Hand stitching is a traditional skill that still has a very important place in 21st Century manufacture; Bespoke suits, Saddlery, Shoemaking, Glove Making, Harness and Bridle work, Leather Goods, Curtains and Soft furnishings, are some of many more everyday goods and apparel. At the Worcestershire Leather Company, Tim Hardy and his craftsmen use hand stitching on all of our Bridle leather belts, Drinks Cases, Cartridge Cases, Luggage, Handbags and Shooting Accessories simply because it provides an extremely strong and fine looking stitch that surpasses anything a sewing machine can produce.
Thought by some, (including some leather companies I have noticed recently), to be stitching done by machine whilst the work is guided by human hands, it is in fact a term that applies (rather obviously) to the skill, or in this case many skills, needed to effect good stitching with one’s hands using a needle (or needles in our case) and thread. This art form evolved over the centuries preceding sewing machines to reach its zenith during Victorian times since when it has changed very little if at all.
The advantages stitching by hand offer are numerous due to the direct connection of human hand to the article being made. Should a stronger or weaker tension be required for certain parts of the work, then the craftsman imparts this knowledge and skill directly through the stitch – something a machine cannot achieve. This becomes more obvious when applied to the very best that Savile Row and similar high echelon tailors of bespoke suits produce where for example hand sewing is needed on the parts of the jacket that have to be flexible, such as the collar and armholes. Only a skilled tailor will know exactly how to stitch this correctly by hand and ensure just enough stitch tension and spacing is used to keep the pieces firmly together but with enough movement between them.
Curtain makers of the higher order will use a similar understanding to the Savile Row tailor with the linings of curtains ensuring what amounts to the difference between them hanging beautifully or looking like old rags put up to the window. The delicate stitching used in this instance is almost invisible from front or back and is the mark of quality curtain making.
Glove making in years past was one of Worcester’s main industries when hand sewn gloves were produced in abundance by the renowned names of Dents and Fownes alongside many other manufacturers. The very best examples such as hogskin gloves were hand sewn by the most experienced glovers and although no longer made in Worcester, these much sought are after symbols of Gentlemanly style are still produced today.
Saddlers have one of the biggest selections of hand stitching techniques in their armoury, all of which are employed during the complex manufacture of top quality saddles, made to be the very best and to fit the very best horses with uncompromising comfort for horse and rider with total reliability. These stitch types will include both double and single hand stitching when welt sewing for example, or the ‘lacing in’ of the pommel, cantle and surrounding areas when heavy duty thread is used to hold the whole seat, panel and tree parts of the saddle together. Several more disciplines will use different lengths and shapes of needles and a variety of thread weights and thicknesses according to leather types and their respective function within the saddle as in the case of girth straps (heavy) or knee rolls (light).
Shoemakers, or Cordwainers as they are also known, will know many of the types of hand sewing mentioned above but probably by different names and with different applications. Most allied trades have unique terms for their skills even when the same technique is used and the shoe trade is no different where they will stitch the very finest shoes by hand, often making the linen threads by hand also (as do the best Saddlers I must add), but where a Saddler may say ‘lacing in’ the Cordwainer may say ‘closing’.
Demand for Hand stitching in today’s world is largely driven by two factors I feel, the first being pure economics and the second being the refusal of skilled craftsmen to compromise on quality. The specific types of hand stitching we use are of the sort practised by Harness and Bridle makers as this is the predominant leather in our collections. The second part of this article will explain more of this, why it is stronger and some of the techniques involved.