The Art of Hand Stitching Leather

The Art of Hand Stitching Leather

August 05, 2023

Stitching leather by hand is one of many options available when considering the most appropriate way to join two or more pieces of leather.
Traditionally, if stitching, leatherworkers would opt for a technique known as 'Saddle Stitching'. A good saddle stitch, perfectly executed, will never unravel.
As the name suggests, its origins are deeply rooted in the world of saddlery. Leather has been used in saddlery forever, it is believed that the first leather saddle can be traced back some time around 727 - 396 BC.
There are many ways to hand stitch leather, other than the saddle stitch, for example we recommend a crossover stitch style for our Be The Maker Billfold Wallet Kit & Card Holder Kit. This option makes a great feature of the leather stitching as the thread sits around the edge of the product. 
The Art of Hand Stitching Leather
As with so many leather working techniques, there are many ways of saddle stitching. Whichever way you go about it, it is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, however we believe it is well worth it!
The various techniques offer slightly different aesthetics to the saddle stitch, however, in its most basic form, a saddle stitch is where both ends of a single piece of thread pass each other through a single hole. 
Hand Stitching Leather Video
Our saddle stitching process here at Tanner Bates is as follows:
Firstly, we mark our stitch line, approximately 3mm in from the edge of the product.
We then mark the stitch holes with a stitch marking wheel. This marks the location of each individual hole, approximately 4mm apart.
Next, we make each of the stitch holes individually using a stitch awl to pierce right through the layers of leather to be joined. This will create a small diagonal linear hole through which the thread will pass. Helping to create the familiar off-set diagonal look of saddle stitching.
The next process is the stitching. Using two needles and usually either a 0.6mm or 0.8mm waxed & braided polyester thread.
Finally, the thread ends are finished and sealed by melting.
Hand Stitching Leather Tools
Here is a short video of Matt stitching one of our Bellever Bespoke Watch Straps
Hand Stitching Leather Video
     Click the photo to watch the action!
There are many differences between a saddle stitch and a machine stitch. Both have their pros and cons, both have their place in modern leatherwork and we are lucky enough to be able to offer both options across our range of products.
Hand Stitching Leather Video
A few differences between the two are that a machine stitch uses two pieces of thread, creating a 'lockstitch', whereas a saddle stitch uses only one single length of thread. A machine stitch is much more appropriate for use with thinner leather as much thinner thread can be used compared to the chunkier aesthetic of a hand-stitched piece. A machine stitch will also often be more uniform than hand stitching. Finally, machine stitching is a much faster process. 
Hand Stitching Leather Examples
This photo shows two of our Oak Bark Devon Belts, the belt on the left has had the stitch holes punched, but is yet to be stitched. The belt on the right has had its keeper added and has been saddle stitched.
Whilst the majority of our products are constructed using a machine stitch, paired with thinner leather for a more understated, refined aesthetic, we love the more rustic look and feel of a hand-stitched product using slightly thicker leather and thread. We opt for a saddle stitch technique on some of our products, including our Devon Messenger Bag, Kingsbridge Travel Bag, Bellever Bespoke Watch Straps and our Oak Bark Devon Belts.
Leather Belt
As ever, if you would like any of our regular products hand stitched or have an idea for a bespoke saddle stitched project, please do get in touch! We love to chat through ideas and options for bespoke and custom pieces.

Frequently asked questions:

Can you hand-stitch leather?

Absolutely, you can hand stitch leather, and in fact, many high-quality leather goods are hand-stitched because it's often stronger and more durable than machine stitching. Hand stitching allows for a stitch called the saddle stitch, which is not possible to do with a sewing machine. In a saddle stitch, both ends of the thread pass through each hole, creating a double-strength stitch.
Here's a basic guide to hand-stitching leather:
  1. Mark Stitching Line: First, mark a line where you want your stitches to be. This will serve as a guide to ensure your stitches are straight and evenly spaced.
  2. Prick Stitching Holes: Use an awl or a set of pricking irons to make the holes for your stitches. Pricking irons are useful because they can make multiple evenly spaced holes at once, but an awl gives you more control over the placement of each hole.
  3. Thread Needle: Use a waxed thread for stitching. Waxed thread is more durable and easier to work with than unwaxed thread. You will use two needles, one at each end of your thread.
  4. Start Stitching: Start at one end of your stitching line and pass one needle through the first hole from the back to the front, then the other needle through the same hole from front to back. Continue this process along the entire stitching line.
  5. Backstitch: When you reach the end of your stitching line, backstitch a few stitches. This means reversing your stitching direction and going back over the last few stitches you made. This will lock your stitches in place and prevent them from coming undone.
  6. Trim Thread: Once you've backstitched, trim the thread close to the leather, and use a lighter to lightly singe the ends of the thread to prevent fraying.
Remember, as with many crafts, leather stitching requires practice to perfect, so don't be discouraged if your first few attempts don't turn out exactly as you'd like.

What is the best hand stitch for leather?

The best hand stitch for leather is typically the "saddle stitch". This stitch is highly regarded in leatherworking due to its strength and durability. Unlike a machine stitch, where a break in the stitch can lead to the whole seam unravelling, a saddle stitch is less likely to come undone because it essentially creates two independent rows of stitching.

Here's a basic guide to saddle stitching:

  1. Prepare your stitching holes with a pricking iron or an awl.
  2. You'll use a length of waxed thread with a needle at each end.
  3. Starting from the back of your first hole, thread one needle through to the front.
  4. Now take the other needle and thread it through the same hole, but in the opposite direction (front to back). Be careful not to pierce the thread that's already in the hole.
  5. Pull both ends of the thread until the stitch is tight.
  6. Repeat this process for each hole along your stitch line.
  7. Once you've reached the end, it's common to backstitch 2-3 holes to secure the stitching.
This type of stitching takes some practice, but it's well worth the effort when it comes to creating high-quality leather goods.

Is hand-stitched leather better?

Hand-stitched leather does have several advantages over machine-stitched leather, particularly when the saddle stitch is used, which is only possible by hand.

Here are a few reasons why hand-stitched leather might be considered better:
  1. Durability: Saddle stitching creates a very durable seam because each stitch is independent. If one stitch were to break, the others would still hold. In contrast, machine stitching locks each stitch to the next, so if one breaks, others can unravel.
  2. Repairability: If a hand-stitched item does get damaged, it's generally easier to repair than a machine-stitched item. A skilled craftsperson can often re-stitch the damaged section without having to take apart the entire piece.
  3. Aesthetics: Many people appreciate the look of hand-stitching. It adds a level of detail and craftsmanship that can make the item more unique and valuable.
  4. Customisation: When stitching by hand, the craftsperson has complete control over every stitch. This allows for more customisation in terms of stitch length, thread thickness, thread colour, and more.
However, hand stitching is much more time-consuming than machine stitching, which makes hand-stitched items more expensive. Additionally, achieving a consistent, professional look with hand stitching requires a significant amount of skill and practice. So while hand-stitched leather can offer superior quality, it may not always be the best or most practical choice for every application or budget.

Do you need a special needle to sew leather by hand?

When sewing leather by hand, it's recommended to use a special type of needle known as a leather needle. These needles are different from regular sewing needles in several ways:
  1. Strength: Leather needles are made to be stronger than regular sewing needles, as they need to be able to penetrate the tough material without bending or breaking.
  2. Point: Leather needles typically have a chisel point or diamond point (rather than a rounded point like most sewing needles) which helps them to cut through the leather.
  3. Eye Size: Leather needles often have larger eyes to accommodate thicker, waxed thread typically used in leatherworking.
There are also different sizes of leather needles available for different thicknesses of leather. A larger, thicker needle will be better for thick or heavy leather, while a smaller, thinner needle will work better for thinner, softer leather.
Remember, always exercise caution when using these needles, as they are very sharp and can cause injury. It can also be useful to use a thimble or a special leather stitching palm to help push the needle through the leather.

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