I remember the first time I tried to sew vinyl. It was a mess! Wonky seams, uneven stitches, a rat’s nest of thread wadding up in the bobbin case. But once I learned a few tips and tricks, it was smooth sewing from there!
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First things first, when it comes to cutting you want sharp scissors and a sharp rotary. If you’re using scissors, cut slowly and carefully in long, smooth motions. This will prevent a choppy-looking edge.
The problem with these kinds of fabrics is that the smooth surface of the material tends to sort of stick to the presser foot instead of gliding like a more traditional fabric. Luckily, there are a few workarounds.
The most effective way to handle this “stickiness” is a specialty presser foot. Your options are a walking foot, which feeds the leather through the machine along with the feed dogs, so it doesn’t jam up. A teflon foot, which is usually a plastic foot with a layer of Teflon on the bottom. Yep, the same stuff they use on frying pans to make them non-stick. It does the same thing here — prevents the foot from sticking to the leather. Lastly, there’s a roller foot. It has little wheels on it that roll right over the sticky fabric. Like a rollerskate for your sewing machine!
I went into this project thinking I was going to buy a walking foot. I’ve never used one and figured it was time to try it out, since everyone seems to love these little bastards. But they’re like 26 bucks! Highway robbery!
Yeah, I’m cheap.
Meanwhile, the Teflon foot and roller foot were under $10.
Did I mention I’m cheap?
I had a Teflon foot for a previous sewing machine, and to be honest, I wasn’t totally in love with it. I felt like it didn’t glide as much as I wanted it to. So hello, roller foot!
And it works! The only drawback to the roller foot is that I really need to sew about 1/4″ from the edge or the wheels on one side aren’t on the leather, and then the fabric doesn’t feed right. This might be an issue with the particular style of roller foot I found that fit my machine (which is not a low shank machine, like most other home machines). Mine has two little rollerskate style wheels instead of one big barrel wheel like the example photo above. This is not a dealbreaker in most applications, but it would be nice to be able to topstitch a LITTLE closer to the edge.
What to do if you can’t find/don’t want/or can’t wait for a specialty foot? There are a few options.
Matte tape. Regular old scotch tape, but remember, I said MATTE. You don’t want the shiny stuff. Toss a layer of this onto the bottom of your regular presser foot — don’t worry, it won’t hurt the foot at all. You can peel it off when you’re done, or leave it in place.
Make sure to cover the hole bottom surface of the foot. I needed two pieces of tape to cover the full width. Once you’ve covered the bottom, make sure to use a pair of scissors to snip out the middle space where the needle goes through the foot.
Another option is a layer of tissue paper between the foot and the leather. When you’re finished, you just rip it off. I personally prefer this method to the tape. I think it works better. However, if you need to do topstitching on any curves or corners, (which is the case on the bag pattern I’ll be sharing), the fact that you can’t see the edge of the fabric through the tissue paper makes things difficult. So this method really works best for sewing straight lines.
I’ve also heard tell of people buying teflon tape and applying that to their regular presser foot for a DIY version of the teflon foot. So if you’ve got some teflon tape lying around, give it a whirl and let me know how it goes.
Get ye a specialty needle. A leather needle will suffice. This is a heavier needle with a sharp cutting point specifically made for slicing through the tough material.
When it’s time to start sewing, use a loooong stitch length. Longer than you’d use for a standard fabric.
Here’s some topstitching on a scrap piece of my faux leather compared to stitching on a piece of denim. I usually use a stitch length of approximately 2.5 mm on most woven fabrics. When sewing leather type fabrics, I use more like 3.5-4.0 mm.
One of the worst sins you can commit when sewing leather or vinyl is backstitching. We want to avoid putting an excessive number of holes in our lovely leather or faux leather.
So instead of backstitching, leave long thread tails and tie off the ends using a surgeon’s knot, which is like the regular overhand knot you use when you tie your shoelaces, except you loop the ends twice.
- Start by looping the ends together once, just like the first step of tying your shoelaces.
- If you pulled the knot tight at this point, it would be a simple overhand knot. But leave it loose!
- Loop one of the ends through again.
- That’s it. Pull the knot tight, and you’ll notice it holds much tighter than an overhand knot.
Once you’ve knotted the threads a few times, use a big fat needle and tuck the tails in the seam.
Remember when I said we don’t want excessive holes in our leather? That means pins are out.
What to use instead of pins? Wonder clips work great if you have them, but if not, dig around in your desk, and I’ll bet you have a few binder clips. They work just as well. Even clothes pins will work.
If you can’t find any of those, fear not! You can use tape.
I’d recommend the masking variety because it shouldn’t leave behind any sticky residue.
Tape becomes an absolute necessity if you’re topstitching the leather to another fabric. (Which is what we’ll be doing in the upcoming bag tutorial.)
If you’re using vinyl or faux leather, it often has a backing that doesn’t quite match the front. As you can see, mine has a bright white back, which shows through in some places.
So I just grab a Sharpie in a similar color… and color it in.
No one will ever know!
Except you… But you’re sworn to silence.
That’s the craft code.
That’s it! Do you have any other tips for working with these tricky fabrics? If so, leave a comment below!