Tips for sewing leather on your regular home sewing machine
Have you wondered about how to sew leather at home without an industrial machine? The good news is you don't need one - using the tips I'm sharing with you below, a regular home sewing machine should work just fine for the thicknesses of leather that we'll be using to make shoes and accessories (I should note here that I'm talking about the sewing you'll do to create your sandal straps or shoe uppers - not insoles or soling).
Use a leather needle
The first thing you'll need to do to prepare your machine is to install a needle that has been designed specifically for sewing leather. They should be available at your local haberdashery, craft store or sewing store, and come in a variety of sizes (the ones I use are 100/16). The end of the needle is shaped differently to regular needles (it's often described as being spear shaped) to help it pierce cleanly through the leather. It's a good idea to change your needle regularly so that you're not working with a blunt needle.
Try changing your sewing machine foot
I have to admit that I don't actually use a special foot when sewing leather at home, just my normal basic presser foot and it works just fine. However, if you find that the leather feels like it's sticking a bit to your presser foot or isn't feeding through properly, there are a couple of options you can try that may help.
Firstly, you could try a teflon foot. These are sometimes also referred to as a non-stick foot or an ultra-glide foot. They normally have a white appearance and being made of (or coated with) teflon they allow the leather (or faux leather, pvc and similar textiles) to glide through without sticking to the foot.
Secondly, you could try a roller foot. Depending on the brand you're using it may be plastic, metal or a combination of the two. The rollers (there are normally three - one larger one at the front and two smaller ones towards the back) help to control the movement of the leather and guide it under the foot as you sew.
Thirdly, you could try a walking foot (pictured above). Sometimes called an even-feed foot, this one has its own feed dogs that work in combination with the machine's feed dogs to grip the leather from both the top and bottom and feed it through the machine evenly as you sew.
Use a polyester or nylon thread
The type of thread you use in your machine is also important when sewing leather. Polyester (regular or upholstery) or nylon threads are most commonly used for this purpose. I was taught not to use cotton thread, however, as it can be affected by tannins in the leather and may perish as a result over time.
Use a long stitch length
It is a good idea to use a large stitch length when sewing leather. I set my machine at 4 which is its longest stitch length, but that may vary on your machine - just try to ensure your stitch is at least 3-4mm (1/8in) long. Shorter stitches can perforate the leather causing it to tear.
Hold your leather in place without pins
Although pins are commonly used in sewing to hold the layers of fabric you're sewing together, they are not suitable to use with leather - any holes you make in leather, including those from pins, are permanent. Instead, you can use fold back clips or binder clips to hold your layers of leather together. Just make sure that there are no sharp edges on them that will cut or scratch your leather (it's a good idea to try them out on a scrap of leather first).
Alternatively, you can use double sided tape to hold your layers of leather together. While you can use this in long strips, multiple short pieces spaced several centimetres apart also work fine. Just make sure not to place them directly under your stitching line as the glue on the tape can get caught on the needle and be fed into your machine which isn't a good idea.
Secure thread ends with a knot
When sewing leather it's best to secure the threads at the beginning and end of each row of stitching by tying them in a knot (as opposed to backstitching if you're used to doing that when you sew with fabric). Sewing back and forth over one piece of leather as you do in backstitching can cause perforation and potential tearing or splitting in the leather.
Also, to help you get a nice smooth start to each row of stitching, you can hold the loose ends of thread at the beginning of the row with your left hand (hold them slightly taught and out towards the back left) just until you're a few stitches into the row, then you can let them go and allow the machine to feed your leather through as you continue, with your hands guiding the leather as you would if you were sewing with any other fabric.
Take your time
Finally, just remember to take your time and concentrate on sewing accurately. Unlike sewing with regular fabric, sewing with leather can't just be unpicked and re-done without leaving holes from the original line of stitching. By being careful and taking your time you're much more likely to achieve a result you're really happy with.
I hope these tips help you feel more confident about sewing with leather. If you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.