Whether you live in a small town or smack-dab in the middle of New York City, buying leather for your next craft project could prove daunting. That is unless you know what you are looking for ahead of time. To make your creative leather dreams much more attainable, we’ve created a list of must-knows, the dos, and don’ts when it comes to shopping for leather. Bookmark this site or save it to your Pinterest board, because this is your must-have guide for how to shop for leather and be the fearless creator you were born to be.
Your first thought may be to go to mass-market fabric stores like Jo-Ann Fabric (but we will save you the time and trouble—they don’t carry real leathers). The better bet is to shop on the internet for fabric. There are tons of resources online and even more popping up every day. To make it easy for you, at the end of this article you’ll see a list of our top recommended leather online stores.
When we don’t have the knowledge to properly shop for leather, we can feel overwhelmed, and this is the intimidating part of the process. But shopping for leather should be fun, as fun as the entire creative process. So follow this list and you will soon be the leather shoparific guru your friends go to for insider tips, as you teach them how to fearlessly shop for leather.
Tip #1: Pay Attention to the Weight of the Leather
Paying attention to the weight of the leather matters. Many leather craft artisan beginners ignore the weight or thickness of the leather only to regret it when they’ve broken their needles or damaged their sewing machine. The weight of the leather is essential to understanding the full potential of your project. Think about the final outcome and what you are working toward. If you are creating a durable product that will get lots of use like a classic leather tote bag, a leather wallet or boots, you will want to consider the thicker the hide, the more durable. But you will need the right leather tools to support the project. You don’t want it to be so thick it has little give. Tote bags, clutches and products of this sort usually use 3 to 4 ounces of leather. A project like a wallet will be slightly thicker. You want to give in the folds but still a sturdy strong case, so 4 to 5 ounces of leather is often used for wallets. Projects such as camera cases or journal covers will use 5 to 6 ounces of leather.
Use this chart to help gauge your own leathercraft project.
Tip #2: Learn the Leather Language
Purchasing leather is not hard, but it can be overwhelming if you don’t know the correct terms. Learning the keywords and common terminology can take the mess out of your stress.
Common Leather Terminology
Here is a list of commonly used leather terms that describe the various leather retailers sell.
Weight/Thickness – Leather is measured in terms of ounces. As shared above, 1 ounce equals 1/64 of an inch thickness. This means a weight of 7 to 8 ounces means the leather is 7/64 to 8/64 of an inch thick.
If you’ve ever wondered why leathers are usually shown with a range of thicknesses, such as 4 to 5 ounces, 6 to 7 ounces, etc., it is because of their unique attributes. To make leather a uniform thickness, hides are almost always run through a splitting machine. But just like people, each animal is different in size and shape and holds its weight in different places on the body, resulting in skin differences, so there is always a slight thickness variation throughout the entire hide. This adds character and authenticity and makes real leather extra special.
When it comes to your next creative leather project, there’s a large variety of thicknesses of leathers and most of what is available is only appropriate for an industrial-strength sewing machine. But there are still plenty of leather options out there. The key to finding them is to know the leather’s “weight” or thickness.
This chart by Tandy Leather can help guide you.
1 oz. is about .4 mm thick
2 oz. is about .8 mm thick
3 oz. is about 1.2 mm thick, etc.
Veg Tanned/Bark Tanned – Also known as vegetable-tanned. Leather tanned by the tannins extracted from the bark of trees.
Chrome Free – Also known as Aldehyde tanned leather, this is the leather that most tanners refer to as wet-white leather due to its pale cream or white color. This is used in infant’s shoes and automobiles.
Chrome Tanned – A process that uses soluble chromium salts, primarily chromium sulfate, to tan leather. Most commonly used for garments, footwear and often upholstery.
Crust – Leather that has been tanned, dyed and dried, but not finished.
Distressed – Leather that is aniline dyed with one color over another (usually darker over lighter) so as to create rich highlights and an artificial aged appearance. This finishing process is intended to emphasize the characteristics of the hide such as scars, scratches, and wrinkles. Also called “antiqued leather”. A popular type for cowboy chaps and saddles.
Embossed Leather – Leather that has been “stamped” with a design or artificial texture always created under very high pressure. For example, Portland Leather Goods use embossed leather on their leather rolltop backpacks, journals and camera straps.
Full Grain – Leather which has not been altered at all except for the hair removal. It is the most genuine leather and considered the highest quality. Portland Leather Goods only uses full-grain because it is the best, strongest and most durable of all leathers. It retains the hides' original texture which creates a gorgeous leather patina and product that only gets more stunning with age.
Grain Side – This is the hide’s surface that had the hair of the animal. The grain side is used for leather carving and stamping by leathercrafters.
Hair Cell Grain – Noticeable appearance of where the hair pores were on the leather.
Milled – During the tanning process, the leather is tumbled in a large drum-shaped container to make it softer.
Nubuck – Leather buffed on the grain side to give a velvety surface.
Oil Tanned – Leather that is tanned using oils to create a very soft, pliable finish.
Patina – The aura or luster that develops in leather as it ages with use.
Pebble Grain – A cosmetic character resembling small pebbles on the leather’s top side.
Printed Leather – Leather that has been “stamped” with a design or artificial texture under very high pressure.
Pull-Up Finish – Describes the behavior of leather that has been treated with oils, waxes, and dyes in such a way that when pulled or stretched, the finish becomes lighter in those areas. Considered a mark of high quality.
Rawhide – Hides that have only been de-haired and cured but not tanned.
Side – Leather tanned from one half, or “side” of a full hide.
Skirting – Sides from cattle that are left in their heaviest form for use with saddle making and re-enactment armor.
Splits – Leather made from the lower (inner or flesh side) layers of a hide that have been split away from the upper, or grain layers. Split leather is not as durable as full-grain leather and is normally used as suede.
Suede – Leather that has been buffed and brushed for a more attractive surface.
Temper – A characteristic of leathers defined by pliability/softness.
Top Grain – Usually refers to a process of sanding away the natural grain from a leather’s top surface. Imitation grain gets stamped into the leather for a more uniform look.
Waxy Hand – An upholstery or handbag leather that has a waxy feel and look to it.
Weight – A term that describes the thickness of leather in ounces. One ounce equals 1/64th (0.4 mm) of an inch in thickness.
Tip #3: Know Your Sewing Machine Capabilities
Knowing your sewing machine’s capabilities and limits are important for creating your leather projects. So often people assume their machine can handle all leather sizes and weights, only to regret not researching before the busted needles or machine breakdown.
For example, the brother computerized sewing machine awarded the 2019 Women’s Choice Award for the best sewing machine, can successfully sew 2.6-ounce leathers. Generally, a rule is “less than 3 ounces” for domestic machines. One insider recommendation is to get your hot little hands on some leather swatches or scraps and try them out before you invest in larger hides. Portland Leather Company uses only the best full-grain, high-quality leather and even better, they have bins of scrap leather they are gifting to artisans with concrete project ideas.
Tip #4: Know Before You Go
Before you purchase, you want to know the type of leather you are getting is 100 percent right for your project. In our personal experience, “garment” leathers and “upholstery” leathers are appropriate for common sewing machines. Garment leathers, such as lambskin, are notably soft, which gives them an elegant drape but be careful, they are much more delicate and can be tricky to work with. Upholstery leathers naturally have a stiffer hand and are very durable, but be aware, they also come in thicknesses that are too thick for domestic sewing machines. So should you go this route, you will want to hand sew the leather and just be sure to watch the weight/thickness when ordering.
Unlike some other basic fabric projects, buying a hide is a large investment. You don’t want to get stuck with a huge hide that’s incompatible with your sewing machine. If you are set on using your sewing machine to create your craft leather project, a general rule is if it can’t handle sewing two layers easily and three layers successfully, don’t get it! But as mentioned there are other ways to create your project that don’t include your sewing machine.
Tip #5: Consider Your Needs & Size
Pay attention to the total amount of leather you will need. Some people are confused when shopping for leather, especially if they are used to fabric shopping only because unlike fabric, which is sold by the linear yard, leather is sold by the hide. Once you understand this, you can make smarter shopping choices. The size of an animal will make or break your project. For example, hides will vary in size depending on the type of animal. Cows are super large, their hides are larger than most, and consequently, their prices will be larger. Lambskin hides are much smaller. You can even look for shops that will sell partial hides or remnants, which are ideal for smaller projects. When you create your project, it will show the listings and should give the amount of leather in square feet. Most small scrap leather projects only require a small piece of leather 1 to 2 feet by 2 feet or less.
Tip #6: Know Your Leather Sources
Sometimes shopping online can be confusing, especially with all of the options to choose from. We’ve made it easier by compiling our list of highly recommended leather stores. These internet shops work directly with top designers and leather fashion bloggers and makers.
Get shopping and enjoy.
THE LEATHER HIDE STORE
They specialize in upholstery leathers and always have a nice stock of leather remnants available. They are happy to send free swatches of their leathers. They have a wide-ranging collection of leathers that represent many styles and finishes, and the best part is they all are premium upholstery leather sold at true wholesale prices!
These guys are the granddaddy of all leather stores. Providing the leathercrafter top quality leathercraft supplies since 1919! They have brick and mortar stores all over the US and also a full detailed website and robust catalog. They stock every type of leather and leather tool and hardware possible for your next project.
SEW TO GROW
An American turned Aussie created her dream shop where she sells patterns and tools. This is an Australia-based business specializing in lambskin hides for the domestic sewist. You can download printable PDFs, purchase a pattern, follow a video tutorial or even take a class to build your confidence.
The LOCAL THRIFT SHOP
Maybe you want a more budget-friendly option. If so, don’t forget to check out your local thrift shop. A leather jacket or pants can be trimmed up and cut down for a smaller project and isn’t as scary a purchase as buying a full large leather hide.
We’d love to hear from you in the comments. What will you be creating with your leather?