Youth's leather Jerkin, Museum of London. Detailed in
Patterns of Fashion, 1560-1620 by Janet Arnold.
This silly thing sorta scares the crap out of me for no reason at all. It's not that I've never sewn leather before. And it's not that I don't know how to make it. Honestly, I think it's the degree to which I coveted the leather jackets that all the cool kids were wearing back when I was a kid thanks to Top Gun and Indiana Jones, and the even greater degree to which my dad refused to let me buy one or buy one for me. They were too expensive. They were luxury items. Dad didn't hold with such things...
When I finally got one, they were no longer cool, but I treated it as if it had been made of bone china rather than one of the tougher materials known to man and had been beat to crap (aka "distressed") at the factory.
And it doesn't matter that I've owned dozens of leather coats since or that I've sewn sheaths and bags and purses and gloves and hats and masks and miscellaneous whatnot out of leather. Making a jacket just seems like a bridge further than I've ever been...
Then I did this to a perfectly good leather coat I picked up at a thrift store and the bloom came off the rose. This new character is the perfect excuse to finally unroll those doe skins and make that stupid jerkin.
So let's talk about how.
The leather I'll be using is doe skin. That is to say the leather made from the hide of a female deer. This kind of leather acts a lot like cloth: you can run it through a sewing machine, sew it fairly easily by hand, and it stretches and drapes rather like a heavy wool.
I will be making mine almost entirely by hand, using a waxed linen thread. The natural linen thread shown in the picture is bookbinding thread. Pre-waxed thread can be found at leatherworking stores or online, or there's a brand of unwaxed linen thread called Londenderry that can be found in specialty embroidery stores in a variety of colors.
Working in leather like this will require a "glover's" needle, which has a beveled tip for punching through the leather. Thankfully, even the big box sewing stores seem to carry them.
Let's get into this right away...
Stitches & Seams
There are two essential kinds of seam that I will be using on this project. Almost all of the stitches will either be saddle-stitch or running stitch. The seams will be the 'lapped' seam or a reinforced version of the standard pressed seam for reasons I'll get into in a minute.
If you just lay two pieces of leather atop one another, right sides together, and then press the seams back as you would when working on a cloth garment, you're going to have problems. Where the needle has punctured the leather, you have created perforations (think the perforated 'Tear Hear' line on a document). And if you hold the seam up to the light, you'll see a 'ladder' of stitches which are exposed and weak.
When working leather, you need to work with larger stitches and use the right seam for the right task.
The "Arnold" Seam
The leather jerkin at the top of this post is in the Museum of London. If you click on the image, it should take you to some very large and detailed pictures at the museum's website. On that doublet, Janet Arnold noted that some of the seams had been sewn with a piece of lighter leather between them.
In the Museum of London jerkin, a much lighter piece of leather is doubled-over and inserted into the seam. Other seams documented by Janet Arnold use a similar approach and there are many that are reinforced on the inside with pieces of linen canvas. I will be doing that too.
One of the great things felt, felted wool, and leather have over woven cloth is that it doesn't fray. So you can do things like poke holes, make cuts, and do lap seams without worrying about it falling apart.
If you double-up the stitches as shown in the picture at the right, it makes an incredibly strong seam if you don't mind the stacked effect that results. This is a great seam for long, flat sections like the seams of a jerkin or a doublet.
I will be using a combination of the lapped seam and the 'Arnold' seam to assemble this jerkin.