Can I Use a Sewing Machine on Leather?

Piece of black leather being stitched on a sewing machine.

Properly stitching leather pieces is a crucial aspect of leatherworking. After all, how many leather items can you name that contain no stitching at all? Very, very few, right?

The stitching highlights the shape of and provides strength to the end product.

Stitching bonds the pieces of leather together in such a way that no matter what you’re crafting, you can count on it to last a lifetime.

Can I use a sewing machine on leather? Yes, a home sewing machine can be used to sew leather provided that a leather needle, longer stitch length, and suitable strength thread are used. A better option is to use a heavy-duty sewing machine built for sewing more difficult pieces like leather.

Sitting down to stitch a piece of leather should be an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one.

The time that you spend stitching a leather project should be spent deciding which details you want to highlight, not worrying that your needle or thread might break.

To ensure that your stitching will not be in vain, it’s critical to use the correct tools for the job. Let’s take a look at the options available for sewing machines, needles, and thread that will work best for stitching leather.

Tools Needed for Machine Stitching Leather

You really don’t need a mountain of supplies and gadgets to sew leather with a sewing machine, but there are a few items you’ll want to have.

  • Sewing machine – either a heavy-duty model (best choice) or a regular one with certain adjustments made.
  • Special presser foot.
  • Leather needles.
  • Strong thread.

Heavy-Duty Sewing Machine

It may seem obvious to those experienced in leatherworking, but a sturdy, heavy-duty machine is really the best way to go for leather stitch work.

They are much more powerful than regular sewing machines and built to tackle tougher fabrics and materials with ease.

I’ve often heard the Singer Heavy Duty Model 4423 being recommended as one of the best, hard-working machines for your money.

It’s designed to help crafters create a wide variety of projects, and it features a heavy-duty metal frame and a powerful motor (60% more powerful than a standard model) to muscle its way through difficult tasks.

Home Sewing Machine

If you’re going to sew on a machine that you already have, it should be just fine to use, but be aware that you may be placing extra stress on the motor and may not achieve the results you hoped for.

Can it be done? Yes. You’ll need to make some adjustments though.

First, you’ll need to set the machine to a longer stitch length. By using a longer stitch length, you’ll prevent the tearing that can happen with a leather needle.

You may also need to increase the tension on your machine. Experimenting with this will be important because every machine performs differently on different types of leather.

Incorrect tension leads to stitches that look uneven, loose, or sloppy, none of which you want.

Make slight adjustments until you’re pleased with the quality of stitches on both sides of the project.

Note that some newer models may automatically adjust upper thread tension when thicker threads are used, but bobbin tension will need manual adjustment to match.

Walking Foot Accessory

You’re probably familiar with a standard pressure foot on a sewing machine.

You know, that metal piece that holds the material in place while the needle moves up and down in between the “toes” of the foot? Yep. That’s a pressure foot.

For many sewing jobs involving thin fabric, a standard pressure foot works perfectly. It places pressure on the fabric as the feed teeth (dogs) underneath pull the fabric away from you toward the needle.

However, for thicker materials like leather, a regular pressure will not be sufficient. What you’ll want is what’s known as a walking foot.

A walking foot is a lot bigger than a pressure foot and has special teeth to provide a firm grip on the top layer of fabric ensuring that both layers are fed through the machine at the same pace.

After looking at several options, I think the Singer Even Feed Walking Foot is a great choice. It’s sturdily built, effectively prevents shifting of materials, and works with a variety of low-shank sewing machine brands.

Leather Needles

Trying to sew leather with an ordinary needle is a sure way to see just how quickly you can break a needle. Regular needles just aren’t tough enough to handle the thicker leather pieces. 

Special needles designed especially for leather are known as… wait for it… leather needles.

Most leather needles, such as this pack by Schmetz, are what’s called “universal,” meaning they’ll fit most machines regardless of brand.

Choose Leather Needles to Match Leather Thickness

Whether you’re using a regular or heavy-duty machine, you will need leather needles to successfully penetrate the leather.

Needles made to work with leather are very different from traditional sewing needles. They have small blades along the sides of the needle to allow the needle to create a larger hole.

Unlike needles used to sew fabric, these needles don’t just poke through the leather; they slice the leather open and create enough room for the thread to slide through.

The types and sizes of leather needles will vary as with needles used on fabric, but the leather needles that you choose need to match the thickness of the leather that you’re using.

You’ll also need to know what type of thread you’ll be using because the eye of the needle needs to accommodate the width of the thread.

Leather Thickness (Ounces)

Thread Size (Metric)

Needle Size (Inches)

2 to 3  .33 .033
4 to 6 . .43 .033
7 to 10  .55 .040
11 to 14  .65 .042
15 to 20 .75 .050

Because the needles come in varying types and sizes, knowing the individual parts of the needle can be helpful when making your decision. 

The Shank – This is the part that attaches to the sewing machine. You’ll notice that it has a flat side and a rounded side. When installing, point the flat side toward the back of the machine so that the rounded side faces forward.

Size – The size of the needle corresponds with the size of the blade. For instance, a size 90 needle means that the needle is .90 millimeters in blade diameter. You’ll use this size on medium weight leather. 

The Shaft and Groove – The shaft is the body of the needle, the length that runs from the shank to almost the groove. The groove is the part that runs from the shaft to the eye and holds the thread securely when it penetrates the leather.

The Eye – The open part of the needle is, of course, the eye, which comes in varying sizes. Behind the eye, you’ll find the scarf. It’s a smooth area where the hook passes through, looping around the bobbin to create a lock stitch.

The Point – This is the part of the needle that first pierces the leather. Different points are engineered to handle various degrees of thickness. The point will most likely correlate with the size of the blades. 

When purchasing a pack of needles, consider buying needles that can handle leather that’s medium weight.

It’s also a good idea to have several sizes on hand so you’re always ready for the next project.

Strong Thread to Hold the Seam

Don’t use cotton thread for a leather working project because the slight friction from the movement of the leather pieces will destroy it over time. 

Some beginners attempt to use polyester or sew-all thread but quickly find that these threads are too thin or weak to hold the seam when sewing leather.

The best thread for sewing leather is nylon, which is often called upholstery thread. Using a neutral color works well with different shades of leather. 

Bonded nylon thread works well with most leather. The thicker the leather, the stronger the thread should be.

Because the bonding process reduces friction, it makes the leather item last much longer.

Bonded nylon is strong enough to prevent the stitching from unraveling when under any sort of stress such as with a bag that’s used frequently to carry heavy items. 

Deciding to Hand Sew Leather

Hand sewing leather does not require a machine, and is, therefore, a lot less expensive.

It is, however, very time consuming and will require some patience.

If you understand that and don’t have a large amount of leatherworking projects ahead of you, then you might find it enjoyable.

One big difference between machine sewing and hand sewing is the type of necessary tools.

You’ll need:

  • An overstitching wheel (also called an embossing tool) for making evenly spaced marks for your stitches or…
  • A grooving tool to carve out a groove that will protect stitches in the future.
  • A durable, waxed thread cord suitable for leatherworking.
  • An awl to punch the holes for your stitches and a sturdy needle for leatherworking or…
  • A sewing awl to punch the holes and sew.
  • A stitching pony or vise to hold the pieces of leather firmly in place.

Personally, I think that a basic hand sewing set is a worthwhile investment.

Sets like this include all you need to get started with basic projects except for a stitching pony, but if you already have a vise at home, you’ll be good to go.

A more deluxe kit still has all the basic tools but also includes bonus items such as a swivel knife, scissors, and prong sets for punching designs into your creation.

Knowing how to hand sew leather items is a valuable skill that you can use to make any number of items for personal use or to give away as gifts.

After a few attempts, you’ll develop a feel for the technique and will be ready for more detailed, complicated projects in no time.

Watch the following demonstration to see how easy hand sewing with an awl really is.

Last update on 2021-05-17 at 23:38 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API