As they hold it in their hand, turning over their brand new hand-made item, I see the question brewing. Sometimes I preempt the question by offering the information myself.
"It's all entirely handmade. Each piece is cut and sewn together completely by hand."
The last remark is usually the height of incredulity as I reaffirm that I do not own a sewing machine, and yes, in fact the process is incredibly time consuming. But is it worth it? How much more could I produce if I would save up and buy a machine? We can answer this question and more as we take a deeper look into the hand-sewn process and unravel the saddle stitch.
I'll begin by tackling the most obvious point of contention. Machines are indeed much faster than hand sewing. There's no comparison. I've watched other makers' videos of sewing a custom belt with a machine and finishing in a matter of minutes. Each belt I make takes at least three hours to complete the stitching alone. So why do I insist on the slower method?
The hand sewing technique known as the "saddle stitch" produces a stronger line of stitches than a machine. Machines typically sew using a single line of thread through each hole, and a line that passes through those loops on the back side to hold the stitches in place. The problem arises when one stitch breaks. Once one is broken, the whole line is compromised and the old saying, "Don't go pulling on that thread." comes into its true meaning. Pulling on the single broken thread can start the unraveling of the entire line.
On the other hand, saddle stitching requires passing two lengths of thread through the same hole in opposite directions. As the threads pass one another in the hole, they overlap, the tension of the next stitch locking the previous in place. In essence, you can imagine the thread continuously performing figure eights as you move down the line of stitching. In the end, if one stitch happens to wear out and break, or get cut, the issue goes no further. By pulling on the broken thread, you are only increasing the tension on the surrounding stitches. I have personally experienced the strength of the stitch in the past when I have sewn a piece in place in the wrong order. Instead of cutting one stitch to unravel the line, I have had to go back and cut each individual stitch before being able to remove the thread.
Now I am in the business of providing custom leather goods that I intend to literally last a lifetime and more. As such, I think it's worth the extra time commitment to ensure longevity.
There are numerous ways to achieve the saddle stitch, many of which I have tried. I've finally settled on the most traditional style to produce the most consistent line of stitches. The two main pieces of this style are the pricking iron and the awl.
Before sewing can begin, the holes must be marked along the stitching line using the pricking iron--a many-toothed fork, to be over simplified, with teeth situated on the diagonal. Depending on the thickness of the leather, the iron may pierce through the first layer, but usually only goes deep enough to leave a clear mark. Pricking irons come in a number of sizes which produce different numbers of stitches per inch. Currently my larger items such as belts are sewn at seven stitches per inch, and smaller items like wallets are sewn at 9 stitches per inch. I then follow the marks using the awl to completely pierce through the leather, following along with the needles and thread. When done properly, the awl is never set down, so that the process is fluid from start to finish.
This method is not without it's drawbacks, however. While it may be the most conventional, it is also the most difficult to master, which I do not claim to have done but continue to strive for. If the holes are not carefully marked with the iron, the resulting line may slightly wander closer and further away from the edge of the project. If extreme care and consistency are not observed with the awl, the line of stitching on the back side can quickly become a disaster producing stitches of inconsistent length and angle. The awl must pass through the leather on the level so that the hole on the back side is the same height, level in the direction front/back so that the stitches are the same length, and at the same angle so that each stitch is uniformly diagonal. As such, full concentration must be observed from start to finish.
I think I am drawn to this style partially for the challenge. As I've learned more through practice, I have noticed that many artists often shy away from showing the stitching on the back side of the project. For the most part, it is easy to achieve an attractive line of stitching on the front side, regardless of awl-technique. The only real requirement is that you do not vary the way in which the threads pass one another inside the hole. Achieving an attractive line of stitching on the rear is much more difficult and only gets tougher as the thickness of the leather increases. The goal is always to have the stitching on the back look as uniform as the front--easier said than done.
You can follow along with the process from start to finish by watching the video below. It begins with marking the stitching line using the wing dividers, which I then follow with the pricking iron. After cutting the necessary length of thread, I run it over a block of beeswax to protect the weave as I stitch, and then lock a needle on both ends of the thread. The awl is then polished so that it smoothly pierces the leather, and then the stitching begins. The leather is held in a special clamp so that I can freely use both hands. I then alternate between piercing the hole with the awl and threading the needles, always tensioning the stitch so that it properly runs from the bottom of the previous to the top of the following. When the line is finished, the threads are cut on either side and neatly tucked into the hole to avoid any unsightly knots. (Having properly locked the stitches in place, there is no risk of unraveling). The line of stitching is then lightly tapped with the mallet to make sure it is flush with the surface of the leather to avoid unnecessary wear.
Editors note: Please excuse the poor video quality. I'm not used to these machine things.
So, in the end, is it worth it? I truly believe so. While it is tedious and time consuming, I believe the stronger, beautiful stitch is worth the effort, and I enjoy knowing that I have given all of my attention to each item. When I began making leather goods, I dreaded stitching. I gravitated toward the custom artwork, and saw the stitching as a necessary evil to hold everything together. As I've grown in the craft I have come to see the stitching itself as artwork. When done properly, it completes the item physically, and visually. In the end, I care too much, and have put too much effort into custom items to frame them with a sloppy line of stitches, or quickly pass it through the machine. So, anytime you purchase an item, you can rest assured it has received my full attention from start to finish, and contains a piece of me.
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