WILL YOUR MACHINE SEW LEATHER?
Is your machine suitable for sewing leather? Few issues amongst sewing machine enthusiasts are debated with greater passion or less logic … than this one.
Sellers of second hand sewing machines will regularly claim that the domestic sewing machine they are selling is ‘great for sewing leather’. People who yearn for Guru status amongst the community of sewing machine enthusiasts or among leather workers, regularly decry such claims as being dishonest. They brand people who make such claims, shonky and untrustworthy. They also claim that only purpose designed, industrial grade sewing machines are suitable for sewing leather.
The simple truth about this vexed question is that it is meaningless! And in all of the debate that I’ve seen around this issue, I haven’t seen anyone present a balanced and rational discussion. So here’s my attempt to do just that.
WHAT IS LEATHER?
The first definition that came up when I googled this question was “a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process” So let’s consider what this means.
Firstly, ‘the skin of an animal’ is equally valid if you are talking about the skin of a frog or that of a rhinoceros. And in fact, leather has been made from the skins of pretty much any living creatures that you can think of, including these two.
Leather that is preserved Rhino skin is clearly going to have some properties that are slightly different to that which is made from the skin of a frog. To put this issue into a more familiar and local context, consider a horse saddle or harness collar and compare that with a pair of leather dress gloves. High quality dress gloves were traditionally made from leather from the hides of baby goats. Heavy harness is traditionally made from the heaviest sections of the hides of bullocks!
Secondly “ by tanning or a similar process” needs some exploration. There are two main processes that are used to tan leather. Chrome tanning is the process used to produce 80-90% of the leather that is commercially available. Vegetable tanning is the other main production method. These two processes produce leathers that have distinctly differing properties.
Vegetable tanned leather tends to be stiff, hard on the surface and not very water proof. It will readily take and hold a shape or impression. It’s great for moulding holsters and pouches of all kinds. If left without maintenance, it will dry out, become extremely hard and brittle and will crack. Vegetable tanned leather is that which leather workers love to stamp designs into, to carve and its the traditional leather for making footwear and horse harness.
Chrome tanned leather tends to remain soft and pliable, no matter what. It is reasonably water resistant. It doesn’t mould or hold its shape and its quite unsuitable for punching designs into. But it is a robust and cheap-to-produce sort of leather from which durable and pliable goods can be readily made.
The primary quality of these two leather types is the hardness of the material. Basically, veg tanned leather is a far more demanding material to sew on a machine.
Here you can see four samples of leather, edge on. The bottom sample is veg tanned cowhide which is 3mm thick and has been shaved on the underside. The material is relatively stiff, doesn’t bend or fold easily and has an extremely hard surface. The sample above that, is also cow hide, 3mm thick. However it is chrome tanned, not shaven, and is extremely soft and flexible. The orange sample above that is Emu leather ….. that’s right, chrome tanned emu skin! It is approx .6mm thick and is about as soft as heavy cotton fabric. Finally, the top sample is chrome-tanned Kangaroo hide. This is about 1 mm thick. It is much stiffer than the emu leather and feels almost like synthetic plastic, albeit that it is flexible . Kangaroo leather has a strength out of all proportion to its thickness. These materials are all ‘leather’ but they have radically different characteristics.
WHAT SEWING MACHINE WILL SEW LEATHER?
So what sort of sewing machine is good for sewing leather?
Without defining what kind of leather you are talking about, the question is a bit like “How long is a piece of string?” The fact is, any robust, domestic sewing machine is capable of sewing light, clothing weight, chrome tanned leather … and will do a really good job of it too. At the same time. only an industrial, purpose designed sewing machine can reasonably be expected to sew a piece of heavy, vegetable tanned leather of the kind you’d see on a horse collar or saddle.
Above is a Singer 103K, treadle sewing machine. It is designed to sew clothing fabrics. However, it is equally at home, sewing vinyl, and can happily sew through 6mm of chrome tanned leather, as in the next image:
The machine in the above image is a Singer 111G156 industrial. It is powered by a 1/2 horsepower motor, has a walking foot and will sew through anything that you can stuff under its substantial presser foot (i.e. 9/16″ thick). It is well regarded as a leather sewing machine. However, I wouldn’t consider it remotely suitable for general purpose sewing or even for most of the leather projects that most of us would want to make. It is too big, too clumsy, too fast and too fearsome for the relatively delicate work that would appeal to most of us.
A machine that will sew extremely heavy leather for making saddlery and harness is likely to be far too coarse and heavy to sew delicate leathers for making garments and gloves. And a machine that will do that job beautifully will be quite incapable of sewing ½ inch thick, vegetable tanned harness leather.
There is no rocket science here. While there are a few modern and very cheap machines that wouldn’t sew leather (or anything else) well, the vast majority of vintage machines and many modern ones will sew light leather very well indeed.
So if you want to make yourself a light leather handbag from chrome tanned goat hide, you will probably find your vintage singer will do a great job. If you want to make a saddle or some other project using vegetable tanned leather that is over a ¼ inch thick (think multiple layers of this stuff, when sewing it together), get real and buy yourself a purpose designed machine. Be ready to cough up $2,000 or so, even for a vintage Singer 133K, if it’s in nice condition.
Sewing light leather on a vintage machine is still a matter of common sense. You can sew light leather with ordinary sewing needles but you will get a better result if you use appropriate, leather point needles. You will probably require heavier and stronger thread than you’d normally use and, of course, there are limits to what your domestic machine can handle. #40. bonded nylon thread is easily strong enough for any project that you could reasonably expect to sew on a vintage domestic machine.
Another consideration is the feed mechanism of your domestic machine. Purpose designed leather sewing machines generally use a walking foot mechanism which feeds the material through the machine from above, as well as using feed dogs from below. Part of the reason for this, is the danger of having the feed dogs or the presser foot marking the material in an unacceptable way. This is because there is resistance to movement of the material created where it touches the presser foot. This ‘problem’ is much less of an issue than you might suppose, if you are sewing light weight, chrome tanned leather. But if it is an issue at all, there are various, cost effective solutions. Teflon Coated feet, presser feet with built in rollers and even walking foot attachments are all available.
Above image shows a roller presser foot, teflon-coated presser foot and a walking foot attachment. All of these were purchased cheaply on Ebay …. nothing over $10, delivered!
When you are thinking about working with light leathers, don’t overlook other, synthetic alternatives. Sewing materials like upholstery weight vinyl (Naugahyde, PVC, Leatherette) is very similar to sewing with light weight, chrome tanned leather. The material is cheap to buy and you can develop your techniques before you start sewing leather which is a far more expensive proposition.
A vinyl (leatherette, naugahyde) toiletries bag. Vinyl is a cheap material from which a wide range of useful items can be crafted and demands similar skills to working with leather
Pinning your work together isn’t always an option when working with leather or vinyl. The holes that you make won’t disappear when you remove the pins! There are a range of adhesives, including spray adhesives available. I find that double-sided adhesive tape is an excellent substitute for needles. I’ve also had success using paper clips, bulldog clips and small nylon hand clamps (like clothes pegs on steroids).
Sewing leather with your sewing machine may be quite different to sewing other materials on the same machine. I rarely use the electric motor on a machine when sewing leather or vinyl projects, Generally, the things that I make are fiddly and the sewing needs to be precise. Speed takes a back seat to accuracy and correct feeding of the work under the presser foot. So I find myself working the hand wheel by hand. A vintage machine with a simple handle attached to the hand wheel (not a geared hand crank) would be ideal. I keep promising myself that I’ll make up something of that kind someday. So many projects …. so little time!
Next time you see someone advertising that their machine is great for sewing leather ….. or you see someone declaring that such a claim is dishonest and misleading ….. ask yourself if either claim is really sound. The word ‘leather’ … like the word ‘love’ …. means different things to different people!
Don’t expect your vintage, domestic machine to sew a horse collar. But don’t be put off from trying some light leather projects, just because some alleged authority says that you can’t. Using alternative materials like leather and vinyl can add a whole new dimension to your sewing hobby. Also, don’t think only in terms of using one material or another, exclusively in any single project. Leather trim on cloth bags, leather elbow pads on a favourite jacket …. thoughtful combinations of materials can add interest and durability to many designs.
I hope this information will be of some use to you. If you have questions, please do email me, or ask away in the comments section. Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment, using common sense as your guide. You’ll be amazed and delighted by what you can achieve.
Good luck with your projects.
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