Carreducker: The pains of learning to saddle stitch

Monday, February 4th 2019
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Last week I took part in a leather hand-stitching class organised by Carréducker: British bespoke shoemakers Deborah Carré and James Ducker.

It was lovely to see Deborah and James again (I last covered them back in 2013) and to see their new digs, a converted flat just behind Old Street.

I had tried saddle stitching briefly in the past, with Hermes, but never made a whole piece. This three-hour session with Carréducker was frustrating at times, though in the end rewarding.

I also found it interesting which parts of the work were the hardest, and which contributed most to neat, strong work. Neither was what I expected.

The course is one of the simpler ones Carréducker run, and teaches participants to make a key fob: a band of leather with a ring at one end and clip at the other.

You start with two leather strips, one shorter than the other, glued together and skived.

The first stage is finishing the edges. You do this by applying a natural product called gum tragacanth with your fingers along the edge, and then using a piece of webbing cloth to rub it furiously.

(Well I did it furiously - I was pretty scared of messing up, and so perhaps a little over enthusiastic.)

The rubbing creates heat, which after two or three layers seals the edges - basically ensuring that the leather fibres can’t start coming out at the sides.

I was rubbing so hard that I started to distort the piece rather, twisting it. But it’s a nice veg-tanned leather and was easy to mould straight again.

Next is edge creasing, which uses a heated tool to draw a line up either side of the leather. This is largely decorative, but does help guide the stitches later.

Like many things in menswear, a finer line and slimmer distance from the edge creates a dressier look - akin to the swelled edges on a jacket or overcoat.

The tool can be adjusted to set this width. Then you heat it for around ten seconds, hold it in your fist like stabbing with a knife, and score down the edge of the leather.

The tool also has one end lower than the other, which hooks onto the side of the leather, guiding you as you run along.

We did a few practices on scrap leather first, and it’s not a hard technique.

But, as soon as you lose concentration, the tool can slip across the body of the strip, marking it.

This can be rubbed out or polished later, but not everything is so fixable - and it showed early how much of the work is about just precise repetition. Whether cutting holes or tightening stitches, the core skill is being able to repeat a fairly simple procedure consistently and accurately. A momentary loss of concentration can ruin everything.

I have to say, the scoring of the leather was also very satisfying. You could see the natural material burn and mould as you drove into it, the fibres and pores of the skin stretching and distorting.

I can see how enjoyable it would be to work with a material like this, whether lasting a shoe or scoring something more artistic into it.

The next stage was pretty straightforward: you fold back the two ends of the leather, with the clip and ring inside, and glue them down.

This is just to keep them in place temporarily. The stitches will secure them long term.

Next we used a pricking iron to mark where our stitches go. I’d seen this done before in a factory, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it makes evenly-spaced stitches quite easy.

The hard thing isn’t getting the stitches the same distance apart. It’s sewing each one at the same depth and angle.

The marks are made by placing the iron along the edge of the leather, and hitting it gently with a mallet.

There are different irons depending on how many stitches per inch you want. We were starting pretty easy: seven per inch.

Then you have to wax your (linen) thread, by pulling it through a block of beeswax two or three times, and wiping off the excess.

It sounds silly, but it’s easy to forget something small, like wiping off the excess with your fingers, and then find later on that it undermines everything - like making the stitching impossible because your hands are too waxy.

We had two lengths of thread, each with a needle at each end.

There has to be a needle at each end because this form of stitching - often called saddle stitching - involves pushing both ends of the thread through the same hole, one from each side.

Regular readers will know that this looping through the leather is what makes hand stitching stronger than machine stitching. One side can wear through or break and the whole piece doesn’t unravel.

It’s the reason this technique is used on parts of leather bags, and on the welt and sole of bespoke shoes.

One thing I didn’t realise though, and only saw when I stitched myself, was the way the thread twists inside the hole when you sew, almost knotting inside, which also adds strength.

So, to the stitching. There is a formula to this that you quickly remember

  • start by pushing a needle from left to right through the hole
  • pull it out the other side with the other needle on top (‘T on the top’)
  • pull the thread down in the diagonal-shaped cut, to make room for the second needle
  • push that second needle through the top of the cut
  • loop the thread on the other side over that second needle (‘casting off’)
  • and then pull both needles tight, creating the diagonal, looped stitch

While it sounds a little complicated, after a couple of mistakes (forgetting to cast off, for example, which changes the shape of the stitch), I had it memorised.

Much harder, and more important, is making the holes in the first place.

For this you use an awl. It has a diamond-shaped head which is longer than it is wide, creating a diagonal cut in the leather when you push it through.

The pricking iron has cut diagonal marks for you already, so the hard thing is not keeping the same angle with each cut.

Rather, it’s pushing through the same amount each time. If you make a hole too deep, the stitch in it will be larger than the others; too shallow, and it will be smaller. Both make the line of stitches inconsistent.

It’s also hard to push it through perfectly straight. If you angle up or down slightly as you push, the cut on the other side of the leather will be higher or lower than its neighbour, again ruining the line.

I used the edge of the clam (a wooden vice) as a guide and rested the awl on the clam (as advised) to keep it steady, but still a few holes were too shallow or too deep.

Wiggling the awl as you go through also makes it easier to control the depth; but that can enlarge the hole.

So that was interesting.

The thing that killed me physically, though, was getting the needles through - particularly at both ends, where the leather is folded back and you have to go through more leather, and sew back on yourself twice.

There are various things that might have made it harder. If I had used too much wax on the thread; if the thread was knotted or bunching around the needle; if the holes weren’t big enough.

It was hard to know what combination was causing it, but it took me time and no little pain to do all of the final stitches, my fingers throbbing and bruised by the end.

I was tired, hot and frustrated.

Doing it a lot helps of course. Your fingers get stronger and develop calluses. Deborah (above) could get the needles through fairly easily, but she’s had years of shoemaking - which in most ways is harder and tougher.

(Although, interestingly, shoemaking has to be less precise and is slightly less fiddly, because the stitches are often larger and straight, not on a diagonal. Deborah joked how poor her stitching was compared to that of Frances, our teacher.)

Still, I got there eventually. The stitching on the fob might not be pretty, but it’s strong and it's functional, and even in the run of stitches down the first side, you can see how I’m improving.

I just need to practice making holes in things.

There's more information on the Carreducker courses, which include all aspects of shoemaking, on their site here.

For those that are interested, I am wearing:

Photography in this piece: Alex Natt @adnatt (except awl image)