Hand Embroidering Leather: Part 1 General Leather Tips

When I came up with this idea, it sounded simple, like so many do; bracers made of leather, hand embroidered with beautiful patterns in a similar color. While I have sewn leather for projects, I've never embroidered on leather before and was leery of just trying my same old tricks with it. So I researched.

Unfortunately, most of what's out there on the web primarily relates to machine embroidery. It is one of the really frustrating things about hand embroidery is that there just isn't the same kind of easy access resources out there for it. However, I did learn a few things from all my articles on machine embroidering leather that I figured would also apply for hand embroidery.

Knowing I did not want to screw this up, I was smart enough to dig out the extra scraps of leather and play with them. With the price of leather, I am so glad that I did. My guess is that embroidering on fake leather would have similar issues to these, but I haven't tried it out.

I'm going to leave talking about stitch selection for another post (or two), but here are some general tips.

1. Not all leather is equal.
How your leather is tanned makes a big difference. I was lucky that I had bought my leather in a fabric shop so it was actually designed to be made into wearables. Some leather isn't so good at that (trying to make belt leather into a coat or even into an accent on clothing just is not going to happen).

If you want to hand embroider, you should really be looking at something that is tanned for wearing. The softer it is, the easier it will be to embroider and the less likely it is to cause you major hassle. Then again, too soft and it will fall apart. I found that suede is more likely to become problematic and more difficult to prevent holes from growing while I worked.

2. You can't hoop leather the way you would hoop fabric. 
For starters, you need to put padding between the hoop and the leather if you want it to revert back to normality after you take it out of the hoop. Leather will also get "hoop burn" and look nasty if you don't put something between it and the hoop, so there's extra incentive to make sure you do it.

The part that drove me a little nuts is that you can't pull your leather drum tight like you can with fabrics. It stretches the leather and you get literal stretch marks by doing so. Not pretty. So you have to stitch it while it is a bit loose still. I really prefer working with my embroidery surface as tight as possible, so this was very frustrating for me.

Because the leather was stretchy, I was also concerned about putting it on my Millennium Frame (or any other frame) as I could see me easily tightening it to a point where it looked dreadful once it was relaxed. That, and I was fairly certain the areas that would hold the frame in place would end up with "hoop burn" just as badly meant that I didn't even bother with that option.

I ended up just stitching with the leather in my hand rather than hooping it. With the stabilizer on it, it wasn't stretching or moving anywhere and this gave me much better control overall as I was already having to finger the leather a lot as there aren't holes there for you to aim for. On the plus side, this meant I could keep these projects in my handbag and bring them out quickly and easily on public transport without needing any setup.

3. Leather needs a stabilizer
Leather stretches, and that's no fun for us embroiderers, particularly because of the issues with putting leather in a hoop/frame (see below). So using a stabilizer is vital.

I tried three- stiff Sulky tear-away stabilizerGütermann Sulky Solvy, and good old fashioned iron-on interfacing. The Solvy was way too stretchy and stretched with the leather. It also was more difficult to punch through with the needle than the other two options.

I wanted to go with the Sulky because it was better at not letting the leather stretch. A little stretch would not have been too much of a problem, but because I also didn't end up hooping the leather I liked how well it kept the leather from stretching. It was very difficult to get a needle through, however, with almost every stitch requiring me to use the pliers to pull the needle through.

Which is why I eventually compromised on a mid-weight interfacing. It had enough stability to prevent the leather from stretching too much and did not add any real difficulty in punching through the leather. While I wouldn't use the interfacing if I was doing normal fabric embroidery, it worked well for the leather, and I would probably try it again.

4. Do not embroider with leather needles. 
It sounds daft, but I tried exactly 4 stitches before I realised leather needles were a Bad Idea TM. The machine embroidery guides all suggested using normal needles, and they were right for hand embroidery too

The problem is that leather needles will cut as they go in. That isn't actually too much of a problem with the leather itself (although the holes are a bit larger than with normal needles), but if you're doing any hand stitching where the needle is coming up near the previous thread (like, you know, most stitches) then the cutting needle will partially cut your thread. In the 4 stitches I did this was not only visible, but annoying. Your thread becomes extra frayed looking. That might suit some uses, but definitely was not my intention.

Leather needle (top) compared to standard embroidery needles. Note it doesn't have a point but an actual cutting edge.

Standard embroidery needles worked fine. They were more difficult to get through the leather and stabilizer, and sometimes so difficult that I had to break out my pliers for every stitch.

My end needle choice went down to a thin chenille needle combined with an embroidery needle for when I worked with larger number of floss strands. Partly this was due to my stitch selection, partly to the fact that for the actual stitching I was only using one strand of floss, and partly because it flowed through both needle and stabilizer easily. The chenille needle with only 1 strand worked so nicely, in fact, that I never had to use the pliers when I was stitching with it.

One of the guides I found suggested poking the holes that would be used before you began stitching. That would make it much easier to sew, however if your pattern is intricate and you're using stitches that might need adjusting in length, then I wouldn't bother. Just make sure your needles are nice and sharp and it won't be too bad.

5. Transferring designs is Problematic.
This was made worse by the fact that I was using dark blue leather, so stuff that might have been an option on white or light leather wouldn't show up. Machine embroidery guides didn't even touch on this issue since its computerized, so I was really on my own on this one. I tried several options here too.

Most transfer options are designed for fabric, either so they will soak into the fabric or at least not pool on top. Wax based tracing paper didn't transfer at all. Chalky type stuff just fell off the leather as soon as you tilted it vertically.

Pen worked, sort of. It did get provide a solid line to follow, but the ink could easily run and get smeared across the leather When I tried to remove the lines, I found that with my dyed leather I'd be removing some of the colouring if I wasn't careful. Pencil only really worked if you pressed deeply into the leather with it which resulted in a nasty groove that I didn't like.

I was worried that scoring the leather would make it even more likely to fall apart when I started doing the stitching, so I avoided those options, although if you weren't planning on doing satin stitching (like I was) then you might be able to get away with it.

In the end I wanted to run over the pattern with the machine in matching thread, but settled for pen so that I didn't have to poke any extra holes in the leather. I will have to find a better way of transferring patterns if I'm using leather that is not dark next time, however, as the pen did leave marks that were difficult to get off.

Stay tuned for Parts 2+3 where I'll look at stitch selections and a few other bits and bobs


  1. Hi I landed on your blog via google in search of information on embroidering on leather. I have done a bit of embroider long time ago and a project landed in my lap. I was wondering if you ever created the posts for parts 2 and 3 because I'm curious to see how your worked turned out. I'm subscribing by the way :)

    1. Hi Katriska! I have Part 2 ready to go once I can get photos that I'm happy with. It was difficult to get them while I was working as the blue on blue didn't show well, so I'm having to go back and re-do some of my experimenting in different colours so it is visible. It will happen- just need the chance to do so! Hope you continue to enjoy!

  2. Thanks so much for these leather embroidering tips! I'm going to have to be working with leather on the next sewing project I'm doing. I'm really glad that you warned us not to use leather needles! That definitely sounds a little weird, but I'll take your word for it because fraying extra thread is definitely something I want to avoid. Where did you buy the needles that ended up working well for you?
    Megan | http://www.candeprint.com/#!services/c1pna

    1. Hi Megan, I ended up using Chenille needles because they have a long tapering that made it easier to slide into the leather. You should be able to find some in most shops. I used a craft pack from John James that was primarily Chenille needles that I talked about in this post here: http://withoutastitchon.blogspot.ie/2014/08/needle-packs-of-note.html. I bought them at a local shop in Dublin, but you can find them online too.

  3. The leather that I will be using for my project are 8" by 10 " samples for upholstery on furniture. It has a fabric backing, and I am wondering whether this would eliminate the need for a stabilizer.

    1. Hi Kareen,
      I'm not really sure whether you will need the stabiliser or not as it will depend on how the fabric backing acts. I needed the stabiliser for two reasons- one to help keep the leather from falling apart under the stitching, but more importantly to help prevent the leather from stretching while I stitched it from the pressure of my fingers. If your upholstery leather won't stretch at all then you might be ok, but I'd suggest trying out a few stitches to see if it will end up warped from holding it and stitching. If it warps, then I recommend the stabiliser.

  4. I have done some stitching on the leather with my sewing machine, and it seems to do just fine. I haven't tried any hand stitching on it yet, though.

    1. Machine stitching and hand stitching will work differently on the material. You may find that its fine with the machine but that you need a stabiliser for the hand stitching. I definitely recommend trying a few stitches on a scrap piece first.

  5. I see in May 2015 you said you almost were ready to post part 2. Have you had a chance to do that yet. I've searched your blog and couldn't find it.

  6. I see in May 2015 you said you almost were ready to post part 2. Have you had a chance to do that yet. I've searched your blog and couldn't find it.

    1. Hi there. Right now I'm stuck on images for that blog, but I'll try to go through previous options and see what I can find in the next few months.

  7. Am venturing into leather works myself and was lucky to land on your post! Can't wait to read the next parts 👍

  8. This part is very meaningful. descriptive information for hand embroidering leather. If we want to adopt this techniques or we are interested in this techniques then full details should be require. I wasn't available for search this perfect blog on internet and finally I reached at this blog. If this blog is very educational then I can assume about the next blog means how much that blog will informative and useful. So we take an idea about many Popular accessories like Hand embroidered Jackets, Trousers, coats, etc.

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