Tough As Leather

Good technique can overcome the fear of an expensive mistake.

F&D Sales opened 28 years ago and made its mark servicing fire departments across the country. Today, the company splits its clientele between fire departments and corporate work while also delving into promotional items. While the company remains a versatile embroiderer and screen printer, President Desiree S. Pfister has never been comfortable working with leather. “I’ve always been apprehensive about leather, mainly because of its initial cost,” says Pfister, whose company is based in Harvey, LA. “Whatever your spoilage rate is, I don’t want even 1% spoilage on leather. It’s just too expensive to experiment with.”

F&D receives occasional requests from biker clubs, in addition to women who want decoration on their pricey leather handbags. Pfister even sees opportunities with the Red and Blue Knights – motorcycle clubs that consist of firefighters and law enforcement members, respectively. She is interested in learning how to digitize a pattern for leather, along with knowing which stitch patterns and needles to use. “If I can do leather,” Pfister says, “we can broaden our horizons here.”


Minimizing Risks
Burk’s Bay (asi/74600) has been crafting elegant and effective embroidered designs on its leather jackets and accessories for over 20 years. “With the depth and texture of the thread and the design and color options available, you can create a product that is unique, very attractive and represents a high value to your client,” says Pam Morris, decoration manager for Burk’s Bay. “There are some risks whenever you put a needle through leather, but with the proper steps you can minimize those risks and provide your client with a truly exquisite look.”

Digitizing: This is perhaps the most crucial element when it comes to embroidering on leather. High-quality artwork and a capable digitizer are a good start, but even that’s not foolproof if you believe that any digitized logo will sew out well on leather. “You simply cannot reproduce the detail you can accomplish sewing on cotton or other woven materials,” says Morris. “Reducing the density is key since too many perforations in too small of an area, particularly with lambskin leather, creates cutting problems. You must allow for a greater tolerance and plan to use larger letter sizes.” Burk’s Bay recommends keeping the letters to a minimum of ¼ inch. A backfill will give more flexibility, but it will also increase the stitch count and reduces the material strength. For large letters, consider using a fill stitch rather than a satin stitch.

The type of leather – cowhide, lambskin or pigskin – is important because the different densities determine how many stitches can be put into a logo and how detailed it can be. Lambskin, for example, is very soft and not very thick or durable, so the sewing needle can cut the leather if the logo is not digitized correctly. Your digitizer should be aware which material the jacket has. “When you get the embroidery file, be sure to sew out the logo on the same material as the jacket and carefully evaluate it for accuracy,” says Morris. “If it doesn’t meet your expectations on a swatch, it won’t look good on a jacket – send it back for editing.”

Needle Selection: Burk’s Bay uses Titanium regular point 75/11 needles and occasionally drops down to a 70/10. “With our cowhide, the bigger needle is necessary because of the thickness and density,” Morris says. “On lamb, when the design requires more precision, we occasionally use a smaller needle. Because lambskin is softer and less dense then the typical cowhide, it allows us a little more flexibility. Our pigskin or Napa material tends to fall between the two (cowhide and lamb) in density and softness. However, we’ll use the smaller needle here as often as with the lamb projects.” Be careful though – a smaller needle offers a greater chance of needle breaks and thread breaks that will possibly damage the garment. Burk’s only uses the smaller needle in about 5% of its embroidery projects. Overall, recommends Morris, be sure to use sharp needles and change them often as this will help to minimize thread breaks.

Speed: Be prepared to slow down your embroidery machines. “It helps to maintain the precision and to allow the table to handle the heavier load of the leather material,” Morris says. The supplier uses a speed of 490 stitches per minute for lamb and up to 550 stitches per minute for cowhide and Napa (pigskin). Make sure to loosen the bobbin thread when sewing patches on leather. Backing: “Our jackets are designed to allow access behind the lining with hidden zippers so we don’t have to sew through the lining or take the time to open and close the lining,” Morris says. “We use felt backing and for some jobs with small text, and add a second layer of backing to get a sharper image.” Burk’s Bay does not recommend using a tearaway backing.

Hooping: If the hoops are too tight or left on for too long, it is possible to put a “burn” in the leather that will be impossible to remove. Magnetic hoops eliminate this problem – both the inside and outside hoops are held in place with magnets. Burk’s Bay uses hoops from Mighty Hoop. “The magnetic hoop has been a real boon to embroidering leather,” Morris says.

Location: There are a surprising number of location options when it comes to embroidery. Burk’s Bay offers left chest, right chest, left and right bicep, cuff, yoke or full-back embroidery locations. “Another option is an embroidered leather patch sewn inside the jacket either in the neck label area or near the inside breast pocket,” Morris says. “Clients like the discrete location for their logo, award message or personalization.”

Thread Color: Tone-on-tone is a very popular option for embroidering on leather. The look is subtle but rich and matches the high perceived value of a leather garment or bag.

Practice: Starting small is the best way to get comfortable with leather. Practice on Napa swatches with simple logos to get the hang of it. Patience and repetition will allow decorators to get comfortable with leather and, as Morris says, “provide your clients with an outstanding custom garment that will last a lifetime.”