Top 5 Machine Features for Sewing Leather

Leather_Sewing_Machine

By Willie Sandry
Willie Sandry is a Freelance Writer, blogger, and crafter who loves having the right tool for the job.  

This article is intended for educational purposes only.  Leather Hide Store does not recommend or endorse any leather sewing products.

You've chosen the perfect leather, consulted The Ultimate Reupholstery Guide, and you're ready to jump into your project.  Whether you are a seasoned leathercrafter, or new to the game, these tips for choosing the right sewing machine can help make your future projects a cinch.

Walking_Foot_Sewing_Machine

1. A Walking Foot.  Sewing leather opens up a number of avenues for crafters and upholstery enthusiasts. The problem is, a home sewing machine doesn’t have the right feeding mechanism to handle leather. A domestic machine is limited to drop feed, which means the material is pulled through by feed dogs alone. Not only can this fail to adequately feed the material through the machine (which causes shortened stitches) but it also tends to advance the layers unevenly (leading to uneven edges and wrinkles sewn into your project). The number one most important feature to sew leather is a walking foot mechanism. Let me be perfectly clear here… I’m not talking about a walking foot attachment for your home sewing machine. A true walking foot is an integral mechanism on a sewing machine that pulls material from both the top and bottom for even feeding. A walking foot has feed dogs below, and alternating presser feet above, to consistently feed leather without issues.

 

variable_speed_servo_motor

2. A Servo Motor. Let’s talk motors for a minute. A home sewing machine has a small variable speed motor that can handle light and medium-weight materials. The fact that it has variable speed is good, but it just doesn’t have the power for sewing leather.

A large industrial machine might have an old-fashioned clutch-style motor. You’ll know it’s a clutch motor if it hums whenever it’s powered on. While clutch motors are certainly powerful, they’ve fallen out of favor because they’re very difficult to control.

The solution to these problems is a variable speed servo motor. With plenty of punching power, while still being easy to control, a modern servo is a crowd favorite. Typically rated at 550 watts (3/4 h.p.) they won’t miss a beat with multiple layers of leather.

 

sewing_speed_reducer

3. Speed Reducer. Have you ever tried to climb a hill on a BMX bike? You know the kind with only one gear? A speed reducer changes that experience to cruising in low gear without breaking a sweat. Basically, a speed reducer is a pair of pulleys and belts that further slow the sewing experience for the ultimate in control. The speed reducer acts as a torque multiplier, which is an added benefit when sewing thick leather. This is especially beneficial when walking over seams and transitions in leather.

Traditionally, a speed reducer was an add-on feature, but some manufacturers are now including it with sewing machine packages designed for leather work.

 

clearance_under_presser_foot

4. Clearance Under Presser Foot. Make sure the foot lifts high enough on your machine to allow clearance for thick assemblies. If the presser foot lifts nice and high, it will let you place and begin sewing leather with minimal effort. Luckily, leather compresses somewhat as it’s sewn, so as long as the layers slide under the presser foot, you should be good to go.

 

adjustable_stitch_length

5. Ability to Equalize Forward and Reverse Stitch Length. Leatherworkers want the forward and reverse stitches to plunk right into the same holes for the cleanest possible look. Every time you terminate a visible seam, you’ll back-tack a few stitches to lock it in place. This is where equal forward and reverse stitch length is so important.

Some machines have this feature, however the adjustment process is so complicated you’d have to be a sewing machine mechanic to get it right. Recently, manufacturers have addressed this common complaint, and solved the issue with easy to adjust stitch length. Simply set forward and reverse stitch length equally and test on a scrap of leather. On this machine, the adjustment is made with two knurled thumbscrews on the front of the machine. The thumbscrews limit travel of the spring-loaded reverse lever as you sew.

 

precise_stitch_control

Precise Stitch-by-Stitch Control. The combination of a speed reducer and variable speed servo motor result in a relaxed experience behind the sewing machine. With the right equipment, sewing leather can be an incredibly rewarding pursuit.

 

simple_leather_coaster

Start Simple. As with any new craft, start with beginner projects that let you experiment with the machine settings. Here, two layers of leather are sewn together with contrasting thread for a rustic drink coaster. Once you’re familiar with your new machine, go wild with more advanced and functional projects!

Check out Willie's Tutorial on Reupholstering a Bar Stool! 

Hot Rod Upholstery Spotlight: Jason Sherman

 

From Commercial Aircraft to… Hot Rod Upholstery!

Jason Sherman has always had a passion for cars, but started his journey to hot rod upholstery working on commercial aircraft with West Star Aviation in Grand Junction, Colorado.  For almost 20 years, Jason worked with leather interiors and soft goods on 20-50 million dollar commercial aircraft.  

In aircraft, everything is custom tailored and sculpted.  Consistency is vital, and fresh out of his apprenticeship program with Riverside Upholstery in Durango, Colorado, Jason had a lot to prove.  He was offered a chance to sew a test panel at West Star, and impressed them with his french seam.  That was his “in” and he spent the next few decades learning as much as he could.  Working with aircraft gave Jason the ability to work with state of the art designs, and really hone his skills.  The designs are often extremely intricate, and reverse engineering the designs can be challenging.  Jason had the ability to work on projects truly from start to finish- stripping the foam down to the frame, making sure the frame is functioning properly, applying all new foam- and using different different densities and configurations of foam to achieve the desired result.  

Jason said that this type of work can take an upholsterer with average skills, and really elevate their thinking and their craft.  He is incredibly grateful for the experience he gained working with aircraft, and for the opportunities it has afforded him.  Jason sees upholstery as a beautiful art form.  A natural creative, he feels he can really express himself with his work.  It is an extension of himself, and the respect he has for the craft is apparent.  

Through the years, Jason had acquired the equipment needed to branch out on his own.  With shifts in his position, and his wife Debi needing extra support at home after a surgery, it seemed like the perfect time to take a leap of faith.  

 

A Leap of Faith into Hot Rod Interiors

Not long after Jason had ventured out on his own, his father moved to Grand Junction from the Telluride area, and bought a home close by.  A custom hot rod shop, Whitt’s Rod Shop, was right around the corner and Jason felt drawn to the shop.  After his father told him he had a feeling Jason should check out the hot rod shop… Jason took the hint, and went to introduce himself.  A father and son own the operation, and Bruce, the father of the operation introduced himself.   They began talking, and Bruce threw his hands up in the air, and said “he had been praying for an upholsterer.”  They became fast friends and business partners.  Jason states that he "gives glory to the Lord" for his success, because "he has been his rock, and the answer to his questions for 25 years." 

These days, Jason takes on work exclusively through Whitt’s Rod Shop in Grand Junction, Colorado.  Living less than five minutes away makes it simple for Jason to bring these projects to him home workshop.  He feels that their work really complements each other, and that it has been an easy fit from the start.  Whitt’s specializes in custom hot rod builds, and classic car restorations.  Jason has really found his niche with hot rod upholstery, and classic car interiors- taking advantage of the diverse experience he brings from those decades working with leather interiors on aircraft. 

Jason’s skills have translated seamlessly (pun intended…) and he is able to take ideas from a rendering, and bring them to life.  Jason fabricates and upholsters, adding modern comforts to beautiful classic rides.  Pilots often asked for a two inch lumbar, and he has found that they are equally popular in hot rod upholstery.  Side bolster build ups and custom lumbar really make a hot rod ’s seating more comfortable.  This focus on functionality and comfort with an eye towards style and aesthetic, means Jason can give customers the look they want, with little luxuries that go a long way- like seat warmers.  

 

Dakota Collection - Canyon Gold

 

Why Leather for Hot Rod Interiors?

Of course, this knack for day-to-day usability comes from Jason’s aircraft background.  Even before focusing on hot rod upholstery, Jason has had the privilege of working with high-end leathers over the years.  Finding there is no replacement for quality leather, with excellent hand, and very few flaws.  Jason has found our Automotive Leather Collection meets the high expectations he developed over the last few decades.  He said he has not found another company that meets his standards, at even close to our price point.  Not to mention our customer service (we’ll stop tooting our own horn now… if we have to :)...) 

Although one of his favorite leathers to date is our Urban Hollywood Red that he recently used in a 1954 Corvette, he has also been a long time fan of our Dakota and Essentials leathers.  The feel, the thickness, and the workability of the Hollywood Red made his recent project that much better- and that much easier.  He enjoys passing the savings he enjoys on our leather, to his customer.  

 

Hot Rod Upholstery

Dakota Collection - Saddle Bag

 

The Couple that Sews Together... Stays Together! 

One of the biggest takeaways from speaking with Jason is that "he puts all of his faith and trust into Jesus," and the second is his love for his wife.  Through the years, they have done everything together- from riding ATVs, to motorcycles, and now sewing.  Debi recently left Corporate America, to work at Hi Fashion Sewing Machines and Quilt Shop.  A local shop long beloved by both of them.  

If you need something sewn, stitched, or upholstered- the Sherman house is the place to be!  Between Jason’s workshop, and Debi’s sewing room, they have you covered.  Their passion is obvious, and they consider themselves a “true sewing family.” 

 

Jason and his wife Debi at their sewing machines.

How Much Leather Fabric Do I Need?

How much leather fabric do I need

What is Leather Fabric?

Leather fabric is popularly known in two ways: first, as genuine leather, most often used for furniture upholstery; and secondly, as a man-made textile that is designed to look like real leather (also called faux leather fabric).  In fact, the term itself is a contradiction as “leather” comes from the skin of an animal and “fabric” is a type of woven cloth.  For our purposes we will be discussing genuine leather from cowhides.

 

How is Leather Fabric Sold - In Feet, Not sheets!

Leather skins or hides are measured and sold in square feet.  As a natural product, the leather hide takes the shape of the animal and is never found in sheets or rolls.  Specifically, the hide is laid out flat and the total surface area of the hide is measured in square feet.  A typical cowhide averages 50 square feet, but hide sizes vary depending on the breed of cow.  Therefore you will always buy leather as hides, not as leather sheets or rolls. See our Leather Cowhides: Shapes and Sizes to get a better idea of what your hide will look like.  

 

"My Upholsterer Says I Need 8 Yards?"

We get this call all the time and it goes something like “my upholsterer says I need 8 yards of leather to reupholster my chairs, how many hides should I buy?”  Upholsterers almost always quote projects in yards instead of square feet because fabric, which is sold in yards, is simply what they know best!  The estimate is given in fabric yards (36” long x 54” wide)  meaning you will need to convert to square feet.  Our Leather Fabric Calculator can do this for you but the general rule of thumb is 1 fabric yard = 18 square feet of leather.  Once you do the simple conversion to square feet, you can decide on the size and quantity of hides you will need to buy. 

 

Example of converting fabric yards to square feet of leather.

 

Another resource is our Furniture Reupholstery Guide that includes nearly 200 pieces of furniture,  with an estimate of the square feet of leather you will need (see examples below).  Working on an automotive upholstery project?  Be sure to check out our Automotive Reupholstery Guide!

 

Furniture Reupholstery Guide

 

Your estimate might seem like a lot of leather, but it is important to remember that leather can have some imperfections.  This yards to square feet conversion includes the industry standard 30% waste factor due to variations in hide shapes, and the possible presence of natural markings Markings might include bug bites, stretch marks, scars, or there could be a hump hole if it is a Brazilian hide.  This is not a sign of a low quality hide, but a reminder that leather is a natural material, with a story of its own. 

 

So, How Many Hides Do I Need?

Once you have settled on the number of square feet you will need for a project, you can determine the number of hides you will need.  This will depend on the size of the hides available.  For example, if you need 110 square feet of leather, you could combine a 50 square foot hide, and a 60 square foot hide.  If you need 140 square feet, you might end up with (2) 55 square foot hides and a 30 square foot half hide.  We specialize in helping customers put together orders that get just the right amount of leather that they need- do not hesitate to give us a call! 

 

Whole Cowhide & Half Cowhide

 

You're Ready to Buy!

Now that you know how much you need, you are ready to choose your leather!  Picking a leather that suits your application, and style, is the best part.  The next step is to order some samples.  You can explore our Upholstery Collection or our Auto Collection- and you can even Shop by Color!  We also have Remnants, and Closeouts to choose from.  You can order a sample of any of our leathers by clicking the blue "Order Sample" button.  Once you have chosen your leather from your samples, you are ready to order your new hides like a pro!