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Why I hand stitch vs machine stitch.

Hand Stitched Leather

Let’s talk leather production. Specifically, the difference between hand-stitching and using a sewing machine for leatherwork. The options on how to produce leather goods are quite varied. Some folks use a heavy-duty mechanical sewing machine made to deal with the thicknesses of leather. Others punch little circles in their leather (often using a pattern) with a hole-punch chisel or with a diamond chisel. Others mark the leather with a device called an overstitch wheel and push an awl through the leather to allow room for the needle and thread. And finally, if you’re using a soft enough leather like deer skin you can literally just get a sharp needle and thread. I’ve been doing leatherwork for 5 years now and have to say most leatherworkers (and, by extension, those that purchase leather goods) fall into two categories.

You either care about doing things by hand or you don’t.

 Let me start by saying, both processes can be done very well or very badly. You can have a sturdy machine sewn bag that looks great and lasts for years and conversely, you can have a hand made wallet that looks like crap and falls apart quickly. Let me also say that, over the years, I’ve come to understand that people’s definitions of “handmade” vs “machine made” can get a little fuzzy. There are many folks out there that consider using a sewing machine as handmade because technically you are using your hands to push the leather through the machine.

That all being said, I find myself definitely attracted to the notion of truly handmade. I admit it’s a slightly silly prejudice and it puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to production. But there is something about the notion of crafting something with my own two hands, from start to finish, that very much appeals to my old soul.

Take for example, The Ely, my tote bag. It takes me a good day or day and a half to make one (depending on stamping and whatnot). A lot of that time is simply sewing the two-sided straps together.  That time could easily be cut into a ¼ of the time by using a sewing machine. I could easily put out 4 times the amount of product in the same time I put out one bag. But I don’t for two reasons. First, I am stubborn and I’m holding onto the “totally hand crafted” label for as long as I can. Secondly, there’s no reason not to. I don’t sell enough of them to warrant using a machine.

There IS however a big difference in how the two methods work. There are many articles on the differences, but briefly:
 •A sewing machine uses two pieces of thread to form what’s known as a “lock stitch”. One thread is dependent on the other for being held in place. If one breaks, they will both begin to unravel.
•The hand stitching technique generally used is called a saddle stitch. It uses a single piece of thread, but the thread is passed through both sides of the leather over and over. If one side of the thread breaks, the leather is still held together by the other string. (See diagram)

Image from Al Stohlman's "The Art of Handsewing Leather"

This creates a couple important factors in my mind. First off, repairing a hand stitched piece is generally a lot easier, you can simply sew right over the top of the area with the break (extending a few stiches on either side). If done well, because you are using the exact same holes that were punched originally, you can barely see the repair. Machine sewing can’t use the same holes and often must have thread removed to work on the area.
Secondly, there’s a fair amount of skill needed to make a hand stich look good. If your techniques are sloppy or unfocused, it’s very easy to see in your stitching.

Bad sewing 

There’s always an occasional hiccup which is some of the charm of handmade items, but a well-crafted, hand-stitched piece of leather is a thing of beauty.

Good sewing

In my opinion, using a sewing machine removes a lot of the skill needed to make a good-looking stitch and therefore leather piece. 

The sewing machine is a precise instrument that produces, essentially, the same results every time. I can’t say it doesn’t take skill to use a sewing machine, but I think of it like this:

You are looking at a perfectly manicured lawn. Every blade of grass is the exact same height and it looks great. Which is more impressive? The groundskeeper creating that perfection with his 48” deck-mower or the groundskeeper going out with a set of scissors and a ruler? It’s a stretch of an analogy, but it kind of works and I know which version would make an impression on me.

So, to wrap this up, the reasons I hand stitch are as follows:

  • I like the idea of working directly with my hands to create something lasting.
  • Saddle stitching creates a more durable seam than a lock stitch
  • I think the skill needed to hand stitch well is more valuable than the increased speed or reduced cost of a machine stitch.

That’s not to say I might one-day have to change my stance on this. Perhaps one day I’ll be lucky enough to need to churn out 10 Ely totes a week and in that case I *might* reconsider my stance on sewing machines. But I’d like to think, rather, that I’d simply opt to hire more craftsmen should that situation arise.

Regardless, I’m dedicated to making leatherwork that looks great and can be passed from generation to generation. Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next month!