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Introduction to Working With Leather
Tools of the Trade
Leather bags, purses, belts, and other items, covered bottles, boxes, leather animals etc., are all quite easy and fun to make providing you have some leather work tools.
The most important tools in leather work are the cutting tools. For cutting straight edges you will need a leather knife and steel ruler, for curved edges a pair of leather shears (Figure 1a) or good sharp scissors, and for skiving (explained later) a sharp wide-bladed knife (Figure 1b).
Other tools that come in handy are a rotary punch (Figure 1c) to cut holes of different sizes, and a lacing chisel for making slits, or you can buy universal pliers, which do all these things as well as fix snaps too.
Also useful is an awl (Figure 1d) for making small holes to take stitching and a stitch marker (Figure 1e). You could mark stitch positions by measuring, but this is laborious and either of the stitch markers shown is simpler and quicker.
A mallet or leatherwork hammer is necessary for embossing, and useful for flattening folds or edges.
For decorating you may need modeling tools for embossed work and stencils for tooling, and it is possible to lightly burn on designs with a soldering iron.
For sewing, strong needles of good length are suitable or you can buy special leather needles for both hand sewing and machine sewing.
Choosing and Buying Leather
Leather is graded. The best grades being those of even quality.
However, unless you are unduly fastidious, it does not matter if you buy leather which is uneven in quality. It is cheaper to buy lower grade scraps, so just consider carefully what you want to make.
Cow or steer hide is a thick, leather that is tough and durable, but the thickness can make it difficult to work.
Steer hide or cowhide split is just this leather split in two, giving a more supple, workable skin. This type is the least expensive grade, so beginners are well advised to use this.
Pigskin with its unmistakable bristle marking is also used for articles that require durability and, along with goatskin, it is commonly used for glove-making.
Calfskin is a good fine leather, flexible and suitable for embossed work and for most articles from bags to book covers.
Sheepskin and goatskin are similarly soft and supple, sheepskin being slightly thicker than goat and more stretchy. Sheepskin is ideal for clothing, bags, covering containers and has a good surface for tooling.
Suede is the flesh side of the leather, usually calfskin, goat or sheepskin. When you buy suede check whether or not it has a nap, as this may affect your pattern layout and hence the amount you need.
Most craft and department stores keep a stock of leather but if you really want to pick and choose, a leather suppliers is the place. Most skins are sold by the foot, but leather scraps can be bought by the pound.
When choosing your skin, trust your sense of touch and your common sense and remember that color as well as texture and weight is a consideration, natural-colored skin can take a colored design more effectively than a dyed skin.
Good imitation skins, like fabric can be bought by the yard.
Have you ever worked with leather before?
Stitching, Lacing & Gluing
Leather sometimes requires 'skiving' before stitching or gluing.
This simply means paring down edges of seams or overlapping pieces to reduce bulk or make a smoother edge.
This can be done with a skiving knife or a blade in a holder. Hold the blade slanting downwards and pare towards the outer edge with a sawing motion so that you end up with a thin edge as shown in Figure 2.
Leathers can be machine stitched, hand stitched or laced, and the thickness of leather will dictate which method to use.
Sheepskin and goatskin are quite easy to machine stitch, calfskin requires a proper needle and cowhide is impossible on the normal sewing machine.
If you machine stitch, hold the layers together with tape or paper clips rather than pins, decrease the pressure of the foot, use a leather needle, and machine slowly with a stitch length of about 7 to 10 per inch.
For hand sewing you will need to make holes for the stitches, so first mark the stitch positions with a stitch marker and use the awl or rotary punch to make the holes. A little rubber cement between layers to be joined will help to keep the leather in position.
The most common stitches to use are running stitch, back stitch and saddle stitch (for which you need two needles).
Stitch with one from front to back and with the second from back to front, pulling both threads taut as shown in Figure 3.
Do not use a leather needle for this or for the back stitch, as they will cut preceding stitches.
For seams that are functional rather than decorative, waxed thread is the easiest to work with.
Joining Two Pieces of Leather
The most decorative way of joining two pieces of leather is to lace them.
Lacing can be bought, or you can make them by cutting a long strip from a round piece of leather as shown in Figure 4.
If you need to join lengths of lace, skive the ends and glue the slanting edges together with rubber cement.
For all lacing you will need to pierce the leather with an owl or punch, or with a lacing chisel to make slits. Try not to make the holes or slits much larger than the diameter of the lacing.
If you don't use a lacing needle, lacing is made easier by stiffening the ends with glue. The lace is secured at ends by threading it back under the first and last few stitches.
Below you can see the various types of lacing you can do, these are just a few, you can be as creative as you wish when it comes to the lacing.
To join two abutting pieces of leather, use the methods normally used for lacing shoes.
The best glue to use is a rubber cement which does not stiffen the leather.
For turning up a simple hem or gluing down a seam allowance or overlapping edges, first pound the turned and skived leather with a mallet to make the crease.
Apply the cement with a brush and dry slightly before stitching.
Types of Lacing
Leather dyes and stains are usually available from craft stores.
When using the dye, always test the colors on scraps of leather first and follow the manufacturer's instructions for use very carefully.
The same applies to suede dyes. A thin supple suede can be very effectively tie-dyed like fabric.
Designs on leather can also be done with a felt-tip
Embossing and Tooling
Embossing is a very attractive decorating technique in which the pattern is in relief rather than imprinted as in tooling.
In both techniques, the leather must be dampened to obtain a good impression.
Initially sponge the entire surface of the leather with cold water to avoid water marks appearing when the leather dries. Thereafter just re-dampen the parts you are working on.
Trace your design on to the grain (shiny) side with a tracing tool, and then with a modeling tool, press down the background leather immediately surrounding the motif, thus leaving it in relief.
Put your leather on a piece of hard ply-board to do this and use a small or large modeling tool as appropriate.
Tooling means impressing a pattern into the leather. This can be done by producing a line pattern with a tracer or modeler or by stamping the leather with wooden or metal stencils like those shown in Figure 6. Stencils can be bought or made from large-headed nails filed to shape, or from pieces of wood shaped at one end.
When you have dampened the leather, hold the stencil upright on the leather and hit the end with a mallet to produce an accurate impression.
Other Forms of Decorations
As there are no raw edges to fray, leathers and suede's lend themselves particularly well to patchwork and applique work. For patchwork, cut out a number of shapes from scraps and stitch the edges of adjoining sides together. Attractive purses and bags can be made quite cheaply by this method.
To make applique patterns, simply cut out the shapes you want, lightly glue them in position and either hand stitch them to the background using back stitch, overhand stitching or blanket stitch, or machine stitch on with a leather needle.
Another interesting technique is 'cut outs', which means cutting out a shape from your leather item and then backing the hole that is left with a different colored leather or suede glued into position. This is shown in Figure 7a.
Or cut a hole in the leather and cut a similar but slightly smaller shape from contrasting leather. This can then be sewn into the hole as shown in Figure 7b.
An attractive border decoration can be created by punching holes and edging them with buttonhole stitch in thick threads or yarn, and of course on thin leather you can easily embroider patterns or trim the edges with braid.
Tassels are easy to make. Cut a strip the width you want the tassel to be and about 4 to 6 inches long. Cut a fringe along one edge, spread rubber cement along the cut edge and roll, incorporating a thong of leather in the center as shown in Figure 8.
Leather work is a time consuming but rewarding craft. I hope I have provided enough information for you to get started. Check out my other articles on how to make the items in the pictures above.
Copyright © 2013 by D. Macpherson. All rights reserved.