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 a shot.
And while leather is not the best choice 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 fabric.
Today we’re talking about 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
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. 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.
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 belts, bags, keychains. These basic, straight line sewing projects are a great way to get your feet wet with leather. A 7-minute DIY zipper bag would be great here!
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.
Tools you need for sewing with leather
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|Sewing machine feet||Teflon or ultraglide, roller foot|
|Sewing machine needles||Leather or denim needles (lightest to heaviest): sizes 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, 100/16, or 110/18|
|Thread||all-purpose polyester for lighter weight leathers, upholstery thread for heavier leathers|
|Press cloth||any cotton or silk organza, and make it big!|
|Leather press roller||Great for pressing leather without heat, a must for real leather|
|Glues||Rubber cement, glue stick, specialized leather glue, double sided leather tape|
|Rotary cutter + pattern weights||for clean accurate cutting|
|Clips||paperclips, Wonder Clips or binder clips to hold seams together while sewing|
|Snaps + setter||Traditional 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 seam allowances 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…
Tips for sewing with leather
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.