A multiple part series, tips and techniques for sewing handbags with leather and other heavy fabrics.
My past experience with leather was sewing some purchased leather binding trim for a denim skirt. I “knew” not to pin, and to sew with a leather needle. Unfortunately, when I washed that skirt the color faded all over the cream denim. After that, I gave up on sewing leather.
So when several members wanted to learn how to sew leather handbags, I started researching techniques and patterns. One of the resources I found was a series of YouTube videos by Arthur Porter. Arthur is the founder of the local non-profit, Dallas Designing Dreams located in Side South on Lamar. After watching all of the videos, I decided to take the plunge and take his studio class. Arthur offers two classes on handbags, one for clutches and one for a gusseted handbag. The classes are not inexpensive, but include instruction and all of the supplies and use of the workshop equipment for your project. I learned a tremendous amount and highly recommend the class to anyone serious about handbag construction and design.
In this first blog post, let’s talk about leather, concentrating on leathers that would be used for bags.
Leather is the skin from an animal or reptile. It is the oldest material used for clothing. The skin usually has the hair removed, but needs to be treated to make it more durable and to less susceptible to decomposition. The process is called tanning, taken from the word tannin, which is an acidic chemical compound that was used for the process. Here is a link to a chart on the tanning process from Hermann Oak Leather, one of the few U.S. tanning facilities in the United States. http://www.hermannoakleather.com/resources-and-events/tanning-process
I find that because I am new to sewing leather, I need to feel the weight and texture in order to determine if it will be right for a handbag. So let’s review the types of leather, and some of the terminology.
Leather – the product when the outside of the skin is tanned and finished. Leather is named based on type. Full grain is the top layer of the skin (the quills of the hair produce the characteristic bumps of cow hides) Top grain is slightly lower than full grain and Corrected grain – is a top grain that has the bumps and imperfections (bug bites, brands, scratches) of the top layer sanded down. Genuine leather (which I used to think was the best) is actually the lower part of the leather when it has been split, it can be processed as suede, or processed smooth to make less expensive leather items, like belts. This layer of the skin is not as strong as the upper layers. A great link to further details and a humorous YouTube are at this link from Saddleback Leather. Note: Suede – the fuzzy product when the inner or flesh side of the skin is finished is made from the section called Genuine Leather. Bonded leather – scraps and bits of leather and other stuff formed together in a manufacturing process to create a leatherish product. I have been deconstructing bags and apparel, and many times I found that there was a VERY thin slice of leather backed with a fabric to create these items. It still can be labeled leather or genuine leather, and cuts the cost of the item (but not necessarily the price).
Leather is also graded by the processor in regards to visual quality. This is an example.
A or #1 – Very few blemishes
B or #2 – Contains a few defects. No brands.
C or #3 – Contains more defects. Generally not good for plain belts.
D or #4 – Can have large brands and / or holes and other damage.
As a consumer, you will find leather sold as hides instead of yardage. I have been buying a side, which basically is half of the cow and it will make at least 2 handbags depending on size. Leather can be sold by the piece, half hide, whole hide or specific areas of a hide. For example, shoulder and belly. Large pieces are marked with the square footage on the non-face side.
The back (spine area) of a hide is the most stable and is great for straps and belts and other areas that need stability. As you move around the belly, the hide gets more wavy. Here is a link to a great visual that shows the sections and measurements of a hide from an English leather supplier, J. Wood Leathers. http://www.jwoodleathers.co.uk/leatherhide.html
Now some more terms you will encounter when leather shopping.
Vegetable tanned – A tanning process that uses a variety of natural ingredients in a process that takes several weeks. A limited colors are available and the resulting leather is stiff and used for a variety of uses including tooling, carving and stamping. (Think the Tandy leather scout craft kits)
Stoned Oil/Oil rubbed – Processed with oils, waxes and dyes. Great choice for “man bags”, used for shoes and other items that need waterproofing. Marks and then the marks rub out. A rustic look, makes a great messenger bag.
Chrome tanned – less expensive process as it can take as little as one day, lots of colors, more supple than vegetable tanned leather.
Patent leather – a lacquering process that leaves a very glossy, shiny finish. Modern patent leather usually has a plastic coating.
Wet White leather – refers to leather that has been tanned without chrome or other harmful chemicals used for example in infant shoes
Shagreen – stingray skin/leather
Deer skin – one of the toughest leathers. But expensive due to relative rareness. Many times used for garments.
These statistics are taken from United Glove:
Many different animal sources are used to make leather products; however 98.8% of world leather production comes from four animals, broken down statistically as follows:
- Bovine (Cow): 65%
- Sheep: 15%
- Pig: 11%
- Goat: 9%
All other leathers account for just 0.2% of leather production.
A breakdown of world leather products manufactured, including leather gloves, are as follows:
- Footwear: 52.0%
- Furniture: 14.0%
- Auto: 10.2%
- Garments: 10.0%
- Gloves: 4.4%
- Other: 9.4%
Now that you know lots about leather some parting thoughts on how to convert square feet to yardage.
1 yard of 36” wide fabric takes 12 square feet; 1 yard of 54” fabric takes 18 square feet. The best way to make sure that you have the right amount is to have your pattern pieces and lay them out on the hide. Because you are working with a natural product there are variations, and you may have to “piece “ your pieces.
Next time tools and tips, where to purchase leather for handbags or other sewing.