Saddle Stitching vs. Machine Sewing

May 23, 2016

One of the characteristics that makes a Slightly Alabama product unique is that we hand-stitch all of our pieces. So in the first on a series of articles on the tools, techniques and materials of leather-making, I'll explain the primary difference between machine-sewn and hand-stitched leather products and what it means to me as a leather-maker to choose one approach over the other.

One thread vs. two threads

To make it easy, let's start by comparing a single line of stitching on a finished product. When you use a machine, that line of stitching requires two separate threads that lock around each other in what is known as a "locking stitch". Whereas, a hand-stitched line uses a single thread with needles on either end. The thread runs back and forth on either side of the leather in what is called a "running stitch".

Which is stronger?

Technically speaking, the hand-stitched piece that uses the "running stitch" provides a stronger and more durable construction than the machine sewn piece that uses the "locking stitch". 

If a thread were to snap on a piece that uses a sewing machine, the entire line of thread could potential unravel allowing the two pieces of leather to separate. However in a hand-stitched piece, the thread will not unravel and the leather pieces will not separate from each other. More importantly, it's easier to repair the line of stitching.   

Function and design

For me, the look of the finished product is just as important as the construction of it. After all, our products are meant to be worn and displayed. Using the tools, materials and techniques of hand-stitching allows us to make very deliberate choices when we design a piece. In the image to the left, you'll notice the subtle zig-zagged line of a particular technique of stitching on one of our products.

The size and type of thread we use along with the stitches-per-inch and technique (we use a saddle-stitch, which is a type of running stitch that we discuss in another post) help to contribute to the overall aesthetic of a product. As a designer, I take pride in the overall design of a finished product. But as an artisan, my pride rests in a beautifully executed line of stitching.

What it means to me? 

One of the challenges of hand-stitching leather is that it takes a significantly longer time to produce an item. When you combine the time, durability and refined aesthetic of a hand-stitched piece, it's easy to see why the price of hand-stitched leather can be more than that of items that are machine-sewn. But it's also easy to see that hand-stitched items are meant to last a lifetime. 

As an artisan, I'm in love with the process of my work. Similar to a musician or sculptor, there's a training of your hands and a connection to the overall creative process. I love the complicated dance between needle, thread and awl required to achieve the proper affect. And, in the end, for the well trained eye, each item has its subtle differences. Those are the differences that reveal the touch and mark of a maker's hands.