Though its history dates back to the dawn of civilization, leatherworking remains an enjoyable and useful skill even in the age of 3D printers. And while you can spend a lifetime learning the deeper intricacies of leather, the basics are easy enough for anyone to pick up.

Among the most useful of these skills is the ability to sew pieces of leather together. The process is similar to sewing cloth, but has some significant differences.

In this skill builder, we’ll learn how to hand sew leather using the saddle stitch.

Figure A. The manual saddle stitch vs. machine stitching. If a saddle stitch breaks (above), the second thread will hold the other stitches in place. If a machine stitch breaks (below), multiple stitches can unravel. Diagrams and step shots by Tim Deagan

Figure A. The manual saddle stitch vs. machine stitching. If a saddle stitch breaks (above), the second thread will hold the other stitches in place. If a machine stitch breaks (below), multiple stitches can unravel. Diagrams and step shots by Tim Deagan, Feature photo by Hep Svadja

Hand sewing leather may seem daunting, but it’s inexpensive, very strong, and less work than you might imagine. The saddle stitch is actually more durable than a machine stitch. When a machine stitch breaks, the entire piece will quickly unravel. When a saddle stitch breaks, the threads bind each other in place (Figure A).

Figure B. Basic hand sewing leather tools

Figure B. Basic hand sewing leather tools

Stitching needles are heavier, longer, duller, and have a larger eye than regular sewing needles. As opposed to sewing cloth, the needle is not intended to create its own hole. A hole is punched through the leather by an awl or chisel, then the needle is pushed through. We’ll use two needles, one on each end of waxed thread. This thread is much heavier and stronger than cloth thread and is typically made from multiple cords of strong linen or synthetic material. A small lump of beeswax will help bind the thread (Figure B).

Figure C. Piercing the thread with the needle

Figure C. Piercing the thread with the needle

Cut some thread to the length of your arm span. For big projects, double that. Pass the end of the thread through the eye of the needle, then pierce the tip through the thread about 3″ from the end (Figure C). Personally, I always pierce the thread twice.

Figure D. Pull the thread to tighten the splice

Figure D. Pull the thread to tighten the splice

Slide the thread down the needle until it passes the eye, then draw it tight (Figure D). Rub the beeswax along the splice and roll it tight between your fingers. Perform the same operations on the other end of the thread with the second needle.

Figure E. Score a line for sewing

Figure E. Score a line for sewing

Now let’s prepare the leather. We need to score a line that is the same distance from the edge of the leather as the thickness of the two pieces of leather being sewn. There are fancy tools for doing this, but you can use scissors as a makeshift compass cutter to accomplish the same thing (Figure E).

The distance between the holes varies with the intended use, thickness of thread, and weight of leather. If you’re using an awl, an overstitch wheel is the best way to mark the locations. While using an awl is old school cool, chisel forks have become much more popular. Place the two pieces of leather together in the position you want to sew them. Set them on a smooth work surface padded with some thick scrap leather that you don’t mind damaging.

Figure F. Punching the holes

Figure F. Punching the holes

Hold the fork along the marked line and use a soft-headed hammer to punch it through the leather. Drive the fork all the way through the two pieces being punched. Pull the fork out, set the first prong in the last hole and punch the next section (Figure F). Continue until holes are punched along the length to be sewn.

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Figure G. My homemade “stitching pony,” a smaller version of a traditional stitching horse that holds leather while you sew.

You can also hold the leather in a stitching horse, between your knees, in a soft-jawed vise, or in any manner that will leave your hands free (Figure G), because two needles require two hands.

Figure H. Ready to start sewing

Figure H. Ready to start sewing

Pass one of the needles through the hole where you want to start and pull it until the workpiece is in the middle of the thread (Figure H).

Figure I. Place the front needle in the hole

Figure I. Place the front needle in the hole

Take the needle that will be on the back of your work and pass it back through the next hole. We will stitch toward ourselves. Pull two inches of thread through the hole. Take the front needle and push the tip just through the hole in front of the thread that’s coming through. We always place the front needle in front of the thread from the back needle (Figure I).

Before you pull the front needle through the hole, we need to make sure it didn’t pierce the back thread. If that happens, the stitch will have to be cut and you start over (or learn the advanced skill of dealing with a pierced thread). We can avoid this by pulling the back thread back through the hole as we push the front needle into the hole. When the front needle is almost all the way through we can stop pulling the back thread. Then we take a needle in each hand and pull evenly until the stitch tightens (Figure J). Note that the needles alternate front to back on each stitch.

Figure J. Pull the stitch tight.

Figure J. Pull the stitch tight

Continue this sequence along the row of holes until you come to the end. To finish and secure the threads, we’ll backstitch for two holes. This means that we will change direction and stitch over the last two stitches (Figure K).

Figure K. Backstitch to finish off

Figure K. Backstitch to finish off

The needles will be harder to get through the holes that already have thread in them. I generally end up using needlenose pliers to pull the needle through (Figure L). Be careful doing this since it may weaken or break the needle. You can avoid this by carefully pulling straight through and not putting any side force on the needle. Breaking off a needle can be dealt with if there’s enough line to thread a new needle and keep going. Otherwise you’ll have to backstitch as much as you can with the other needle and hope it holds.

Figure L. Pull a needle through tight stitches with pliers

Figure L. Pull a needle through tight stitches with pliers

Close-up!

Close-up!

We've just covered a basic stitch. If you'd like to learn more, the master reference is Al Stohlman's The Art of Hand Sewing Leather. This excellent instruction book has taught tens of thousands of leatherworkers basic and advanced techniques.

We’ve just covered a basic stitch. If you’d like to learn more, the master reference is Al Stohlman’s The Art of Hand Sewing Leather. This excellent instruction book has taught tens of thousands of leatherworkers basic and advanced techniques.

Once finished, use small scissors or a utility knife to cut the remaining threads as close to the leather as possible.

Many leatherworkers use a special tool called a stitching groover to gouge a shallow trough along the line of holes and, when finished sewing, use a hammer to tap the stitches down into the trough. This tucks them out of harm’s way and makes them last longer.

With a little practice, hand sewing becomes a fast, easy, and fun way to make anything from a wallet to a saddle. Give it a try and discover a whole new world of leatherworking!

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Photo by Hep Svadja