This was an amazing and challenging project! It’s been two years in progress, and finally I’ve managed to crack on it! The main push for me to finally attempt sewing leather was recent Burda issue, in which this very proper faux leather skirt was featured. And so I figured that it was a sign for me to finally get to this project. I had all sorts of doubts before and during the project which I will share in this post. And now when the skirt is finally finished, I couldn’t be happier with it! And a bit proud, too.
Styled above with my Purple wool jacket and Evergreen jacket
How it started
Everything started a good two years ago. My mom approached me saying she couldn’t quite decide on what to do with my dad’s old leather coat. A good decade ago it was somehow very usual to wear leather coats in autumn. Nowadays this feels like a terribly outdated fashion statement, but well, this was the case back then. My mom had one, my dad had one, my aunts had theirs, even I had one. And it was all genuine leather.
There is a line to be drawn here – I would NEVER purchase genuine leather for my projects – I can very well do without a leather skirt or a coat. In this case, yes, it is a genuine leather skirt, but it is an upcycled dad’s coat, so my mind is calm as I believe I’ve done the right thing. Here’s my dear dad in his coat 11 years ago – that’s about when he used to wear it.
Getting back to the story, I wouldn’t be me, if I passed on a challenge. To my mom’s puzzle about dad’s coat I had an excellent answer – “give it to me, I’ll rip it apart and make something out of it”. It is worthwhile stressing, that at that time I had only made like few dresses and two jumpsuits, and that was the limit of my sewing experience. But lack of actual competence has never stopped me in the tracks to pursue larger endeavors! 🙂
I ripped dad’s coat apart in November, 2020. Pandemics was in full swing – what else I would have been occupied with then, right? It is important to stress, that I actually ripped it, seam by seam. It would have been easier to cut it around seams, but had I done that, I would not have managed to squeeze out this skirt, as it appeared later.
When the coat was ripped to pieces, there was some preparation to be done. First of all, I read somewhere that I’d need a special needle and probably thread to stitch leather, and also adhesive tape to glue pieces together might be handy. So I ended up purchasing all of that, and also threw in a set of clips to secure pattern pieces while stitching, as you can’t use pins on leather. And then I tried to devise a pattern for the skirt.
It started with a basic pencil skirt pattern from one of Burda magazines and then I had to calculate into how many different pieces I’d need to divide the initial pattern in order to be able to make use of relatively small leather pieces that were left after ripping the coat apart. Predictably, it was larger a task than my experience back then would have allowed to complete, and so eventually the pattern making attempt was abandoned. Leather pieces got put away and rested on the top shelf until this summer.
When in July I saw the content of the upcoming Burda magazine August issue, this faux leather skirt emerged in front of my eyes. I figured, this has got to be an occasion to finally conclude the project started two years ago. I bought the magazine, right away made paper pattern blocks, and… It became evident that my leather pieces were too small for the initial skirt design. They were simply not wide enough either for the front center piece, or for bottom side pieces. So the design of the skirt had to be redrawn. The front center piece had to be made out of two pieces. If I were to make a side seam on the bottom pieces, there was still not enough leather to accommodate them. So they had to be cut into three sections each (in total 6 bottom sections around the entire skirt instead of 2 wide panels as intended in the initial design). When I realized that I could actually join top side piece with newly created bottom side piece, and I’d have enough of length of leather to cut these two long panels, I decided to do just that and thus break the skirt design a bit. I’m very glad it ended up being possible. If side sections also had seams in the middle, the skirt would have been too trivial and unappealing, in my view.
So when I finished redesigning the skirt, the time came to start cutting all those pieces. There were 14 pieces in total: 2 long side panels, 2 top front, 2 bottom front, the same for the back, and 4 waist facing pieces (front facing has a seam in the middle as I did not have a wide enough piece of leather to cut it as a continuous piece). In addition to all this hard puzzle work, I had to do something else. A number of leather pieces had old interfacing attached. At first I was tempted to ignore it. But when I started cutting out all pattern pieces, it became clear that on some of them interfacing was attached in very weird spots. Eventually I reluctantly decided to remove it, and in some places it took a lot of effort to deal with it.
To ensure the new redrawn pattern was not messed up, I made a cotton toile. It looked and worked fine and no additional adjustments were needed.
What I had missed in preparing to stitch leather was the understanding of what sewing machine foot to use. I simply hadn’t thought of it. Regular foot worked fine on the wrong side, however when I tried to top stitch leather, half of the stitches were skipped. It was clear that this was not gonna work. I turned to my main source of wisdom – Youtube 🙂 And very quickly learnt that either teflon foot or the walking foot should be used for leather. The first foot reviewed in the video was teflon foot, and I was like – “Oh, c’mon! Will I now have to order it and wait even longer?..” But then the video went on to test walking foot, and it was assessed as performing even better than the teflon foot. This raised my spirits, and walking foot it was!
I had to spend quite a bit of time in testing again and again which sewing machine settings would work the best. Eventually I found that optimal combination – there is a list at the end of this post with all the tips and tricks to succeed in sewing leather.
First I joined two upper and lower center front pieces and then connected them horizontally, too. The horizontal front seam is flat fell seam, and my sewing machine was working at the limit of its capabilities to make it, even provided that I had trimmed one side of seam allowance thus reducing bulk. Then side panels were attached. I had a very tough time to make side panels seams as flat fell seams over the bulk of the front horizontal seam. To somehow ensure the feed I increased the presser foot pressure to maximum and helped the machine by pushing the leather firmly. Finally, back panels were made, the opening for the zipper was left, and they were attached to the side panels thus completing the shell of the skirt.
When I tried the WIP on, I was glad to see that it was turning into a fairly nice skirt. The remaining bit of work was to make the lining, install the zipper and waist facings.
Installing the zipper turned into a nightmare. Or should I say, when the zipper was in, top stitching the center back seam turned into a nightmare. In Youtube videos I often see people top stitching next to zipper using a regular foot and closing or opening the zipper while stitching, so that the zipper head would be moved away. I tried to move the zipper head away, but couldn’t do that, regardless of how much I tried. So those two symmetric top stitching seams along the zipper were made in few stages, because I had to stop, move zipper head away and start again.
The worst part was that when I was almost done with this ordeal, the last 4 cm portion of the top stitching seam simply would not happen! I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I had just stitched few decent portions of the seam, and this last, very short one would simply not work. I tried few times, there were skipped stitches, the seam got ripped again and again. You are not supposed to rip seams in leather, because each needle poke will leave a hole in it. After two unsuccessful attempts I decided to try stitching through parchment paper (that was one of the advices from Youtube). This didn’t work either. By that moment I was fuming. That section of leather was all perforated already and I had no clue how to finish the seam. Eventually I ended up stitching it by hand, mimicking top stitch seam. It was not great a solution, but a sensible one.
Next, time for the lining came. When I removed the needle to replace it with a regular needle for the lining, I saw that the leather needle was covered in some sticky substance. That was probably micro pieces of leather and residue glue from previous interfacing. This might have been the reason why I struggled so much with that last seam. I threw the needle away and later took a new one.
When the lining was done, the last bit was to make a waistline facing. With new leather needle that happened without much incident. Eventually I attached the lining to the leather waistline facing and joined it with the main skirt at the waistline. Understitching the facing was my last struggle with stitching over few layers of leather. I was very glad to breathe a sigh of relief!
You can press leather, but it needs to be done at moderate heat, without steam, through a pressing cloth and using a clapper afterwards. When the waistline was pressed, I was able to try the skirt on. It was looking really well!
At first I was planning to hem my skirt. On the other hand I did not quite like how undefined the hem of the skirt in Burda magazine was looking. So gradually I realized that it might be perfectly ok to leave the hem unfinished. I actually checked out leather skirts on high end stores online trying to understand if any of those skirts were unhemmed. Some were, and so I made up my mind to not hem mine either. This is something that can be easily changed – I could hem the skirt at any time. Finally, the lining was hemmed using rolled hem foot, and with that my first leather skirt was complete!
I ran a poll on Instagram asking fellow sewists if they had ever sewn a leather garment, and only 15 pct said they had. Honestly, it was much less that I had anticipated. But also understandably so. Sewing leather is intimidating, it does require quite a bit of preparation. But it is absolutely possible and doable! Below is the list of tips and tricks for sewing leather.
- Regular sewing machine is perfectly capable of sewing leather
- Leather also has “grain”, similar to fabric – it will stretch more “cross grain” than lengthwise, so pattern pieces need to be cut out lengthwise
- Can’t use pins to secure pieces in place because pins would leave holes in leather, some sort of clips need to be used instead
- I used the following tension settings: upper thread tension 5 / 9, presser foot pressure 2 / 6
- It is absolutely necessary to use special knife-edged needle designed to stitch leather, I used size 90 needle
- Regular sewing machine foot won’t work – walking foot or teflon foot needs to be used instead
- The stitch length 3 mm or longer
- Avoid ripping seams at all costs, because each needle poke would leave a hole in leather
- For flat fell seams one seam allowance (which will go inwards) needs to be trimmed to reduce bulk
- It is ok to press leather, it needs to be done from wrong side over a pressing cloth, iron on moderate heat without steam, and clapper helps too
For this skirt I used almost everything that was left after ripping my dad’s leather coat. The skirt is made using the pattern #101 from Burda magazine 2022/08 issue. Note, that the original design does not include lining. I cut paper blocks in size 36 and had to redraw them quite a bit to facilitate leather pieces I had. To make this skirt I also needed 25 cm invisible zipper, black viscose lining, and black thread. This skirt cost me next to nothing (few euros, to be specific – for these few notions). It was made in August, 2022.
I truly like my new skirt. It is possible that some time in the future I might end up actually hemming and thus shortening it. But for now I’m going to wear it as it is. Current midi length is perhaps the least flattering on me though, as it makes my legs look shorter. For my height of 163 cm either above-knee or maxi skirts look so much better than midi skirts. However this time I’m tempted to concede and accept this midi skirt – after all, this particular A shaped design is probably the best at midi length.
When it comes to styling, I tried it on as part of various styles: with chunky sweaters, white shirt, jackets, and like very much how it works with all of those styles. It is a very versatile garment indeed. My husband needed a bit of conviction, though 🙂 In his view, leather garments are outdated, and I get where he’s coming from. That’s probably similar to my own sentiment of not choosing leather for ethical and sustainability reasons. However, in this case, I believe I did the right thing by upcycling my dad’s old coat. Am sure I will enjoy wearing something that was my dad’s, and also hope that my dad is going to appreciate the skirt when he sees it!
Let there be peace in the world! 💙💛