Leather work

Sewing leather: Tools

Tools you will need for sewing leather include:

  • A stitch marker to make sure your stitches are straight and even.
  • Awls. Diamond-point or flat-pointed awls are best. Straight awls are used for making holes straight through a piece of leather, and curved awls for making face-edge holes, or tunnels that go in and out of the same face of the leather. Place an off-cut of thick leather or a scrap of wood under your work when using your awl to save both your work surface and the awl point.When using an awls, don't push it so far through that you end up with a large hole - you just need enough space for your needle to fit through. Once you have sewn the leather, you should not see extra space around the thread.
  • Leather needles. These come in two varieties: diamond-point needles are used for sewing thin leather without any need for an awl, whereas round-ended needles are used for following holes made by an awl (pointy needles will snag and try to make their own way through the leather).
  • Linen thread. This is strong enough to hold leather without cutting into it.
  • Beeswax. Waxing your thread and needles will make sewing leather easier and much kinder on your fingers.

Sewing leather: Stitches

It is important to use the correct stitch in leather work. This will save you from various annoyances, such as bulky overlaps, seams that fall apart, visible stitching where you don't want it, trying to get your needle inside a fiddly space and even damp feet! Most guides to making leather articles will tell you what stitch to use: a good overview of stitches can be found on Marc Carlsson's Footwear of the Middle Ages website. Note that leather has two faces: the grain side which was once on the outside of the cow, and the flesh side which was on the inside. It also has edges. Be careful to note in what orientation the pieces of leather you are sewing should join (edge to edge, grain to flesh etc).

Treating & Waterproofing

Leather can be conditioned and waterproofed using tallow, vegetable oils, beeswax or a combination of these. Oil alone will make the leather more supple and bendy, wax and tallow are more effective waterproofing agents. Note that all of the above will cause the leather to darken. A simple way of waterproofing shoes, scabbards etc. is to mix 1 part molten beeswax (melt it in the microwave or over a saucepan of boiling water) with 2 parts olive or vegetable oil. Rub this onto the leather with a clean cloth - it will start to solidify as you rub it in. Then use a hairdryer to warm the applied mixture as you rub it again - the heat will allow the oil and wax to soak into the leather. Apply several coats of this, until the leather can't absorb any more. You will need to repeat this treatment if the item gets damp - shoes especially should be re-waterproofed regularly.


Leather armour can be hardened very easily using hot water. You can find instructions on David Friedman's website, but note that he's using Farenheit for temperatures - your hot water should be around 80-90 degrees C, just at the point where it's starting to produce tiny bubbles but before it starts to simmer. The hardening effect of hot water is something you should also be aware of when soaking leather to soften it (e.g. for turnshoes) - cold water makes leather temporarily more supple, hot water makes it permanently stiff.

Making holes

Stitch holes can be made using an awl. Larger holes (e.g. for thonging) will need to be made using a leather punch or, in the case of very thick leather, a drill. Soft materials like leather can cause a drill bit to wander about and this can make drilling a very slow process: this can be averted by clamping the piece to be drilled between two pieces of scrap wood and drilling through the entire sandwich. n.b. if you plan to harden your piece, punch or drill any holes before you begin to harden the work.

Decorating leather items

You can use polish, dye, pokerwork or carving to decorate leather kit. Some useful links for these topics are given below.

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