What do you get when you peel the hide off an animal and subject it to various chemically-driven processes? You get leather!
Leather is one of the oldest materials out there and the term covers a lot of ground. The most common options out there come from cows, pigs and sheep. Less common, but still easily available are leathers made from elk, alligators, goats and snakes. Strictly speaking, you can make leather from practically any animal’s skin, if you’re patient enough and use to the correct tanning chemicals, but let’s stick to the stuff you’re likely to use for costuming.
Leather is ubiquitous – you’re going to encounter it in all areas of cosplay, from the boiled leather armor of various warrior-types, to Mrs. Peel’s sleek catsuit, to the space-age future that can’t resist the appeal of a dramatic leather trench-coat – Harry Dresden and Mal Reynolds spring immediately to mind – sooner or later, you’re going to want to sew leather.
Let’s go over the basics that differentiate one type of leather from another, and then we’ll get into the caveats of using it in a costume.
The first factor: the source animal.
As mentioned, pig, cow and sheep – usually lamb – leathers are the most common out there. Cow hides are huge, seriously huge, sometimes running over 25 square feet. They’re probably more than you need, plus there are certain pitfalls when it comes to cutting from a full hide, which I’ll get into when we talk about it in particular. Leather from a full-grown cow ranges from medium weight to seriously, seriously heavy. Calf skin is lighter and thinner. (More about weights, in a moment.)
Pig hide – usually called pigskin – is thinner and more supple than cow hide. It’s comparable to some calf skins, but often cheaper because it’s not as strong as cow or calf. You can find some really great colors and metallic treatments on pigskin.
When it comes to leather from a sheep, you’re probably looking at lambskin. Lambskin is light to medium weight and usually very soft – softer than pig or calf skin. It’s very popular for luxury goods – gloves and high-end jackets and, as a result, costs more.
The second factor: the finish of the leather.
Leather can have a smooth finish, or a rough – “sueded” – finish. It can be dyed pretty much any color under the sun. Surfaces can be applied to it to make it metallic, or super shiny – like patent leather. Leather can be embossed to make it look like something else. For instance, cow skin is often embossed to resemble alligator leather because there are a lot more cows out there than gators.
Full grain leather features the natural grain or texture on the side of the skin from which the hair was removed. It can be dyed or left natural, embossed with a pattern, or the natural texture left in place.
Then there’s “split” leather. Very thick leather can be split apart – like you’d peel apart a piece of string cheese – and the inner surfaces have an artificial finish applied on top of them which makes it look like regular top leather. It’s cheaper and often visually indistinguishable from non-split leather, but some folks don’t like it. But it’s certainly an option for costume – just keep in mind that it’s not always 100% animal hide.
Suede is when you take that split leather and don’t apply a faux-finish to the top of it, but leave it as it is after it’s split. It’s a bit fuzzy, like short velveteen. Just like velvet, suede has a nap to it and you should account for that when cutting out pieces for a costume. Most suede is made from cow leather, but you can get it in pig and lamb as well.
All leather is tanned to one degree or another. If it’s not tanned, it’s rawhide and while you CAN make accessories from it, it’s not common. Rawhide is shaped by soaking it in water, shaping it and letting it dry. You’ll be extremely popular with every dog in town if you’re wearing something made from rawhide.
Anyways, tanning. The tanning processes can use a slew of smelly chemicals, or slightly less smelly vegetable sources. “Veg tan” leather is the starting point for most leather crafts, because it can be carved, tooled and dyed, unlike leather that has already been finished by chemical or “aniline” dyes. A leather that is fully finished – dyed and sealed – is very difficult if not impossible to alter. Don’t buy cheap sky-blue pigskin on clearance and think you can overdye it black. You might be able to paint it, but the pores of that leather are sealed shut and not at home to any new occupants, thank you very much.
Another finish for leather is a “patent” finish. Patent leather is super shiny and very stiff. It’s unsuitable for costuming because it will crack easily and the finish can be easily marred. It looks great on shoes and small accessories, but it’s too expensive and too difficult to work with for larger pieces. If you want that super-shiny look for a costume, Google “wet look vinyl” or “patent vinyl”. I used some patent-look vinyl for a Von Pinn costume and it was fantastic.
The third factor: weight.
Just like fabric is heavy, medium, light, et cetera, the same is true for leather. Consider the difference between a pair of fine ladies’ gloves and a pair of motorcycle chaps. HUGE difference in the thickness of the leather used. Unlike fabric weights, which are a bit arbitrary, there’s a standard in place for leather weights, derived from the weight of a one square foot of the material.
The lightest leathers weigh 2 – 3 ounces per square foot. Medium weight leathers weigh 4 to 7 ounces per square foot. Motorcycle chaps are made from leather weighing 7 to 9 ounces per square foot. The heaviest utility leathers are 10 to 11 ounces per square foot.
Another way to think of it is that one ounce is about 1/64 of an inch thick. So a four-ounce garment leather is about 1/16th of an inch thick. But that’s only a rough guideline, which is why you’ll see leather described in terms of weight, not thickness when you’re shopping.
Visit https://www.tandyleather.com/en-usd/leatherguide.aspx to learn more, including how to convert fabric yardage to square feet.
When buying leather, it’s usually sold one of three ways: by the full hide, by the side – which is half a hide – or by the smaller piece. Pricing is almost always determined on the basis of area – you’ll see leather priced at per square foot, not by the yard like fabric, because leather hides are irregularly shaped.
Not only are leather hides oddly shaped, but the thickness of the leather varies throughout the hide. If you’re thinking “Hey, I can buy an entire cowhide and just lay out my pattern on top of it, wherever the pieces fit” I’m going to tell you to stop right now. You’re heading for disaster.
That cow hide is thicker over the spine, thinner over the shoulders and legs. The belly can run medium to heavy weight, depending on the exact spot. If you try to cut one arm greave from the middle of the spine and one from a foreleg area, you’re going to end up with two visibly different greaves – one will be twice as thick as the other, or more, and that’s going to show when you’re wearing it.
One of the many reasons that ready-made leather costume pieces will set you back a pretty penny is because the guy cutting the pieces knows where in the hide to cut from and probably used several hides to ensure uniform thickness throughout the finished item.
If you really want to go big with a project and cut a big costume from a big hide, get thee to the library and read up on what you need to know to do that successfully. Better yet, get out among the community and talk to other folks who’ve done as you want to do. You’ll learn a lot and avoid a lot of mistakes. As usual, there are some suggestions on the resources page.
I’m not saying you can’t cut a costume from leather hides – just that you can’t do it willy nilly. And don’t forget to trace out every pattern piece TWICE, and flip each piece over when you trace it so that you don’t accidentally wind up with two right-hand legs to your leather pants and no left. You can’t fold leather in half and cut through it like you do fabric.
Beware, beware, beware, that creature called “bonded leather” or – sorry Ricardo – “Corinthean leather”. Bonded leather is created from a mishmash of leather scraps, glue and a whole lot of dye to create something that looks and feels a lot like leather, but at a lower price. It sometimes has a fabric backing to it, and can even be finished with a plastic coating that’s textured to look like leather grain. It’s also called “reconstituted leather”, for obvious reasons. It’s the papier mache of leather.
The reason why I say “beware” is that there unscrupulous retailers out there who will try to convince you that bonded leather is just the same as regular animal hide. It isn’t.
Bonded leather is commonly used for upholstery, because it comes in big rolls, just like regular fabric and it’s therefore easier to cut large pieces from it. It’s also much more consistent in terms of color and thickness, which is something you want if you’re upholstering thirty thousand Chryslers. However, it doesn’t hold up to usage as well, compared to real leather, and cheaper bonded leathers can and will flake and fall apart after a relatively short time. It can also outgas nasty fumes, which can be a problem for some cosplayers if you’re asthmatic or sensitive to polymers.
If you’re a person looking for historical authenticity in your leather, bonded leather ain’t it. In fact, if you’re looking to create historically accurate leather garments, you want to research veg-tanned leather and even explore the notion of finishing your own hides. I’ve done a bit of leather carving and dyeing on a small scale, and it’s really fun. If you have the time and money to spare, it’s worth learning about.
Cutting and sewing the stuff.
Leather doesn’t drape like fabric, it doesn’t fit like fabric and it doesn’t ease into a curved seam like fabric does. If you’re contemplating your first-time leather project, keep it un-fancy. A simple design with a lot of straight or gently curved seams, for preference, or small accessory pieces, like an arm bracer.
Before you even think about sinking money into leather, make a mockup of your project, first. Leather is expensive and it doesn’t forgive a mis-sewn seam – once the needle pierces it, that hole is there forever. Use a tightly-woven fabric in a weight similar to the leather you want to use or, if your budget can stretch to it, pick up some similar-weight vinyl and make your mistakes with that. For what it’s worth, there are a lot of vinyls out there that look really good, and, at the end of the day, they’ll cost you a lot less than leather, so you might want to consider that for your project. Browse the Leather-Like category to learn more.
Cut leather with a rotary cutter and a cutting mat underneath it. If you don’t have one, invest in one. If you’re serious about making costumes, you’re going to get a lot of use out of both. Cut only a single layer of leather at a time – don’t try to fold it over like you would fabric.
Be ready to subdivide your pattern pieces into smaller pieces in order to get maximum use out of your leather hide. Don’t forget to add seam allowances to any cut edges of your pattern pieces!
If you’re cutting a pants pattern, cut the 1 or 2 inches longer than the pattern suggests, as leather “bunches up” when worn and doesn’t hang the way fabric does – your pants legs will look too short if you cut them the same length as you would in fabric. The same holds true for any longer-than-elbow sleeves, but you need only add half an inch to an inch.
I wouldn’t try to run any leather heavier than 5 ounces per square foot through my sewing machine. For heavier leathers, you need a purpose-built machine. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a Tech Shop or well-equipped maker space, you might find one – but don’t you DARE use it without being trained first. Those machines will cripple you without a second thought. Seriously. Safety first.
When sewing leather, step one is USE A LEATHER NEEDLE. Unlike a needle for a woven or a knit fabric, a leather needle has a triangular cross-section which allows it to “punch” through the leather. If you find yourself out of regular needles because, dammit, you keep hitting the steels when finishing that corset, don’t grab a leather needle thinking you can finish the job with that. You’ll ruin your fabric.
Lengthen your stitch and consider adjusting your upper tension. Even the stiffest, most rigid woven fabric has more movement and give to it than leather, and your stitches need to be a little longer and a LITTLE looser as a result. Don’t backstitch at the beginning and ending of your seams, as that’ll split the leather. Tie the threads off, instead.
You can use regular thread unless you’re utilizing a heavier leather and expect the final costume to undergo a lot of strain – like you’re going to be doing combat scenes in it. If so, look into a nylon thread, instead.
Use a rolling foot or, if you don’t have that, a teflon foot. You’re going to be creating some bulky seams and your machine is going to need all the help it can get in moving over them.
If you’re sewing shiny or very thin leather, use a tear-away stabilizer between the leather and the feed-dogs of your machine, lest those dogs mark up the surface of your leather.
Once you’ve sewn your seams, press them open with a bone folder – you can find them in better stocked leather-crafting areas of a craft shop and in the book-binding section of your local art supply store. If you can’t find one, I find the back of a large metal spoon can do the trick, too. Then glue seams open with rubber cement. Apply to the underside of the seam allowance and the wrong side of your leather immediately adjacent to the seam (rubber cement works best when applied to both surfaces) and allow to get tacky, then press the glued surfaces against each other to seal.
Be prepared to do a lot of clipping and grading to reduce the bulk of your seams.
Of course, you can hand sew your leather and there are a lot of excellent resources online on how to do that. It’s time consuming and your hands might never forgive you, but you can’t beat it for an authentic look when making Wild West accessories, or outfitting your black-clad brooding dude for the snowy wastes of the north. Me? I’m not that masochistic.
I don’t have to tell you to not put a hot iron on your leather, right? Good.
If your leather is at the heavier end of things, get a rubber mallet and pound that seam open. Be careful not to put too much stress on your stitching as you do so – practice on some sewn scraps, first. Again, keep those seams open by gluing the seam allowance down. Visit thistothat.com to learn about adhesive options.
Caring for leather. Well, that’s a challenge. If you’re making a hard-working, hard-playing barbarian rig, it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit battered and smelly over time. That just adds to the authenticity. But that Star Lord coat that you ate Ramen for three months in order to afford the leather? In that case, fire up Yelp-dot-com and find yourself the highest rated dry cleaner in town. No, they’re not all the same. If you live in a city with a big theater district, go to a dry cleaners right in the heart of the district and talk to them about your costume’s care, as they’re already looking after high-maintenance costumes from the shows in town.
Leather’s a high-cost, high-effort material, but it’s worth the work!