What does saddle stitch mean?
Saddle stitching is a method used to stitch together two or more pieces of leather. This stitch style must be executed by hand and can’t be replicated by a machine. Saddle stitching is not only the strongest way to stitch leather goods, but it can also be the most beautiful. On the other hand, if a craftsman has poor technique, it can be hideous and offensive to the eyes.
Why is saddle stitching so strong ?
Saddle stitching is a hand stitching technique originally used in the making of - you guessed it - saddles. Since saddles, harnesses, and other heavy-duty tack undergo heavy stress, saddle-makers had to develop a stitch technique that would withstand extreme strain.
A saddle stitch is executed with a single length of thread and two needles, one tied to either end. The thread passes through the material on either side creating a figure eight pattern. A single thread passing over itself creates enough friction to maintain the integrity of the stitching even if one stitch fails. In other words, if one stitch is cut the rest of the stitches will stay in place and won’t unravel. Another key factor in stitch strength is thread preparation. Before use, threads intended for saddle stitching must have beeswax gently melted into them for extra strength and abrasion resistance. This is a step most craftsmen skip, and the longevity of their work suffers as a result.
How is it possible to hand stitch through leather?
Before saddle stitching, it is essential to pierce the leather so the thread can pass through the layers of material. Attempting to force the needles through the leather by hand without holes would be extremely difficult and messy. Pricking irons and an awl are used to pierce the leather, but first a stitch line is scribed with a pair of dividers to ensure that the line is straight and uniform. The teeth of the iron are placed along the scribed line and gently tapped with a hammer. The iron is hit just hard enough to make a slight indentation in the leather; it is not intended to go clear through the material. These indentations set the distance and pitch of the stitch holes, providing guidance for the awl.
After marking, the strap is mounted in a “stitching pony” to hold it in place for the saddle stitching process. One by one, each indentation is pierced with an awl, opening the leather and creating a path for the needles and thread to pass through.
What makes a saddle stitch beautiful?
The unmistakable slant of a saddle stitch is a true thing of beauty. Machines can’t replicate the extreme angle of the stitch on both the top and back side of the material, and even with years of practice, many craftsmen are unable to master this stitch. There are hundreds of saddle stitching tutorial videos on YouTube, and even when the steps are followed to the letter, there is no guarantee that the process will click. Many variables impact the appearance of a saddle stitch: the order of entry and relative position of the needles through the hole, the angle and force with which each side of the thread is pulled, the tension of the stitches, the stiffness and thickness of the leather, and many more. This can be quite infuriating when first starting out and caused me many sleepless nights in the early days. It takes years of practice with constant tweaks and adjustments to the variables, as well as muscle memory and subconscious attention, to achieve an elegant stitch.