Harness and Bridle makers, Case makers and Leather goods craftsmen such as those found in my workshop and similar ones the world over, tend to use one particular style of hand stitching which we know as ‘Double hand’ stitching although there are occasions when single hand sewing is the preferred choice. This second part of my article will attempt to explain why, when, where and how we go about it with examples from our collection and work from yesteryear.
Why do we hand stitch.
Why do we hand stitch when machines can produce very strong and great looking stitches? Firstly the look achieved by hand is second to none and linked with the fact that somebody’s hands were responsible for every single visible stitch should possibly be enough in itself. However the many attributes don’t stop there as the overriding factor is the sheer strength and longevity sewing by hand gives an item. Explained in more detail later, the way the stitches are formed means that the piece may well be nearing the end of its useful life due to wear and tear of the leather before the stitching fails. I have seen many hand stitched bridles, harness and leather goods where the surface threads have all worn away and the article is held together with ‘plugs’ of thread and wax. These resemble an egg timer glass in cross section and act like a hemp rivet of sorts the details of which are discussed later.
When and Where to hand stitch is down to cost which always influences product manufacture but were it not so and time were a secondary consideration, I would hand stitch absolutely everything as I’m obsessed with trying to make things that will last a lifetime and beyond. However we use considerable hand stitching with our belts (all are hand stitched), cases and the stress points of our bridle leather straps when used on various bags, luggage, gunslips and cartridge bags. Generally the harness double hand stitch will be seen on all best Saddles, Harness and Bridles.
Top of the market luggage and briefcases.
Top of the market luggage and briefcases, certain brands of light leather goods (wallets), the very finest shoes and boots and many day to day objects like watch boxes, stud boxes etc. Very few pieces made today will stich finer than 10 or 12 stitches per inch but in Victorian times 16 and 32 to the inch were everyday quality and often stitched by eye rather than by using the traditional pricking iron. This quality of work is still around today in relative abundance and serves as a testament to the craft of hand sewing and the skills of its practitioners of yesteryear.
How to hand stitch seems relatively easy to explain and like most things is quite easy when you know how. Explaining it may not quite so simple. Double hand stitching is by far the most practised method in my trade and the following items are essential requirements in order to achieve some success.
How hard and soft leathers hold their stitch.
Leather; bridle leather always in our case, but most firm leathers will work reasonably well whereas soft leathers don’t always hold the stitch nicely resulting in a messy irregular looking stitch run, Needles; a pair of Harness needles so called surprisingly because they are used by harness makers but more importantly because they have blunt ends which ease their passage through the holes without them snagging or digging in like a sharp point would, Diamond Awls; so called because the cross section of the awl blade is diamond shaped and therefore makes this shape of hole through our stitch marks (see later) which assists greatly in the way the finished stitch will lay and equally important is the fact that to push a needle through two layers of 3.5 mm thick bridle leather by hand is virtually impossible and even more so if you try to do it more than a couple of times, hence the need for this ‘hole maker’ and ‘stitch former’, Pricking irons; steel comb like tools with a stem that provides purchase and the means to hit it with our mallet and doing so in the correct position on the leather will make a series of regular linear marks of equal spacing which set the spacing and pitch that the diamond awl will have to be religiously aligned to if a good looking stitch is to be made, spacing of the stitches is measured by how many there per imperial inch and every pricking iron is numbered accordingly from anything from 4 to 32 to the inch, Six up to twelve are the most widely used these days and I still wonder at the eyesight of our forebears who stitched all day long and often in dimly lit conditions at 32 to the inch beautifully, Thread; 18/3 cord linen is a benchmark type which when waxed with beeswax gives it superior strength and resistance to wear, water and rot.
What to do next
Armed with this lot, we thread a needle on each end of an arm’s span length of thread, clamp our stitch-marked leather in the saddler’s clams, pierce a correct and accurate hole with the diamond awl at the second to last furthest position (this is because one always works towards oneself) and pass a needle through before evening up the thread lengths each side of the work. The furthest hole is now pierced and the left hand needle is passed through the work, picked up by the hand holding the right hand needle which then returns through the hole to create two threads passing through the hole in opposite directions. This simplified explanation of the technique is now repeated along the entire stitch run working towards the stitcher until either the work is complete or the thread becomes too short to work with and a new length is required, first by casting off and then repeating the process of threading and starting.
Double hand stitching is the strongest form of stitching
Technique will be explained in later articles, but most importantly the action of a thread passing both ways through the leather is the reason double hand stitching is the strongest form of stitching commonly seen in leather goods manufacture simply because, unlike the machine ‘lock stitch’ where top and bottom threads link in the middle of the layers of work, each thread is bearing load individually in opposite directions and should one side of the stitch fail, the other opposite stitch will still hold the work together. This is complimented by another factor caused by the wax on the threads melting in the stitch hole, fusing threads together over time resulting in an ‘egg timer’ shaped plug within the hole which can bear almost as much load without its corresponding top stitch sections in place so that even when the top stitches have worn away, the work remains intact.
I hope that this second part of this series on ‘hand stitching’ has been enlightening and for those readers wanting to know more about tools and materials, part three will be detailing all of this and more.0