather garments, leather jackets are really fun to make even if they take a long time.

On the more advanced end, use leather for pants, jackets, vests, tops, or even coats. You can also use it on garments as accents. Leather yokes, shoulder pieces or elbow patches are common ways to use leather on a garment without having to make a full leather project.

How to sew leather: Tools you need for sewing with leather

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Sewing machine feetTeflon or ultraglide, roller foot
Sewing machine needlesLeather or denim needles (lightest to heaviest): sizes 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, or 110/18
Threadall-purpose polyester for lighter weight leathers, upholstery thread for heavier leathers
Press clothany cotton or silk organza, and make it big!
Leather press rollerGreat for pressing leather without heat, a must for real leather
GluesRubber cement, glue stick, specialized leather glue, double sided leather tape
Rotary cutter + pattern weightsfor clean accurate cutting
Clipspaperclips, Wonder Clips or binder clips to hold seams together while sewing
Snaps + setterTraditional buttonholes will damage leather, snaps are the way to go if you need closures other than zippers unless you want to use bound buttonholes

I need glue for sewing with leather?

Weird, but true.  Use it to hold multiple layers together when you’re sewing them  as in a belt.

Also use leather glues such as rubber cement or leathercraft glue to hold down a seam allowance on the wrong side.  Leather likes to poof up even if you’ve used a leather roller to open the seam allowances.  Hold them in place with leather glue or a leather adhesive tape.  

Double sided basting tapes can be a less messy way to handle your leather seam allowances and hems!

On to leather sewing tips…

How to sew leather: Must know tips for sewing with leather

Use the right needle

Always be sure to use leather sewing needles when you sew with leather.  For thick leather, be sure to use a larger size leather needle.  Thinner leathers can use a smaller size.  I like a 100/16 for most of my leather sewing and a 90/14 for slightly thinner leathers.  Always practice on scrap leather so that you can get the hang of stitching with your particular leather for your project.

Sewing machine feet showdown: roller foot vs. teflon foot

Leather is going to stick to the bed of your sewing machine. Period.

This can lead to all kinds of problems from topstitching that’s too close together to uneven seams.

You can combat this problem with the right sewing machine foot. Your two best candidates are: a teflon (also called an ultraglide foot) or a roller foot.

Do NOT use a walking foot with leather. It’s tempting, but that little arm on the walking foot that keeps stuff moving through will leave icky stretch marks on the leather.

To decide which foot is best, you really need to practice on scraps. I like the roller foot when the layers are right sides together, but I found the roller got stuck when I was topstitching.

The teflon foot is wonderful for topstitching, and mostly okay when stitching a seam. It has a tendency to skip stitches, especially when going over a seam intersection.

Do you fitting before

If you’re sewing leather into an actual garment, make sure you know exactly how your garment is going to fit.

Leather in general is a high risk fabric because you really can’t unpick seams. If you’re making a jacket, do a muslin beforehand so you know exactly how those seams are going to fit.

Think before you do

Think through your sewing process before you start sewing leather.  Knowing what’s coming next and how you’re going to accomplish the next step will save you from making costly mistakes.

Easy cutting for leather

Use full size pattern pieces for real leather.  If you’re using faux leather, you can probably get away with cutting it on the fold if it’s not too thick.

A rotary cutter will help you get a razor clean edge when you cut.  Use pattern weights on top of your leather pieces to hold down pattern pieces and a large cutting mat. 

If you need to mark anything in the cutting stage, use a fabric pen or pencil.  On faux leather, it’s usually easiest to mark on the wrong side.  

Easy cutting for leather

Use full size pattern pieces for real leather. If you’re using faux leather, you can probably get away with cutting it on the fold if it’s not too thick.

A rotary cutter will help you get a razor clean edge when you cut. Use pattern weights and a large cutting mat.

If you need to mark anything in the cutting stage, use a fabric pen or pencil. On faux leather, it’s usually easiest to mark on the wrong side.

Interfacing for leather

You can totally use fusible interfacings for leather, but you just have to be a little careful. Knit interfacings or a fusible weft are good here.

Your best tool here is a press cloth. With the press cloth between the leather and the iron, it’ll be harder to damage the leather. I double or triple fold my press cloth and press on top of that.

Also test interfacing on a scrap. I’ve melted faux leather before, and it’s really sad after you’ve put in the work!

Threads for leather

I’ve always used polyester thread for leather.  You can use thicker topstitching threads like Gutermann topstitching thread or cotton thread like Mettler silk finish cotton for topstitching.  The thick thread stands out, making beautiful visible topstitching.  

If you do use a topstitching thread, always use regular polyester thread for your bobbin thread.  Regular thread in the bobbin will prevent threads from nesting on the wrong side.  Again, practice on scrap leather for the best combination of tension for your threads. 

Stitch length for leather

Use a longer stitch length for leather sewing.  Leather needs longer stitches so that you don’t make too many holes and weaken the fabric.  Use 3-3.5mm stitch length for construction and topstitching.

Sewing leather seams

Don’t use pins on leather–EVAR!!! Ok, that’s dramatic, but also pins + leather=sad face.

The pins are going to damage leather. The best preparation for learning to sew with leather is learning to also sew without being dependent on pins. Here’s my tips for how to sew without pins. It’ll help create a practice that’ll position you to be really really good at handling leather.

sewing with leather: clips to hold layers of faux leather

That being said, binder clips or wonder clips are your best friend with leather.  Clips will hold layers of leather together without damaging the leather in any way. Will they slow you down? Yes, but when you’re sewing leather, going slowly is not a bad thing.

Leather requires a lot of concentration, and slowing down is going to keep you from making mistakes that could ruin your project.

Finishing seams

Dealing with thick materials like leather poses some tought challenges when it comes to finishing seams.  

To finish off a seam, press it open with a leather roller and use double sided tape to keep it in place. Alternatively, topstitch from the right side about 1/4″ away from the seam.

You see topstitching on leather all.the.time. It’s popular because it works.

Practice your topstitching on a scrap so you can get the feel of how to move the leather and adjust your stitch length and tension to where you want it.

A little practice with topstitching is also going to help you get nice clean straight lines. Topstitching can be nerve-wracking on leather, so any work you put towards building your confidence here will pay off.

How to keep stitches from skipping when you’re sewing with leather

Skipping stitches is one of the most frustrating things you’ll deal with when you’re sewing leather.

You get one pass at sewing a seam and one to topstitch it. When you stitch, you create a permanent hole in the leather.

Introduce a skipped stitch in their and you’ll want to throw things.

Save a scrap of your leather and keep it by your machine all throughout construction.

When you start a seam, fold the scrap as many times as needed so that it is the same thickness as the start of your seam.  Start stitching on this scrap.  This will help your first hole on the leather stitch cleanly and keep the needle from getting stuck.

When you’re topstitching leather and have to go over a hump, again, fold the leather scrap. Place the scrap under the back of the presser foot so that the foot is level as it goes over the hump.

If you find that the presser foot is uneven to one side, place the fabric scrap along the edge of one side of the presser foot as you stitch to even out the the foot. This is especially helpful when you have to topstitch around corners.

See how to do this more clearly in the video below:

How to press leather

You can press leather, just don’t be super aggressive!

The main thing here is to never let your iron touch the surface of the leather. A hot iron will damage real leather and it’ll straight up melt faux leather.

Just like with interfacing leather, use a press cloth between the leather and the iron, and fold it a couple times if you’re nervous. Use a moderate temperature with a little steam, and a clapper to get the steam into a seam to help flatten it.

Only press, do not drag the iron across the surface which can stretch it out ugly style.

Tie, don’t backstitch

Backstitching is going to weaken the leather. Instead, leave long thread tails and make a nice sturdy square knot at the end of any seam that’s not going to get crossed with other stitching.

How to fix damaged faux leather

So let’s say you did everything right but your faux leather still got a tiny damage mark somewhere on your project.

Don’t panic. Grab a scrap of your faux leather. Pull on it to separate the coating from the backing. If your damaged spot feels rough, gently sand at it with ultra fine sandpaper.

repairing faux leather
pulling away a piece of the top coating from faux leather

Cut a piece of the faux leather coating slightly bigger than the damaged spot. Add some leather glue right on the surface and press the coating to cover. Let it dry fully. I used Aleene’s Fabric Fusion which is one of my favorite glues and another good choice for leather. You can wash this stuff!

sewing with leather: fabric glue for repairing faux leather
adding glue to the patch and cover the hole

My faux leather got damaged at the store towards the selvage ends and I missed a couple micro spots when I was cutting. This fix was an easy way to save my jacket and because the print is so dense, you’ll never ever know!

Let’s say you don’t have a scrap of extra fabric to fix a flaw. Grab some leather paint. Angelus Leather Paints are one of my all-time favorite specialized sewing supplies. It bonds to leather and faux leather in a way that you seriously can’t tell that the leather wasn’t that color to start out with. They’re what I used for my painted Rose Tyler cosplay jacket, and I love them for sprucing up an old pair of shoes!

So that’s how to sew leather. These are just a few of the things you can do to make your leather sewing adventures a little less panicky!

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to give leather a try. The more comfortable you become with sewing leather, the more you’ll discover just how versatile it can be.

If you liked learning about how to sew leather, check out more tricky fabric guides

6 thoughts on “How to sew leather: Simple tips for less stress”

  1. Thanks for the tips! Leather is definitely a textile that I’ve completely failed to conquer, despite how long I’ve been sewing. The last attempt was trying to put some leather toggles on a coat, and that seriously drove me to tears. I had so many skipped stitches, it looked awful, and I ended up having to use pliers and hand sew about 3/4 of it. I have a project in mind for some stashed faux leather that I bought for a cosplay that ended up not happening, but I’ve been nervous to do it. I’ll have to try these tips for sure!

    1. I’ve been there with leather too Becky. “Sewing” with pliers hurts–I had to do that to replace a zipper in a favorite pair of boots and it was no fun! But it’s definitely worth a try, especially if you can find a cheap bit of leather to practice with. The folding technique to keep the stitches from skipping has been a gamechanger for me!

  2. Great tips Elizabeth!! I have some faux leather that I bought over a year ago for throw pillow covers, but I’ve been too intimidated to actually use it. There are so many tips here for things I didn’t even think of. Thanks for sharing!

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