There will come a time, probably in your first project, where you realize “oh crap! I gotta sew this thing together somehow!” Fear not, it isn’t as bad as it looks.
Two of the first tools you should buy are a sewing awl and a Speedy Stitcher. The awl is simply a thin spike with a nice handle on one end, and is used for punching holes in leather. The Speedy Stitcher is a combination of an awl and a sewing needle.
The stitch you will use most often in leatherwork is called the Saddle Stitch. In the simplest terms, it is a pair of running stitches going in opposite directions. It is typically made by using two needles, one at each end of a length of string.
Take two pieces of leather and lay them one atop the other with the edges aligned. Punch an evenly-spaced series of holes about 1/8″ from the edge through both layers with the awl. We’ll say 4 holes and call them H1-H4 accordingly.
Now thread both needles onto the same length of string, and tie one at each end. We’ll call them N1 and N2. Now push N1 through H1and pull the string through until you have the same length on either side of the work. Next, take N1 and pass it through H2 to put it back on the same side as N2. Take N2 and pass it through H2 the other way, then tug both needles outward to snug things up. Both needles have now gone through the same hole in opposite directions, and you have made a loop of string in the work. You have made one stitch. Lather, rinse, repeat.
To finish, you can either learn how to tie a knot and have it cinch down between the two layers or just sew back the way you came a few times and cut the threads.
With the Speedy Stitcher, you can simplify things a bit. If the leather isn’t too thick, pre-punching the holes may not be necessary. If it is, use an awl or a lacing punch to at least start the holes, which I will be lazy and call H1-H4 again. Once you have that done, lace the string through the Speedy’s needle and leave an inch or so hanging free. Push it through H1, grab the string with your other hand, then pull the SS back out of the hole, leaving the string behind. Pull enough string through to make it to the end of your row of stitches – about three inches longer than the row of holes.
Now push the SS through H2, in the same direction as when you went through H1. Now pull it back out about halfway – the thread that went through should have bunched up a bit leaving you a loop. Pass the other end of the thread through this loop, hang on tight to it, and pull the SS the rest of the way out of the work. Last step is to tug the thread tight, leaving the “knot” you just made hidden between the two layers of leather. (Pull the thread one way and then the other until you get it sunk correctly.) Repeat for the rest of the holes.
For those of you that are wondering, this is exactly what a sewing machine does – they just mechanized this process. And if you have a large budget, they make hand-crank machines for thick leather.
To finish, sew backwards a few holes and cut the threads close, or you can cut the SS off the thread and switch to the two-needle method of closing.
When you need to join two pieces of leather edge-to-edge instead of surface-to-surface, you’ll need the Butt Stitch. This one can be a bit tricky, so you should definitely pre-punch your holes. Since the strength of the leather is very important here, you should use the awl for this. The tip of a Speedy Stitcher needle is triangular and sharp, and will cut the leather fibers to make the hole. The awl, on the other hand, doesn’t cut the leather, it just pushes all the fibers aside and makes a clean hole without weakening the work.
This is important because what you’re going to do is push the awl through the leather at a 45 degree angle in such a manner that the tip exits through the edge and not the other surface. If we imagine for a moment that your leather is actually a Webster’s Dictionary laid flat, you’re pushing the awl through so that in enters the book through the front cover, but exits through the side, somewhere in the middle of the “N” chapter. Do this for both pieces.
Now lay them edge-to-edge on the table and run your first stitch through. The needle will enter the top of the first piece and exit through the side, then enter the second piece through the side and (with a little judicious tilting) exit through the top of the second piece. You can use your SS for this part, and it comes with a bent-tip needle for just this situation. For the hand-stitchers, they make curved needles too.
(Note: if you want to make a box, bevel the edges of your leather and sew straight through the base of that “V”.)
For a more in-depth instructional on how to sew leather, check your favorite suppliers for a copy of Al Stohlman’s the Art of Hand-Sewing Leather. Al Stohlman has written many books on leather craft, and he and his wife are recognized as two of the best in the biz. (Or at least Al was until his death.) All they do is Western style, but the methods underlying it all are very solid.