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Embroidery Tips for Leather
Leather presents many possibilities for embroidery and it
doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may seem if you follow a few general
rules. There are pre-made items that are suitable for embroidery, such as
apparel including jackets, footwear, skullcaps, hats, vests and skirts, as well
as other items like wallets, briefcases and bags, home decor, vehicle seat
covers, pet collars, horse tack, tool belts, cell phone and gadget covers, book
covers and so much more!
If you’re going to create your own item to embellish, you’ll
want to start with the right type of leather. The three common types include
oak-tanned leather, chrome-tanned leather and re-tanned leather. Heavy thick leathers are obviously not well-suited
for sewing or embroidery and generally, leather weighing 6 ounces or less is
best for stitching. Oak tanned leather
comes in a lightweight version, chrome-tanned leather is soft and pliable, and
re-tanned leather is suitable for items such as wallets. Various types of leather finishes and grains
that are acceptable for embellishment include, garment cowhide, split cowhide
suede, golden-colored deerskin, buck-tanned cowhide, pigskin, sheepskin and
goatskin. You might also consider “pleather”
(artificial leather) like Naugahyde that reacts to embroidery very much the
same as genuine leather, and it is an excellent choice for testing designs
before stitching on the final item.
||Finding the Right
The most common error made is the effort to embellish a
leather item with a stock design that has been digitized in a general manner to
accommodate most fabrics. Leather
is not one of those fabrics! Experienced
digitizers are aware of the necessary specs and are able to produce a custom
design specifically for leather. But
when you’re searching for a stock design, remember “less is more.” Styles that are best-suited for stitching on
leather are those that consist of only satin stitch outlines and/or running
stitches, such as seen in Redwork designs, however, some sections of fill will
work in the right situations.
Look for thin density styles that consist of line stitches
or thin density fills with minimum coverage. Underlay stitches are not
necessary with the exception of use as additional coverage. For example, a satin stitch column needs a
bit less density to avoid slicing away the leather and cutting out the design
like a stencil, and the lighter density can cause saw-tooth edges of the
column; whereas, an underlay of a zigzag stitch less narrow than the top column
can help fill in those sparse areas for a smoother appearance, and since it
does not meet with the edge stitches of the top satin column there’s less
chance of causing the leather to split. For
the same reason, lengths of running and fill stitches should be fairly long to
keep needle penetrations at a minimum.
Editing for Leather
Before you begin editing a design, stitch it out on
something like felt with a sheet of tear-away to test how it will react in a
common situation. You will then get a
good idea to judge just how much the design properties need to be edited. This test sample of the original Timber Wolf design
by Global Puncher stitched on felt with one sheet of tear-away reveals a slight
stress of the fabric around the outside of the stitches and it feels a bit
heavy. The original design would actually work well if sewn on fabric that
requires a dense coverage, such as terry cloth.
This slight distortion when
stitched on felt indicates that it may result in excessive distortion if sewn
on leather, because leather is a stretchy substrate. Unlike woven or knitted fabrics that have
space for the yarns to move out of the way, the leather will push away from the
needle, and having nowhere to go, it results in the distortion of puckers or
buckling. The outline of the original design
is set with a density that leaves a nice clean edge on the felt, but when
stitching on leather, these closely set needle penetrations could cause the
design to cut away.
Editing the design properties is usually only accurate when
using the digitizer’s software object file. However, one way to lighten
densities in a machine stitch file is to increase its size without globally
changing the stitch count. For better results, if you have design editing
software that allows adjusting the properties in a machine stitch file, you can
try lightening the density, as I did for the Timber Wolf design. I decreased
the density of the top layer of fill from .36 MM to .90 MM, and found that the
adjustment might have been a bit too much and more coverage might be sufficient
at a density of about .75 MM.
there still is a bit of a pucker occurring at the bottom of the design with
density set at .90 MM, and as long as this is stitched with silver thread on
white leather, the light density isn’t terribly obvious, so I’ve decided the
lighter coverage of the silver fill stitch to be the best option. I also
changed the density of the satin outline from .32 MM to .64 MM. (Note: to decrease density, the value number
must be adjusted higher and to increase density, the number is lowered).
Stitches that are unnecessary for embroidery on leather,
such as found in this Buffalo Outline design by Stitchitize, can be eliminated
in editing software by adjusting the stitch length longer and deleting various
elements that won’t drastically alter the design. I changed the stitch length
from 3.2 MM to 4.0 MM and I also deleted areas of underlay intended for a
foundation that just doesn’t make sense for leather. Although the stitch length
would have worked a bit shorter at about 3.5 MM, overall the modifications made
very little difference in appearance. The top sample is the original design on
felt and the bottom sample is my modified design sewn on black suede.
Whenever possible, choose a design with a sewing path that
starts at center and sews to the outside.
This is a general rule for any unstable or unique fabric, leather
included. The inside-out method causes
less stretch of the substrate, avoiding distortion like pushing, buckling and
puckering. Suede has, perhaps, the most
stretch, requiring as few stitches as possible, so choose a design such as this
Feather design by Dakota Collectibles that is created from line stitches and
thin density fill stitches. Keep in mind
that the suede is so stretchy that when the design is complete, its size will
result slightly larger on suede than it does on a more stable leather or fabric.
The amount of the size increase depends on the amount of stretch in the
leather. As seen in this image with the help of the blue guidelines, this feather
design measures longer at 12.0 MM (about 1/4”) on the Suede Leather Hair Slide
project than when the same design is stitched on felt. This difference can be
significant, depending on the needs of your project.
Lettering on Leather
Personalization is popular on leather, such as for a purse,
wallet, Bible covers and similar items. Alphabet design fonts can be used if
the particular style of font is not too detailed and its columns don’t taper to
a sharp point with stitches so close together that they might cut away the
leather. A simple block font or a script that doesn’t have sharp pointed column
ends will work best, and the alphabet designs can be increased in size a little
to lighten the density, if necessary.
Keyboard lettering is best for personalization on lettering,
because you are able to adjust the style parameters of density and stitch
length, as well as omit or add underlay.
If you do not have your own software program to set up keyboard
lettering, the Instant Lettering online software program at
EmbroideryDesigns.com offers a setting specifically for leather. Just choose “Leather” from the drop down for
“Select a Style”.
The Embroidery Rules
Although backing isn’t needed to stabilize the leather, it shouldn’t
be omitted, as it acts as a guard. A
sheet of lightweight stabilizer will protect the machine by reducing the debris
that can collect in the hook assembly, and it also insures smooth sewing,
helping the leather glide as it sews. Tear-away
works well, but embroiderers have reported using non-traditional backings of
typing bond paper, brown paper grocery bags, and even wax paper, which some
folks say works best for them, because it also lubricates the needle. If you embroider on stretchy suede it greatly
improves the results; use a light spray of adhesive on a sheet of tear-away.
The main purpose for backing on any type of leather is to catch fibers that may
shred from the leather and fall into the bobbin area as the needle passes
through, and it keeps the item afloat, moving smoothly as it sews.
Tear-away stabilizer can also be used to enhance the quality
of particular designs when it’s used as a topping. A design containing a lot of fill-sections,
with a thick density and short stitches can destroy the leather surface, so a
lighter density must be used and coverage might not always be what is
desired. The solution is to lay a piece
of stabilizer over the top prior to sewing. The color of the topping should be similar or the same as the thread to
be sewn, such as a white tear-away under yellow thread coverage or black under
navy blue thread. When the embroidery is
complete, you must remove the excess backing so it’s best to use a thin,
lightweight stabilizer that easily tears away.
Hooping requires a bit of attention to avoid marks on various
types of leather. Some leathers won’t mark at all, and others like some types
of suede might result in a hoop mark, though many are generally forgiving,
allowing quick removal of any marks with a soft bristle hand brush. To be safe
and avoid hoop marks, there are precautionary methods you can try like wrapping
the hoop rings with twill tape or athletic pre-wrap gauze, which may be most
efficient when used in the production of a high-volume order. But if you are embroidering only one or a few
items, the easiest method is to use a sheet of soft, lightweight tear-away or
tissue paper, placed on top and hooped with the backing and garment; after it’s
hooped, rip or cut away the center of the topping to make a window, exposing
the leather surface where the embroidery will sew. When the garment is sandwiched between the
backing and topping, there’s less chance for marks on the leather to occur.
Needle type and size depends on the type of the leather
being sewn. A standard 75/11 could
easily break when penetrating thick leather due to a combination of heat
produced by friction and the narrow size of the needle. However, there are some lightweight leathers
that handle the process with a 75/11 needle quite well when the machine is not
run at a high speed. (I use a 75/11 ball point needle for all designs stitched
on leather seen in this article.) For thick
leather, use a needle large enough to allow thread to travel easily through
without resulting in frays or breaks, but it should not be so large that it
leaves an unsightly hole with each stitch penetration; test with a 75/14. In general, soft leathers do best with a
sharp-point needle, but a ball point should be used for thicker or harder
leathers; if a sharp point needle is used on thick leather, by the time the
needle has come back up, the leather may seal itself, hugging against the
needle tip just enough to shred the thread. Needles, such as the wedge point, specifically designed for extremely
thick, hard leathers are great for general sewing, but this type should not be
used for embroidery, because the wedge point will also slice through any
existing stitches where the embroidery might overlap.
Thread types are another consideration. In general, a 40 WT thread is suitable for
most leathers. Keep in mind that a 30 WT
may be best in some situations, because it offers more coverage to a light
density design, but it may also require a larger needle to help the thread
through the leather without shredding. Oak-tanned products may deteriorate natural threads like cotton, so it’s
best to use synthetic threads, such as polyester or acrylic. A spun polyester
bobbin is reported to offer the best results. No matter the weight or type of thread used, slow down the machine speed
to about 500-600 SPM (stitches per minute) or slower, in order to reduce
friction that could melt and break threads.
Test the Design
significant thing you can do to be sure that your leather project is going to
go well is to first test the design. This image of test samples of the design SC01-SP277 by Stitchitize,
stitched by Roberta Erickson, owner of Personally Yours, Nevada, was
embroidered on a Delong leather sleeve remnant, and then stitched to scrim felt
using a 75/12 ball point needle and Madeira polyester thread. The final work was successfully produced on
Delong 100% wool Letterman’s jackets with quilted lining.
The most common reason folks give for not testing a design
is that they feel leather is too expensive to use for experimenting, but always
remember that a bad sample is less expensive than destroying the final work.
There are options such as leather shops where you can purchase small scraps at
a bargain price. Don’t overlook rummage sales or second hand stores where you
can find large purses and old clothing made of leather. Worth mentioning again, look for pleather at
your fabric shop, which is usually available at a much lower price than genuine
leather. Keep a yard of pleather in your stash just for testing and when the
time comes for that leather project, you’ll be glad you did!
|Meet The Author: Bonnie Landsberger
Bonnie Landsberger has been a crafter and hand embroiderer since childhood and a machine embroiderer and digitizer since 1986. She was the in-house head digitizer for a 50-head embroidery shop for 11 years and later offered custom digitizing services and stock design sales through her web site for Moonlight Design since 1993. She currently also holds a position as a customer service representative at EmbroideryDesigns.com.
Bonnie has won several awards for digitizing, including a gold medal in the 2002 Digitizing Olympics and grand prize in all categories & first place for Winter Holidays category in the Stitches Magazine Great Greeting Card Contest 2003.
Her embroidery and digitizing technical articles can be found in various trade magazines and she is currently a contributing writer and Editorial Advisory Board Member for Stitches Magazine. You can also find more of her articles online at EmbroideryDesigns.com and will continue to contribute articles to our Learning Center.