Leather Part 2: Pattern Layout

Preventing Leather From Stretching

Heavy weight leather generally does not stretch to any noticeable degree. Clothing or fashion projects that require the thinner garment grade leather will also require a very close alignment when lining up seam edges. (Anyone who has had a bias or curve cut fabric stretch on them knows how frustrating this can be when construction begins. That's why we make samples first.)

To prevent my leather from stretching, I apply Eco-Flo Leather Cement as thinly as possible to the back of the leather. (Whichever side will end up being the inside of the garment is the back). Don't use regular Rubber Cement made for leather. It's very toxic and especially difficult to work with on fine grade leather. Eco-Flo is water soluble.

I don't like using a brush to apply the Eco-Flo. I find I get more control and less waste using those little triangle wedge makeup sponges that you can pick up in any chain drugstore. Their edges are cleanly cut so you can get into small corners or curves, they're soft and pliable so you can achieve a thin coat of glue, they're disposable and very inexpensive. (They can be washed and resused several times).

Don't press too hard.  You risk staining the outside of the leather. Use a light hand. You need to make the glue strip just a bit wider than your seam allowance to ensure it all sticks down. I use a 3/8" seam allowance on leather and a 1/2" glue strip.

Pattern Layout
Elkskin Hobo
A word on laying out your pattern. Because the animal is not flat in the body, the skin will not lay completely flat the way a piece of manmade cloth does. At the rounded edges, there will always be ripples or bulges. It's up to you to lay your pattern pieces at the optimal position according to where that piece is going on the finished product. You may have a back and front pattern piece that both need to lay out the way you want them to.

You won't be able to lay out all pieces at once the way you do with cloth. Before you mark your leather make sure all your pattern pieces fit. Lay out one piece at a time and place a straight edge held down by a weight in the spot where the pattern piece ends. Remove the pattern piece, smooth out the remaining leather and lay out another pattern piece. It takes a little time but you don't want to mark and cut your leather only to find your piece distorted because you laid it out on a wavy spot. (I use three-pound pellet weights which can be purchased at any dive shop. They're soft and flexible, unlike the iron weights used in the industry, and because they're nylon pouches, they won't scratch the surface of the leather. Be careful. Leather will get scratched.

You may also need to match grain. Leather grain often varies within the piece so make sure it looks the way you want it to.

Applying Thread Wax

Using your index finger, apply a very thin coat of wax over the layer of glue that is closest to the needle - the upper layer of fabric. You don't need to go all the way to the cut edge just make sure you are covering the seam line. A thin layer won't hurt your leather if you accidentally go off the glue.

It's a good idea to test a bit of wax on the front side of a scrap of leather to see if it is going to stain. This is necessary in case the needle 'pulls' a bit of wax to the front side of the project. If it does, gently sweep it off toward the seam. I've never had a problem with it.

Storing Tip

It's a good idea to keep your leather rolled instead of folded. Over time, leather tends to hold the bends in the folds making it more difficult to lay out. I keep my full skins rolled on a shelf (not standing), my medium leftover pieces flat in a wide flat plastic container with the lid off, my small pieces in another container and my scraps in another (scraps can be used for fringe). Leather should breath like fur. Don't keep it in boxes with tight lids. If you have grid shelves, the rolls will start to pick up the grid marks so put a piece of cardboard or something else under the rolls to protect them.

I also separate dark and light colors with a piece of brown package paper. I've never had a problem, but I worry about keeping red leather next to white leather since red is notorious for bleeding in all fabrics.

Where to Buy Leather

If you live in my locality, Tandy Leather Factory in Nashville has a scrap bin where you can pick up pieces. Try piecing them together for an eclectic boho look like the elkskin bag above. I don't recommend buying your leather from a chain craft store. You will only find small pieces at very high prices for the size of the piece.

Sirs Fabrics in Fayetteville, Tennessee has a good selection of skins.
Chamois Fringed Top
I like feeling the leather so I haven't bought anything online yet but there are a number of places to purchase leather there.

Several years ago I attended a skinner's rendezvous up in Friendship, Indiana. It was a three day event where skinners came to sell their skins. I haven't been able to locate any information on it but if I do I'll post it here.

You can start making small items like an envelope purse or if you're good with patterns, start with a simple pullover top. You can leave the natural edges of the skin at the hemline for a Native American look. I made my first leather tops (like the one at right) using chamois purchased at an auto supply store.

Use your imagination and focus on the work. Don't get discouraged and with a little practice you can begin to create luxurious leather articles.