Tutorial: Sewing Leather Piping

Lately I’ve received an exciting commission–a dress for the coordinator of the San Francisco TED talks.  She’s also the MC for the event, so not only will she be onstage several times during the day, she’ll be on video.  DUH IT HAS TO BE PERFECT.

The contour fitting dress is made from a heathery grey wool blend ponte knit with deep aquamarine suede contrast piping in the seams.  Yesterday afternoon she came over for a fitting, and Va Va Voom!!!!  I wish I could show you pictures, but you’re just going to have to wait until after the event to see it.  But here’s my practice sample so you can get an idea of what’s going on:

sew leather piping

I don’t work much with leather.  It has some properties that make working with it a very different experience than working with most fabrics, and I’m only remotely familiar with some of the techniques.

There’s no way to pin it all together because of the leather–any pin or needle holes will be permanent.  You can use paperclips or bulldog clips, but I don’t have any of those.  Nor do I have any double sided tape to fold the piping in half and keep it that way.  Additionally, this method necessitates silicone needle lube to keep the needle from gumming up when it pierces the tape inside the piping–don’t have any of that either.  Nor do I have a walking foot for my machine, and if you have ever sewn on leather you know how much it stretches and moves–a walking foot keeps this migration from occurring.

My client was coming over the following day, so I needed to come up with a solution.  Something I tell my students regularly is that sewing isn’t always about knowing the proper technique–it is about problem solving.  You really do have to puzzle it out for yourself sometimes.

Here’s what I came up with.

You will need:
Teflon presser foot
wax pencil
leather needle

Step 1: Determine the Width of your Piping
Figure out the width of your piping.  Add the width of your seam allowance to the desired width of your piping.  Then double that.

 For instance, my seam allowance is 3/8″.  I want a small piping of 1/8″.   3/8″+1/8″ = 1/2″.
1/2″x 2 = 1″  so my piping should be 1″ wide.

HOWEVER.  I am going to add another 1/8″ to my 1″ total to compensate for the fold.  If I were working with a thin crisp easily ironable fabric such as shantung or muslin, I might skip this step, but not for leather.  So the final width on my piping will be 1&1/8″.

Step 2: Cut your Piping
I use a rotary cutter and clear plastic quilting guide.
I also like to draw an arrow onto the hide with a wax pencil.  Leather has a grain.  It isn’t like fabric grain, but I’m working with suede.  I want all the piping to be on the same grain (pointing up or down) on the dress.  Otherwise the coloration could be off.  Kind of like when you stroke velvet one way and it looks one color–stroke it the other way and the color changes.

leather grain

As soon as I finish cutting one piece of piping, I mark the arrow on the next one.  When I sew the garment, I make sure that all the arrows are facing either up or down.

Step 3:  Stitch Piping on to one side of the fabric.
Compared to most knit fabrics, the ponte knit that we are using is fairly structured.  A wool, lycra, and something else (poly I think) blend.  A less firm fabric will probably not work very well.

Use a teflon presser foot so that the foot doesn’t pull and stretch the leather.  This is one of the main challenges when working with leather on a home machine, so this part is really important.  This also means that you don’t have to use baby powder on your leather, which can be messy.

teflon presser foot

The fabric needs to be on the bottom touching the feeddogs.  The leather will be on top touching the teflon foot.  Make sure everything is right sides together.

Also use a leather needle.  These have a tiny blade in addition to the needle point to help slice through the leather rather than just puncturing it.

Last, your needle position should be a click towards the edge.  So if my seam allowance is 3/8″, I line up the edges of the fabric and leather with the 3/8″ groove on the throat plate, but I adjust the needle position so that it is slightly right of center (or left of center if your raw edge is on the left).  Your machine might not have as many needle position options as mine, so you might need to compensate with the position of your fabric rather than the position of your needle.

needle position

Step 4: Mark your Notches
See that little tiny clip by my finger?  That’s the notch.  You might be used to seeing something that looks more like this if you are used to commercial patterns instead of industry.

professional sewing notch

Your notches MUST line up.  To achieve this, find the notch and use your wax pencil or crayon to mark its location.  Then directly across from that make another mark.  The notch on the other piece of fabric will align here.   Repeat this for each notch on the seam, and also the top and bottom.

leather notch

Step 5: Stitch Piping to the other piece
Line up the notches on the piping with the notches on the matching piece.  Sew the piping to the fabric in the same way as step 3, with the piping on the top and the fabric on the bottom.

Step 6: Complete the Seam
On the wrong side, fold the piping in half so that the notches meet.  Sew seam at your proper seam allowace.  Don’t forget to readjust your needle position back to center.

control seam bubbling

See the bubbling next to the foot?  If your fabric starts to do this as a result of being pushed by the presser foot, you can control this with a pin like so:

control seam bubbling

Step 7: Steam the seam to the correct side
I didn’t place the iron directly on my fabric with any pressure, but I did use steam to push my seams towards the center front and center back respectively.

That’s it!  I hope this is helpful!  If you have any questions, or if it seems like I left something out or need to expand any explanations please let me know.

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