Why I (and maybe you too) continue to Saddle-stitch [6 reasons]
Have you ever felt like your clients, customers, friends or strangers at a trade show (who pickup your products and put them back down unceremoniously), have no idea the time, effort and care that goes into producing a traditional leathergood?
A lot of people that i’ve come into contact with (maybe you have too) have no idea that leather workers who use traditional hand tools and who saddle-stitch their goods even exist. And when they find out that we exist, they’re a little baffled and wonder, “why would you do that”? Why would you create something with super old traditional hand methods when you could just whip it together quickly with more modern tools and machines and call it a day?
It’s a good question and i’m going to get to that but I’ve also realized another interesting thing lately.
Some leatherworkers that are using traditional methods and taking the time to hand saddle-stitch themselves don’t even really know why they’re doing it. It seems that in some cases, it comes out of necessity because they don’t own a machine but they want to create some leathergoods so they just started hand-sewing.
This is not how I or many of you out there, I would imagine, came into the craft.
Below i’ve listed 6 reasons, starting with the more indisputable reasons why we choose to hand saddle-stitch over machine stitch and then I round it out with more personal reasons as to why I hand saddle-stitch all of my leathergoods. These are purely personal reasons, but who knows, maybe we share some of the same reasoning here too.
1 | Strength
Saddle-stitched goods are generally stronger than machine stitched goods which has to do with the thread typically used as well as the method of construction. Now I know that there are plenty of super high quality handbags and leather goods that are machine stitched. And we could argue over which of these leather goods will last longer but let’s just agree that they both have a pretty long shelf life for now. But what I am talking about is comparing fast fashion (i.e. a wallet purchased from a discount dept store for less then $20 that’s made from "genuine leather" (genuine leather sounds good but it's actually code for bottom of the barrel leather) vs. a saddle-stitched wallet made from high quality full grain leather. It's an indisputable fact that the saddle-stitched wallet is a stronger leathergood that will last much longer.
2 | Durability
A saddle-stitch leathergood that uses a thicker linen thread that has been waxed and is not synthetic will last longer than the average machine stitched leather good. The wax on the thread creates a moisture barrier and protects the stitching from rotting as does the waxed edge finishing. Linen thread as is typically used in higher end leather goods, is often times regarded as a superior material to synthetic thread main reasons being, that it doesn’t ‘give’ and because of its inherent strength as a natural material.
3 | Saddle-stitching looks soo much better then machine stitching.
Ok, we’re getting into my own personal reasoning here, but if you look at the stitching of a hand-stitched leather good with the uniform perfectly slanted stitches created by using handtools like pricking irons or stitching chisels and then look closely at your average machine stitched product with long straight stitches, made with thin thread, it looks so much nicer. Don’t you think?
4 | Tedious processes allow me to think.
The tedium of processes like creating guidelines for my stitches, making stitching holes, threading my needles and then stitching each stitch one by one all by hand makes me feel like i'm doing something where i'm in total control of the process and i'm able to think. If I were sitting at a machine, yes i’d be thinking but i’d probably also be focusing on keeping my fingers out of the way of the needle too. With traditional leather work, where you are the machine behind the tool, you make space for other thoughts and the process becomes quite meditative.
5 | Keeping it basic has had the best track record.
I like simplicity and traditional leatherwork and handstitching can be as simple as you make it. There are of course some innovations like laser cutting or using dies to cut your pieces, but I really appreciate and try to keep the entire process as simple and as grounded as possible. If I sense that things are getting too complicated with a project then they probably are and I take a step back and ask myself some questions.
"Am I trying to mold this thick piece of leather into something that it doesn’t want to be?"
"Am I trying to change this dark color to something lighter?"
I like listening to that voice that is telling me to back up and keep it simple. In my experience, keeping it simple tends to produce better end results because you're listening to the material and your tools.
6 | Functional History behind traditional leatherwork.
I’ve always been drawn to lost or dying arts. Processes and methods that existed in a simpler time that were borne out of necessity and function before design, fascinate me. Sometimes we only look as far as the revival of traditions that come full circle and become popular again and forget that there is actually a long and winding history behind it that tradition.
Other dying arts like the Japanese art of sashiko which is very basic embroidery that was not done for it's decorative elements originally but because it strengthen worn out fabric, was used in patching clothing and as a result created thicker and warmer pieces of cloth.
Or with wood carving and carpentry you only need a handful of tools and then the sky's the limit for what you can build.
For me leatherwork is a handful of tools, a lot of patience and the commitment to create something functional that becomes beautiful because of the historical methods, effort and care that went into it creating it.
These are just a few reasons why I (and maybe you too) continue to use traditional methods like saddle-stitching and traditional hand tools, even though machines exist that could do the heavy lifting for us. It’s not only about the end result. The end result is important but how we got there is just as important.
Why do you choose to create leather goods using traditional leatherworking methods? Let me know in the comments below.