Hand Stitched vs. Machine Sewn Techniques in Leather Working

Before I’m a designer, I’m an artisan in love with the traditions, heritage, tools and artistry of a craft that goes back centuries. In many ways, Slightly Alabama’s designs are a function of the process of leather working that starts with the selection of materials and ends with the carefully executed saddle stitched construction of each piece we make.

For us, the stitching technique we use is a feature of our designs not just a necessary component of the construction process. Many of our customers are surprised to learn that we don’t use a sewing machine to make our products. Quite honestly, I take a great deal of pride in their surprise when we describe this characteristic to them. We stitch our pieces by hand for more than just the novel nature of eschewing modern conventions for the nostalgic significance of goods made the way they once were. We stitch by hand for the aesthetics and durability that only hand stitching can achieve.

To be sure, I respect and love the craft of machine sewing techniques every bit as much as I do the techniques of hand stitching; and in many ways, sewing machines open doors of creativity that hand stitching blocks. But there are significant differences, which I feel are valuable to understand. For this reason, I briefly describe what makes hand stitched leather products different from products made with a sewing machine.

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Difference in Technique

Locking Stitch (i.e. machine sewn)

A sewing machine uses two separate spools of thread—one that feeds from the top through the sewing needle and one that feeds from beneath the presser foot known as the bobbin. When a piece of material is sewn with a machine, the needle pushes the top thread through the material, hooks it around the bobbin thread on the bottom then pulls the thread back out and continues the length of the stitch. The end result is one thread running along the top (i.e. the topstitch) and a separate thread running along the bottom (i.e. the bottom stitch) and these two threads “lock” around each other at the point where the needle pierces the material along the line of stitching. This is known as a “locking stitch.”

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Running Stitch (i.e. hand stitch)

In an item which is hand stitched, rather than using two threads running parallel to each other along opposite sides of the material, a single thread is used and passes on both sides of the material for the entire length of the stitch. Using a single thread with needles attached at either end, the craftsperson inserts one needle through a hole in the leather from one side, then passes the other needle through the same hole from the opposite side of the leather. Once both needles are through, they pull them taut and repeat the process on the next hole for the length of the stitch. The end result is one thread running back and forth for the entire length of the stitch in what is known as a “running stitch.”

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Difference in Construction

Technically speaking, a product stitched by hand is stronger and more durable than one stitched using a machine. The reason being that since a locking stitch has two threads running the length of the material on opposite sides, if one thread were to snap at a single point, the entire thread could unravel along that side of the material thereby allowing the material to separate. However in a running stitch, should the thread snap at a single point, it could not easily unravel the length of the item since it’s passing on both sides of the leather. (see diagram above)

Difference in Aesthetics

The running stitch technique that we use is called the saddle stitch, which results in an elegant line of slightly angled stitches when used with a particular set of tools. Decisions like stitches per inch, size and type of thread, and how we set the holes (e.g. French pricking iron, diamond chisel, thonging chisel) all play a role in the design of a piece.

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The 3-Step Process for Hand Stitching

Achieving the proper effect of a well executed line of stitching requires a three-step process.

The first step is to mark a straight line parallel to the edge of the piece of leather using a tool known as a wing divider.

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Next, we hammer holes into the leather using a pricking iron along the score line we created with the wing divider.

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Finally, we secure the leather pieces between a stitching clamp that we hold between our legs. Using an awl and thread with needles on either side we pass the the needle through the leather following the holes we created with the pricking iron.

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My choice to start my own brand is largely due to the fact that I absolutely love the artistry and craft of traditional leather working. I wanted to make products that featured the craft at its best form possible interpreted through contemporary designs. There are a few drawbacks to working with leather using the technique I describe here, namely the amount of time and expertise required to produce a product; but the results are always astounding and satisfying for both the artisan and the end-user.

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