Working With Leather And Wool – The Details

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As promised, a blog post about the construction of my V1247 Leather And Wool skirt. First things first. Let’s not forget that all I did was insert two leather panels into a fairly simple skirt construction. So, you know, my experience is limited – but I did learn quite a few things that I’m happy to share here.

First off, I bought a leather needle for my sewing machine, see above. All resources were adamant that this was the essential first step for working with leather. Funny that I forgot to use my leather needle on one of the very last stages of the make and that it … didn’t make an iota of difference! But, you know, I wasn’t making a leather jacket or anything.

Before sewing any part of the skirt, I had some test runs on scraps of leather and wool. Excellent decision, Karen! I found that I needed to loosen the tension on my machine and that it was best to have the wool as the top layer going through the machine, and the leather as the bottom layer going through. Don’t ask me why! That’s just what worked.

Accurate cutting out. I’d originally hatched plans to work with exposed seams on the leather panels. Those plans were flung out of the window when I saw how difficult it was to cut a straight, smooth, accurate line in the leather. My rotary cutter sliced like a knife through butter, but my edges were a teeny bit wibbly wobbly. Like, very wibbly wobbly. (Is that because of the large grain in leather?) Anyway, no exposed seams for me, thank you! This is worth bearing in mind if you’re creating something like a leather buckle strap or anything where your seam lines will be on show. Practice, practice, practice – or change your plans!

Keep to narrow seams. There’s a certain amount of stiff bulk to be pressed open in a leather seam. Why use a 15mm seam allowance that may leave an impression on your fabric when pressed, and which will be awkward to trim? Adjust your measurements to a 10mm seam allowance or even less. This works well with wool and leather, because neither fabric frays or needs a seam finish:

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When pressing my seams open, two items were essential: my silk organza press cloth and my wooden clapper. My iron was set to medium hot, but never wanted to travel over shiny, tacky leather. So, I’d hold a seam open, lay the press cloth over it, hold the iron down on that section of the seam, lift the iron and immediately gently press the clapper down on the seam. This allows the heat and moisture to be soaked into the seam (rather than floating off into the air) which helps to ‘fix’ the seam open. I’d honestly have struggled without either of these items in my arsenal.

Construction Collage

How to hem a wool and leather skirt? I sewed navy bias tape along the raw hem. Then I was all set to fuse interlining to the lower bottom edge of my skirt to sew my hem to, so that there would be no obvious bulge. (Further details on this technique here.) But I only had white interlining to hand. Against my navy and black skirt? Even though this would be a hidden detail, it felt so crass and ugly – plus, I was impatient! So I decided to risk flat catch stitching the hem up without any interlining. Hey, if it didn’t work, I could just rip the handstitching out! But it did – work, I mean. I even managed to catch tiny sections of the leather:

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I can only really get away with the above because this will be a dry clean only skirt. I don’t think that hem would survive the washing machine! But easy (and loose) does it, when hemming wool! In my experience, at least. If you’re not really careful about hemming wool, you’ll get a bulge. If you don’t believe me, look at one of my early makes here and check out that hem!

What other details? Below is a close up of the under stitched grosgrain used to finish the waist band and a pleat in the lining where the main shell has a dart. Top tip – if you’re lining a make, turn any darts in the main shell into pleats in the lining. You’ll thank me for that extra give!

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One last thought. When researching work with leather, every resource cried, ‘Beware! Once you sew leather, you make those puncture points with your needle for EVAH!!!!’ No turning back. No room for mistakes. No second chances. Yeah, right. These are my additional thoughts: Get over it. I had to rip one seam out. No biggie, I just re-sewed incrementally closer in. Puncture marks hidden. I even managed to put pins through my leather by mistake when I was pinning the skirt hem. Disaster! Um, no, actually. I just pulled those pins out quick sharp and rubbed a finger over the leather. All gone. Let’s not have a nervous breakdown, hey, guys? Don’t let leather scare you.

So, that’s your lot! I hope it’s useful and I hope you understand why I saved all this information for a separate blog post. I know there are many more expert Sewists out there and I’d love to hear if you have anything to add on the topic of sewing with leather. We’re all learning, here! All. The. Time…

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31 Responses to Working With Leather And Wool – The Details

  1. My experience with sewing leather has been limited to mending my school satchel and things of that ilk where all I was doing was reinforcing pre-punched (and previously stitched) edges, so this is all extremely interesting. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  2. I’m basically scared of leather. I’ve only used scraps to make little drawstring coin purse (tutorial here – http://pm-betweenthelines.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/simple-drawstring-coin-purse-tutorial.html ) Every-time I feel a little bit brave and consider using leather and my machine I read You Sew Girl’s tips for sewing with leather – http://nicolemdesign.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/how-to-sew-leather-few-tips.html. It helps, but I still haven’t felt brave enough!

  3. Almond Rock says:

    Wow lots of great tips here!
    The only one I have to throw into the mix is to use paperclips to hold fabric together instead of pins.

  4. Erika says:

    Thanks for all the great tips! Esp nice to hear the reassuring words at the end: it’s not the end of the world if something goes a bit wrong. Love it! Sometimes I feel it’s easy to get overrun by the internet advices on what must be done for a good result, it’s great to be reminded once in a while that someone else’s big no-no may be perfectly acceptable to me.

    You’ll undoubtedly dryclean this skirt anyway due tto the materials, but just for the record: I always handstitch with a catchstitch and they hold up just fine through the washer. I don’t tumble dry, though, that might be pushing it…

  5. Clare says:

    Great tips! I think the best one is just to have no fear – just practise all the steps you’re going to use beforehand on scraps. What I’ve found working with leather is it depends on its thickness – so if you’re using a single layer of leather that was previously a skirt or trousers, it’ll probably be fairly easy to sew. For several layers of thick leather or topstitching, my best tip is to use an old hand crank machine, like a Singer 66k or 99k. They are brilliant machines and you can find them for as little as £10 on ebay. You don’t get any of the electric machine’s groaning, they go through anything, and you’ve got more control over speed so you’re less likely to make mistakes that you’d need to unpick. Plus they do really beautiful stitches and you can do your sewing outside if the mood takes you! Sorry, slightly off-topic with the machine story, but after struggling with leather toggle patches and nearly throwing my electric Singer out of the window, my dad showed me how to use his 60 year old 99K. It was a revelation and I wouldn’t use anything else for sewing leather or any other thick fabric now.

  6. Crystal says:

    You make it sound so easy! After seeing leather turn up so much on blogs lately, I’ve been daydreaming about striping the leather off this broken old recliner chair in my basement and turning it into a jacket or a skirt, or something. Well the chair isn’t that old, the leather is all plum/mahogany-colored and brand new looking, but the mechanics of the chair are busted and not fixable. Would that be weird? Making a chair into a jacket? Could I muslin that in some semi-plastic-y, fuzzy backed table cloth fabric to imitate the drape of leather? Sorry, thinking in print!

    You’d never know this was your first trip into sewing leather. It looks fantastic!

  7. Helen says:

    This is really interesting and your skirt is lovely. I’m not sure leather is very “me”, but the inserts make it a bit more safe!

    With regards to your lining pleats comment, why pleats rather than just echoing the darts on the shell? Is this just to avoid an issue with bulk? Am currently making a Charlotte skirt and have just sewn all 8 darts into my lining. Should I pull these out and do pleats instead?

  8. I went through a phase of leather sewing, suede actually, made a couple of soft t-shirts which got lots of wear and a jacket and skirt. The best part was pressing open seams by pounding with a soft rubber mallet, and then gluing seams down with rubber cement. including the hem. quite quick to sew and no seam finishes. Hmm, maybe I should make something again…

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I loved this post. Good information and great tips, especially about not fearing the leather or errant holes. Love your skirt.

  10. Taja says:

    Terrific information, Karen! I’ve never combined leather with fabric as the shell of a garment. For that matter, I’ve only worked with leather as bags/purses! While many people here (low Sonoran desert in Arizona) wear leather, I find it comfortable only during about 4 to 6 weeks in winter. It can be a nice fashion statement, though.

    Regarding placing leather on the bottom and wool fabric on the top to stitch the seams, the leather probably feeds better next to the feed dogs. A walking foot also is useful if stitching two pieces of leather together–might work for the leather/wool combo, as well.

    Enjoy your new skirt!

  11. Bravo!!!! It’s so nice to read posts like these where people say to relax. Too much hysteria in general around sewing. If sewing wiih lightweight leathers like these (generally sheep nappa of some kind) then it is pretty simple, and as usual you show the pragmatic approach by using preused leather, I love that!. Go Karen!!! :)

  12. suth2 says:

    Thank you for all the great tips. I have learnt so much just by reading your post today. Very kind of you to share your experiences.

  13. Great tips Karen :) How did you pin / keep the cut edges together during sewing (just curious!) please?

  14. Totally not this advanced yet, but very interesting read:)

  15. Sharon says:

    Gorgeous skirt and thank you for the great tips.

  16. Roobeedoo says:

    Washing machine? Are you planning to wash it? I would be extrmely wary of leather and wool in a washing machine. I managed to shrink my Viyella Airelle despite pre-washing the fabric, and that is a wool / cotton mix :(
    Anyway – great skirt! I remember you talking about this project in Edinburgh – it was well worth the marination time!

  17. Betty says:

    Nice job, Karen! It’s a great skirt!

    I know it’s too late to help now but, to get straight lines on my handbags, I usually use a scalpel and a ruler. Mind you, my patterns are also made out of card so it is easier to follow the edges and curves on them. Maybe cutting out the sections you want to do in card might make it easier to use your rotary cutter. Worth a shot anyway. :) Can’t wait to see your next leather creation!

  18. velosewer says:

    I feel the same way about leather now that I’ve sewn with it a couple of times. I’ll rip out the stitches if it’s wrong and resew them. It’s no biggie anymore.
    You’ve done a great job listing what you’ve learnt for others to use. Great post.

  19. hannybobbins says:

    I sewed a gadget case for my husband’s tablet out of a faux leather and I agree with your points about getting over it and getting on with it! I pinned it in a couple of places which I thought wouldn’t show and the marks came out no problem. I think it depends how much ‘stress’ you put on the pin as to the hole potential. I didn’t have leather needles either, but that was a mistake. I do think generally that the right needles are always noticeably superior both when creating and inthe finished product, this experience reinforced that for me!

  20. Hi Karen, coincidentally I just blogged about my first experience sewing leather `vinyl is a 5 letter word` (as an admirer I’d be honored if you had time for a read) – I used kangaroo leather and was surprised by it`s pliability. Great advice not to fear the leather, I did but just pressed on even without the recommended leather needle and nothing happened… I am chuffed with the outcome and am totally hooked!

  21. symondezyn says:

    Really great insights, thank you!!!! I haven’t yet sewn with leather, but I would definitely like to someday. Thank you for your honest approach to the things people tell you “NEVER” to do…. while there is definitely validity to such things, it’s so true that we all need to relax a bit… especially when we’re trying something new ^__^

    As a side note, I have washed hand stitched garments that have held up just fine; it seems to be the dryer that kills the hand stitching, in my (horrifying) experience :P

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