Working With Leather: Image Transfers & Sewing Techinques

Several projects that I have posted show images transferred to leather. I receive many questions about that technique in the comments, such as in my very last post for iPod cases, so I wanted to write a little more info on the subject for you. Keep in mind that I am not a leather professional, just a crafter who enjoys playing with leather in projects, so a serious leather worker may find my techniques a bit hack. That being said, here’s my amateur-at-best, but simple tips for creating very easy projects with image transferred leather:

First, I recommend you allow for a practice piece or two to get the hang of transferring and stitching before diving into a final piece.
I use leather swatches from furniture stores samples (I found mine at the thrift store), and second hand leather coats and purses with sections still in good shape. Remove any lining material that is sewn in. If your suede side will be showing, be sure it is in good shape as well and has no adhesives on it. The thickness should be light enough to double and feed through your sewing machine. Leather is so fabulous to work with as it cuts very crisp (with very sharp fabric scissors) and never frays.Sewing Leather
When stitching with your sewing machine, be sure change your stitch length to longer than usual. On my machine, setting 2.5 is standard, 5 is max. I use a setting of 4 for leather. Stitch very, very slow around curves, as the leather does not heal after a mistaken stitch and the hole will show. My machine has an up-down button, I use that instead of the foot pedal when hitting those curves. Also, you may want to keep a needle specifically for sewing through leather, mark with a Sharpie (add stripes to the needle, for example) to identify it from your other needles. Standard thread works just fine for the small leather projects I have shown in my blog.
Image Transfers
I purchase iron-on transfer sheets for DARK T-shirts to print on my desktop ink-jet printer. I have found packs of these transfer sheets at Michael’s Crafts, Target and Staples. They are pretty easy to find. I have used several brands, all with great results. I’ve tried the regular transfers for white and light shirts with very poor results. Transfers for DARK are great as you don’t have to mirror the image before printing and the transfer peels from the backing sheet easily before ironing. It is also a very different material than that for light shirts and doesn’t transfer shiny. I recommend you loosely trim out one image section at a time, peel off backing paper and place onto your leather, then precisely trim out once you’ve ironed it onto the leather.

Transfer images based on the instructions for fabric, such as no steam and no smoothing the iron over the transfer, but pressing hard in sections only. The steam holes on the bottom of your iron occasionally pose a problem leaving non-pressed areas, so utilize the largest smooth area of the iron as much as possible and be sure to press out any steam-hole sections. Do not to re-use the parchement paper supplied with the sheets too many times as it may begin to stick to the image transfer and pull off. You may find that some of the leather that gets heated and pressed outside the transfer image will turn dark or loose it’s natural or faux texture, that shouldn’t be a concern if you plan to use that leather for more transfer work. Otherwise, loosely trim the a section of leather before using your iron.

As a graphic designer, I work with Adobe Illustrator, CS3. It works great for me to measure and trim out the image digitally before printing my transfer sheets so I have simple guides to work with vs. trying to line up a pattern for trimming after transferring the image.

Here’s a great comment question from reader, Jeff, aka: nycdesigner:

“My question about the transfers is: Are you basically covering the surface entirely, and just printing background colors, and trimming the edges so the leather and decal are flush? Doesn’t this sort of make the leather into a sort of “pleather” with the decal being vinyl and limiting the original leather’s suppleness?

My answer to that is:
Great question! Yes, you are correct, you lose the leather surface effect, but may be able to keep the texture. The thick leather cut edges remain, however, giving your piece an authentic leather & suede appearance, which is the best I can get using this inexpensive process. I would not choose to leave sections of leather surface showing, but that is definitely an option. Thank you for asking!

I made a leather key chain in April ’09, that I have used and handled daily since, and the transfer is still in tact, image as vibrant as ever with only light edge wear to the transfer.

Here are several of my leather image transfer projects.

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