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  • Tips for Sewing Recycled Leather

    Recycled leather is a fabulous and abundant resource to sew with. Earlier this year, I acquired several boxes of retired plane seat covers. At first, I wasn’t really sure what to make of them, but given that industrial sewing was new to me they proved to be a great experimental material to work with and gain experience.

    Here are a few tips on sewing leather (especially recycled leather or 'pleather').

    Sourcing

    Some people will suggest looking for items such as leather jackets from thrift stores. This is fine if you just want to work on small projects, but I personally prefer larger and more abundant pieces to work with. Through Craigslist or Kijiji, you may be able to find larger items such as sofas, boat seats, car seats, etc at great prices. I recently discovered Canadian Mattress Recycling in Delta, BC, who do a fantastic job of recycling used leather furniture, car seats, and unsellable show room furniture from stores like IKEA. You can purchase bags of assorted leather and ‘pleather’ by donation, which both helps charity and keeps it out of the landfill.

    Harvesting

    The plane covers weren’t that useful in their original form, so I cut them up into the largest rectangular sections possible. The seat pockets were filled with all sorts of interesting items, including original barf bags, safety briefings, passenger tickets and gum (who puts gum in their seat pocket!). I even found an old airline ashtray in one. The seat covers all had original labels in them, so I unpicked the stitching of these carefully to preserve the nostalgia. 

    Storage was so much easier once the useable rectangle pieces were harvested, reducing bulk by at least 75% into convenient storage bins. There were some pieces that were simple too far gone to be reused, but for the most part I was able to make use of the supply.

    Cleaning

    Cleaning the leather was a long and painful trial and error process. If it were simply a matter of removing marks, rubbing alcohol works fine. The problem for me was the sheer volume of leather I had to deal with and the tedium of cleaning them one by one. I also didn’t feel right about only cleaning the outsides, especially considering my leather source had a previous life in public transportation. I took a gamble, and put it the washing machine with detergent on a low spin cycle. This worked remarkably well resulting in freshly scented, clean leather bits. In previous attempts, I used a high spin cycle, which caused patterns of the washer drum to be imprinted on the wet leather. This wasn’t a huge deal (it was actually kind of an interesting pattern), but I found that the low spin produced better results overall.

    Drying the leather is where it can all go wrong. First of all, you cannot just put it in the dryer (I learned that the hard way). When I first started, it was winter and so my only option was to hang dry the leather in the bathroom. This was a bit stinky for the house and limited to the available surface area of the bathroom (not great for guests, either). To my dismay, some of it even developed a mould before it had the chance to dry. So then I waited for better weather and spent an entire Saturday machine washing on low spin cycles and then laying out the leather to dry in the sun. It was a scorching hot day, and took barely any time to dry. In fact, I really had to keep an eye on it because, like skin, leather can burn if left out in the sun too long. The pieces that already had considerable wear and tear were lost in this process, shrinking into a dense, burned core in the centre. But, for the most part, I had dry, usable pieces by the end of the day. I let them air dry a little bit more in the garage (weary of my previous mould issue), and after a week, stacked them in storage bins for future use.

    Refurbishing

    Leather that has been dried in the sun will be a bit crunchy, just like other natural fibres that are hung to dry. Before I sew the leather, I rub in linseed oil mixed with a few drops of bergamot essential oil for a natural, earthy sent. I prefer to do this after I have cut my pattern pieces so I am not wasting on it bits that will go unused. It really doesn’t matter if the leather is ‘oily’ while you’re handling it. The oil will absorb nicely into the leather, restoring its natural touch and your industrial sewing machine won’t complain either.

    Cutting

    Cutting is easy. Being a quilter, my natural inclination was use to a cutting mat, quilting ruler and rotary cutter. This technique is perfectly suited for this type of leather and it amazing how long the rotary blade can be used before going dull. You can also use a good pair of sewing scissors to cut recycled upholstery leather.

    Sewing

    Of course sewing completely depends on the thickness of your leather and your machine’s preferences. My machine is an old Sunstar industrial sewing machine and my recycled plane seat leather is 1 to 1.5 mm thick on average. I use a #20 needle (the largest I could find) and Mettler polyester top-stitching weight thread on both the upper line and lower bobbin. After much frustrating trial and error, I have learned to keep the bobbin tension as low as possible. It is difficult to describe how to set the top tension, but it’s probably less frustrating to start too tight than too loose. If your lower bobbin thread is showing through the upper side of your stitching, loosen the top tension. Threading the machine perfectly is also important, including the precise positioning of the needle. It took me awhile to figure out exactly what worked for my machine, but once I got it I was able to do many miles of sewing with perfect stitches and little hassle. The one thing I would recommend is to pre-wind several bobbins. The thick thread on the bottom bobbin doesn’t last long and it’s frustrating to have to keep stopping to fill up a new bobbin.For a great overview on threads, needles and tension in general, watch this video by the folks at HandiQuilter. 

    Happy leather sewing.

  • How to make a Leather Dopp Kit (Shaving kit or toiletry/cosmetic boxy bag)

    These are the basic instructions for how I put together my Aviator Leather Dopp Kits / (Shaving Kits/Toiletry Bags). I wrote this at the level of an experienced sewer, someone who would will understand the basic logic behind the assembly and is looking for tips rather than precise instructions. 

    Leather

    This pattern allows for odd bits of recycled leather that don't come in perfect sizes or consistency. I have used upcycled plane seat leather. The leather should be of a consistency that is agreeable with your machine - this leather is quite thin, less than 1mm. The salvaged leather is cut up into workable pieces. I machine-wash it (yup, you can do that) and leave it out on the driveway on a sunny day to dry. 

    It is surprising how much life comes back into the leather as it is worked on. You can also spritz on some linseed oil or other fine oil (even scented) before you begin.

    Supplies

    • Leather (1mm or less - pattern sizes below)
    • Zipper - 15" or longer (you can cut to size; I use #3 continuous yardage zipper)
    • Industrial walking foot sewing machine
    • Largest needle your machine will use (as well as very low bobbin tension setting)
    • Top-stitching weight thread
    • Cutting mat
    • Quilting rulers (6"-width rulers are ideal)
    • Sharp rotary cutter
    • Seam picker
    • Seam roller (not essential, but handy)
    • Good scissors
    • Mini clamps (because you can't 'pin' leather)
    • Scratch awl, if doing decorative stitching

    Design & Prep

    Basically, this follows the logic of a boxy-bag pattern. There are many free tutorials on this if you google it. Your goal is to find a creative way to assemble about a 16" x 13" final rectangle that will be folded up boxy-bag-style.

    This is how I do it.

    First I choose a colour scheme. For this version, I have chosen a caramel covered leather, flanked on both sides with beige, and dark brown accenting stripes. I choose a couple accent threads for decorative  top stitching and a blending thread colour for less obvious top stitching.

    I make my kits in sets of 5 and do all the cutting upfront. (That's why in some photos you see many more pieces than would be required for a single kit.) To minimize downtime and wasted thread, I make the kits in assembly line fashion, rarely lifting the foot unless I'm switching out thread colours.

    The sizes of the pieces for one kit are:

    • Center panel: 6" x 6" (2 pieces)
    • Contrasting stripe: 6" x 1.5" (4 pieces)
    • Side panels: 6" x 4" (4 pieces)
    • Bottom panel: 14" x 4" (1 piece - the length is best described as 'long enough') 
    • Zipper panels: 14" x 2" (2 pieces - again, the length just needs to be long enough) - Read 'The Zipper!' below, and make it 2.5" wide if you don't like my zipper method and want to attach the zipper like a regular topstitched seam
    • Handles: 7" x about 1.5" (I make these from whatever scraps I find, the final size is 5.75" x about 1"; If you have larger pieces to work with, make your life easier by sewing multiples at once)

    The photo below demonstrates the basic layout. Note that the beige panels are little too wide (my measurements above are more correct than those shown in the photo). Since the final rectangle will be trimmed up evenly, the exact lengths of the zipper panels and bottom panel don't really matter at this point).

    I also recommend winding multiple bobbins ahead of time. You don't want to make the un-doable mistake of running out of bobbin thread, particularly when topstitching, The 20 seconds it takes to switch in a pre-wound bobbin is so worth it!

    Decorative Stitching

    To make the centre panels, I first etch an "X" with a scratch awl, being careful to mark the leather without weakening it. You could probably use a pencil or the dull side of a knive if you don't have an awl. 

    With the decorative thread, I carefully follow the X lines.

    Then I shadow stitch the additional lines to complete the decorative stitching. Here you can see how I sew from one block straight to the next. I have a trick for switching threads -- I just knot the old and new together and then pull the knot through the machine assembly just before the needle. Then I snip off the knot, rethread with the new colour, sew through a test strip to check tension, and keep going.

    Panel Assembly

    I do all the stitching of the two main multi-panels first (not including the bottom and zipper panels), and then do the top stitching. All seams are half-inch. First, I stitch the 1.5" dark brown piece to the 4" beige piece (4 times for one kit), and then I stitch these pieces to the decorative panels. I do not back-stitch anything - every additional hole in a leather seam weakens it. Note that the 'wrong side' of leather will often appear different colours - as in the photo below. It is consistently dark brown on the showing side. Also, there are more than four sets here simply as I was making more than one kit at the time.)

    The seams MUST be flattened before topstitching. If you don't flatten them, you'll have too much bulk to sew through and the leather will get stressed and tear over time. First, I work the seam with my fingers, gently pressing the seams flat from the centre down to the ends. Then I use the seam roller, which also encourages the leather to relax and flatten. With stubborn leathers, it may be desirable to spritz with water to get more pliability.

    When I topstitch, I catch the folded seam underneath, which results in never having more than 2 layers of leather at once. The one part where this is a bit tricky is the 1.5" accent pieces - you can get around this by topstitching one side down and then trimming close to that seam and folding/topstitching the other side down (and trimming this seam as well, if necessary).

    When you are done, you should have all flat seams! If they unravel a bit at the end, don't worry, they will be secured when the top and bottom panels are added. When you hold up your panel to the light, it should shine through the seams, indicating they are all flattened.

    Next, attach the bottom and zipper panels. Using the clamp, I centre the bottom panel onto one multi-panel and stitch. Then I line up the other multi-panel to the other side of the bottom panel (making sure the accent pieces line up) and clamp and stitch them together. When stitching, it's much easier to keep the multi-panel on the top layer so you can ensure your seams continue to lay flat. 

    Then topstitch (I prefer the look and bulk of two lines of topstitching here). To minimize bulk, I do not flatten these seams; instead, they are all pressed to the side of the bottom panel.

    If things are looking a little wonky at this point, you can go ahead and square up your piece. I do this by measuring evenly from the dark-brown accent pieces. If things are looking pretty good, just keep going.

    Clamp and stitch on the zipper panels to the outer edges in the same manor as the bottom panel. Topstitch by folding all seams towards the zipper panel.

    After the zipper panels are on, this is your last chance to square up the piece. It matters more that the piece is even and rectangular than being any particular final size. So go ahead and trim up the rough edges however it works best for you. My final rectangular pieces are roughly 15.5" x 13".

    The Zipper!

    First, cut off the zipper stop and take off the slider, splitting the zipper in two and carefully noting your orientation as you do this. Practice putting the slider back on so that you eliminate the risk of sewing zipper halves on backwards or upsidedown (this is a painful, painful mistake, especially with metal zippers where both sides look the same). One trick is to use a pin to mark the upper side of each half.

    Unlike the rest of the seams, which are sewn right-sides-together and topstitched, I attach the zipper by butting up the zipper panel with the zipper teeth, and making one continuous topstitch line down the panel, catching the zipper tape.

    With zipper tape on both sides, your assembly of the panels is complete.

    Handles

    You need two 1" x 5.75" handles for each bag. You could just use one piece of leather for this, but if you want to make my decorative handles, read on. The double layer adds a sturdy structure to the kit as well, and hides the imperfect wrong sides of the leather.

    Clamp two pieces of leather (of approximately the same size) raw sides together. I've included the measurements above, but I generally, I try to find pieces out of my scraps that are more than double the length (13") of two final handles. Sew them together in a long straight line, then shadow this line three more times at about 0.25 inches apart (this happens to be my foot width). There are more than four lines in the photo below because I had enough room to keep going and make multiple sets of handles.

    With the ruler, cut 1/8" alongside each of the outer two stitching lines, adjusting the ruler slightly as you go if you need to (no one will notice!). Make the final handles by cutting them into 5.75" sections (of course you only need two; there are 10 here for the 5 kits I am assembling at the same time).

    Boxing It Up

    This is where all your hard work pays off!

    With the exterior of the bag facing outwards, gently work with the zipper slider to re-attach the zipper If it is not working, try the other end :). This takes a gentle touch, you don't want to damage the teeth at this point, but if you do, it's okay to trim smidgeons of the teeth off at the end if they are damaged in the first attempt. Pull the zipper down about half way to make sure your accent stripes align. If they don't align, pull it off and try again.

    Open the zipper as wide as you dare to turn the kit inside out, then zip it up about half way (do not zip it up all the way, or you will struggle to turn the bag to the right side out as the final step). Noting where your bottom and zipper panel seams align, clamp the kit in half.

    Sew up both the sides, backstitching a couple times over the zipper to secure it. Here are a few tips:

    1. Use the hand wheel over the teeth to avoid busting a needle.
    2. If you are using a nylon zipper, it may be worthwhile to handwheel one single stitch over the zipper rather than piercing it.
    3. For the zipper end that is not done up, use the clamp to perfect the landing of the first zipper half, then carefully place the second half as you go - the teeth should be as close as possible, you don't want a gap or overlap here. 

    To make the boxy shape, you will need to cut out 1.5" x 1.5" (+ seam allowance) sections from the corners. Look at the photo closely because the 1.5 on the short end is measured FROM the short edge seam you just made - so if you have a 0.5" seam, your total cut out is 1.5" x 2" on the short edge. I use a sharpie marker and then cut with good scissors. You want this cut out to be very neat and even.

    Now is a good time to work your kit into shape, which will also make the leather more pliable. Pinch your corners together into a diagonal, and keep the outer short-edge seam folded towards the bottom of the kit - basically, the short-edge seam should land in the centre of this fold. You are about to sew the bulkiest and most important seams, so please read carefully.

    Take the handle and insert it into the diagonal, centering it along the short-edge seam. The right-side of your handle should be facing towards you from within the kit. In the photo below, you can see the edge of the handle centred within the diagonal and with the short-edge seam. Secure this with a clamp.

    Then go to the other side, and secure the other end of the handle into the opposing diagonal. If you peak inside the kit, you can get a sense of how the handles are situated and make sure they will be facing the right way once the kit is turned (the two right sides of handles should be facing each other inside the unturned kit).

    I like to let the clamps sit for awhile as they squish the bulk out and convince the leather to adopt the boxy shape.

    These clamped diagonals will make up the boxy corners of the bag once they are sewn. Before sewing, check to make sure they are aligned as perfectly as possible. Unlike all the other seams, I sew this one at 0.25" and back-stitch for security. Go slow with this seam! Use the hand-wheel and manually help the pressure foot lift if you need to. Getting it straight and catching all the layers is critical to the final product - both functionally and aesthetically.

    Complete all four diagonal seams.

    Turning The Kit

    Gently, ease the zipper open, keeping it at least 2" from the other end. Turn the bag right side out by easing the leather carefully, working the corners and pushing them into shape.

    Give the handles a gentle tug, and with your fingers, pinch along the bottom and zipper panels, as well as the new box seams to sharpen the look. Push the corners into place from the inside of the kit with your fingers. You can get a lot done working the leather with just your fingers to give your Dopp kit sharp, professional lines and seams.

    Voilà - A Dopp Kit is born!

    This completes the exterior of the bag. I always line my bags by making an identical inner box with contrasting lining fabric, that is hand-stitched in place to the zipper tape.