August 17, 2016 4 min read 251 Comments
Infrequently, I will receive requests to hand stitch wallets but the interest seems to have faded significantly in the last two years. While I will happily hand-sew almost any model I offer (I can’t for the Johnny the Fox) you may not be happy with the pricetag. When Dan and I first started crafting wallets and bags about seven years ago we hand stitched and hand laced everything. For our wallet styles and business model we quickly realized that the costs far outweighed the benefits for hand-stitching and we quickly began the path to mastering our newly purchased Juki LU 563 sewing machine. Of course, handstitch is a fantastic and time-tested method of sewing and can be used to with great success on many items.
What is hand stitching?
Many great craftspeople use the hand stitching technique to craft very nice items including our friends at Oak Street Bootmakers and Craft and Lore.
The hand stitch on leather was pioneered by saddle makers and tack makers for equestrians who needed to utilize a very tough stitch through a great thickness of leather. This is where the term “saddle stitch” derives. Machines were very cost prohibitive or non-existent until the industrial revolution. The sewing machine did not exist until 1846.
A traditional hand stitch, also known as a saddle stitch, is performed with two blunt needles, a sharp awl, typically waxed linen thread, and a good amount of patience. The process is simple to do but hard to master: Mark your holes, puncture the holes with an awl, and stitch together from both sides of the leather with each needle. The main benefit comes from the last step. By using two needles and coming at the leather from both sides you can create a locking stitch. When one part of the stitch breaks it does not affect the other segments of stitching and the piece will still be held together.
Machine stitching is not feasible on some items
Some items like Oak Street Bootmaker’s Trail Oxfords (I have had a pair for 5 years and they are still amazing) have a moccasin toe construction that requires a hand stitch to attach (see above image). This type of construction is not feasible on a machine because the shoe will not lie flat enough nor will it have the required amount of space to go through a sewing machine. Other round items, or any product that has leather wrapped around it like a leather steering wheel cover, require the same hand stitch as the machine only likes to work with items that can lay flat.
(the above are my 5+ year old pair of brown Horween Chromexcel Trail Oxfords from Oak Street. This shows before and after a quick treatment of Tanner's Blend Leather Cleaner and Conditioner.)
There is something to be said for an item made by hand
I find that handmade products are more relatable and you can really feel that there was a person behind the item. The imperfections in these items are what make them special.
However, hand stitching is very time intensive and therefore more expensive to make.
Hand stitching can often looktoo rugged and less refined. Ashland’s aesthetic could easily include some beautiful hand-sewn pieces, but currently our look seems to shine the most when enhanced by a clean and precise machine-stitch.
Why use machine over handstitch?
At Ashland Leather we choose to use Nylon thread in our sewing machines for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it’s stronger than polyester. We’re trying to make wallets that last a lifetime, and the Horween leather will stand on its own. Any failure points would be at a seam due to faulty thread or stitching. The tensile strength of size 69 nylon thread is 15 lbs, meaning that it would take that much force for the thread to snap. This sort of strength is critical to us, even if it’s going a little overboard. No one is going to exert 15 pounds of force on their wallet seams. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. And Nylon is also able to stretch with regular wallet use, just like leather. It’ll be able to handle as many cards as you can fit in your cardholders.
Nylon is also very resistant to mildew, aging, and abrasion. It’s pretty much the perfect thread for a wallet, especially because we can get it dyed to match all of our countless different leather colors.
We also choose to use bonded nylon, mostly out of personal preference. It doesn’t add any strength to the thread, but it makes it easier to sew with because it has a thin coating added that makes it stiffer and grippier. It also reduces fraying, which is only a problem when you’re trying to thread a needle multiple times a day.
The big differences between machine stitching and hand stitching come down to aesthetics, time, type of project, and cost. Handsewn leather has a more rugged and craftsperson aesthetic and feel, where machine-stitched leather has a more refined and clean look.. Depending on the project, hand-sewing takes roughly ten times the amount of time to craft when compared to machine stitching which-- unsurprisingly-- adds a great deal of labor cost.
The only current product that I offer that is hand sewn is the Manual Bar Blade. You can take a look at them here!
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