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').
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.