What you need to know before making your first leather product September 9, 2020 – Posted in: Leather Craft 101 – Tags: , , , , , , ,

Ok so you want to learn leathercraft and make something from leather, You have been on way too many holidays to Turkey and smelt the delight that is the leather shops. It’s got you thinking about making your own belt or wallet however you have no idea where to start or even what you need to start. I mean can you just cut some leather from that old sofa that’s dumped outside Mrs. Jones’s house?

Sitting here now writing that It makes me shudder to think that 6 years ago those sorts of thoughts were going through my head! However, at that point, I had no idea about leather let alone how to make anything from it.

My point is we all have to start somewhere and if you are reading this thinking I would like to make something from leather then I would recommend you carry on reading this post as I explain the dos and don’ts of making your first item from leather.

To ensure you are equipped with the knowledge needed to succeed in the craft you are going to need to have a basic understanding of a few aspects, which include :

  • What Leather do you need to use for your project?
  • What thread should I use for sewing leather?
  • What tools will I need to make my first item?
  • How do I design or find a pattern to make the item?

Obviously there is a lot more to the craft than the above however to start off with let’s just focus on the essential knowledge needed to make your first item.

What Leather do you need to use for your project

I could probably write a few 1000 words about the different types of leathers and which one is best suited to certain applications however to make this as simple and easy to understand as possible there are in fact two different processes to making leather.

Chrome Tanned (Wiki)

Chromium(III) sulfate ([Cr(H2O)6]2(SO4)3) has long been regarded as the most efficient and effective tanning agent.[10][11] Chromium(III) compounds of the sort used in tanning are significantly less toxic than hexavalent chromium, although the latter arises in inadequate waste treatment. Chromium(III) sulfate dissolves to give the hexaaquachromium(III) cation, [Cr(H2O)6]3+, which at higher pH undergoes processes called olation to give polychromium(III) compounds that are active in tanning,[12] being the cross-linking of the collagen subunits. The chemistry of [Cr(H2O)6]3+ is more complex in the tanning bath rather than in water due to the presence of a variety of ligands. Some ligands include the sulfate anion, the collagen’s carboxyl groups, amine groups from the side chains of the amino acids, and masking agents. Masking agents are carboxylic acids, such as acetic acid, used to suppress formation of polychromium(III) chains. Masking agents allow the tanner to further increase the pH to increase collagen’s reactivity without inhibiting the penetration of the chromium(III) complexes.
Collagen is characterized by a high content of glycineproline, and hydroxyproline, usually in the repeat -gly-pro-hypro-gly-.[13] These residues give rise to collagen’s helical structure. Collagen’s high content of hydroxyproline allows for significant cross-linking by hydrogen bonding within the helical structure. Ionized carboxyl groups (RCO2) are formed by hydrolysis of the collagen by the action of hydroxide. This conversion occurs during the liming process, before introduction of the tanning agent (chromium salts). The ionized carboxyl groups coordinate as ligands to the chromium(III) centers of the oxo-hydroxide clusters.
Tanning increases the spacing between protein chains in collagen from 10 to 17 Å.[14] The difference is consistent with cross-linking by polychromium species, of the sort arising from olation and oxolation.
Possible chromium(III) tanning mechanisms
Prior to the introduction of the basic chromium species in tanning, several steps are required to produce a tannable hide. The pH must be very acidic when the chromium is introduced to ensure that the chromium complexes are small enough to fit in between the fibers and residues of the collagen. Once the desired level of penetration of chrome into the substance is achieved, the pH of the material is raised again to facilitate the process. This step is known as basification. In the raw state, chrome-tanned skins are greyish-blue, so are referred to as wet blue. Chrome tanning is faster than vegetable tanning (less than a day for this part of the process) and produces a stretchable leather which is excellent for use in handbags and garments.
Subsequent to application of the chromium agent, the bath is treated with sodium bicarbonate to increase the pH to 4.0–4.3, which induces cross-linking between the chromium and the collagen. The pH increase is normally accompanied by a gradual temperature increase up to 40 °C.[15] Chromium’s ability to form such stable bridged bonds explains why it is considered one of the most efficient tanning compounds. Chromium-tanned leather can contain between 4 and 5% of chromium.[14] This efficiency is characterized by its increased hydrothermal stability of the skin, and its resistance to shrinkage in heated water.[11]

Vegetable Tanned (Wiki)

Vegetable tanning uses tannins (a class of polyphenol astringent chemicals), which occur naturally in the bark and leaves of many plants. Tannins bind to the collagen proteins in the hide and coat them, causing them to become less water-soluble and more resistant to bacterial attack. The process also causes the hide to become more flexible. The primary barks processed in bark mills and used in modern times are chestnutoakredoultanoakhemlockquebrachomangrovewattle (acacia; see catechol), and myrobalans from Terminalia spp., such as Terminalia chebula. Hides that have been stretched on frames are immersed for several weeks in vats of increasing concentrations of tannin. Vegetable-tanned hide is not very flexible. It is used for luggage, furniture, footwear, belts, and other clothing accessories.

As you can see according to Wikipedia vegetable tanned leather is more suited towards less flexible items. While in the majority of cases this is correct its not always the case as there are a number of tanneries that produce flexible hides that have been vegetable tanned.

So let’s clarify this, the two types of tanning processes used to make leather are Chrome tanned and Vegetable tanned. While Chrome tan has picked up a bad name for itself in terms of quality, if you were to purchase a high-quality hide from a well-established tannery, then this is less of an issue as the quality of the hide would dramatically improve. One way to tell the quality of the hide is to cut into it and look for a blueish tinge in the fibers.

So what leather should you use for your project? Well, the answer depends on what you are making and what you wish the finished product to look/feel like. However, as a rule of thumb if you were considering making a belt you would be looking to use vegetable tanned leather with a thickness of 3-6mm. However, if you are looking to make a handbag then you would most likely make it from Chrome tanned leather. But bear in mind that these rules can and should be broken. For example, look at the likes of Hermes belts, these are crafted from both vegetable-tanned leather and chrome tanned. In fact, some models are made from both in the same belt.

My point being is that you need to understand the restrictions of each type of leather. Once you understand this you can develop your own style. To start off with I would recommend working with whatever leather you have available to you, keep in mind that each type of leather will require different edge finishes. (I will discuss this in more detail in another post)

What thread should I use for sewing leather?

I am going to assume you don’t have access to an industrial sewing machine that is capable of stitching leather, and instead, you will be sticking by hand (saddle stitching). There are LOTS of different types of thread on the market made by a number of different companies all stating they are the best, however, the reality is that there are two main types of thread, Linen and Polyester. Without going into too much detail Linen thread is made from natural fibers where Polyester is man-made. Both of these have their advantages however overall it’s down to personal preference. For me I used Linen threads for years until I discovered a range of threads from a Japanese company, that changed my opinion and I have been hooked since. In fact, you can find that thread in my store if you’re interested in testing it for yourself.

To summarise thread choice is personal and there are many factors to consider thickness, material, and colour. To help you find the best size the following may help you. If you like rustic leather products then I would recommend a thicker thread of 0.8-1mm. However, if you prefer finer goods then you should look at 0.3-0.4mm threads.

Honestly, the only way to know what type of thread you like to use is to experiment with the options available to you.

What tools will I need to make my first item?

Ok without knowing what you are making it’s hard to say but I do see a lot of people asking this question on Facebook and IG and my response is always the same.

While there are 100’s of different types of tools out there for many different aspects of the craft. I feel you only need a handful of tools to be effective when starting out. As you grow so will you need to expand your tool selection and thus improve your craft. However, don’t buy them all straight away as you don’t want to be the guy/girl with all the gear but no idea!

How do I design or find a pattern to make the item?

This is a HUGE subject that deserves its own post, however, to summarise you have a few options here. You can either design your own patterns or download patterns others have made. I am going to assume that you have never designed your own pattern before so instead of talking you through this process I will instead give you a link to download patterns that I have created. Feel free to use these patterns and please share your finished products with me over on IG.

If you feel the desire to make your own patterns I would recommend drawing your designs on graph paper then gluing them to cardstock before cutting them out. Another tip is to make prototypes from craft foam and/or paper before cutting into your leather.

Hope this article has helped you understand what you need to know before you venture into the world of leathercraft. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.