How to Buy Sewing Machines That Sew Denim and Leather

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How to Buy Sewing Machines That Sew Denim and Leather

Making things with textiles is already engaging, but when one has extra high hopes to use new materials and exotic fabrics, it can really get exciting. Unfortunately, many new sewing hobbyists overestimate the capacity of their general usage machines. They attempt to sew tough materials like canvas, denim, and leather, but they find themselves with more broken needles and missed stitches than successfully completed projects. Here are some top tips on buying proper sewing machines for tough materials.

Different Machines Have Different Strengths

Sewing machines are all made with different purposes in mind, but each model generally functions in a similar manner. To sew a stitch, the machine must force the top thread down through the fabric with the needle, loop the thread around the lower bobbin thread, and then pull that new stitch back through. During this process, the machine keeps the material flat with a presser foot and moves it forward with each stitch using the moving teeth below, known as feed dogs. If the needle fails to puncture the material being sewn, the stitch won't engage with the bobbin thread and it won't hold.

Unless you're using a vintage model, electric motors and belt drives move the needle up and down. These mechanical motors can only drive needles with so much force however, so it's important to find a machine with a heavy-duty drive system rated for leather and denim.

Certain leather materials also have unique characteristics that make them harder to sew. A lot of these variances have to do with the tanning process used to cure the leather in question, but the end effect is that many leathers, which are somewhat thick and sticky, do not feed easily using normal machines.

Lightweight leathers and many apparel denims can easily be sewn using a home machine. Those who want to work with thicker grades or multiple layers have to use industrial or commercial machines. These machines have dedicated belt drive systems and other features designed to help them puncture the material accurately and consistently. Here are a few factors to consider when looking at leather sewing machine listings on eBay.


Critical Machine Characteristics

Remember that no two machines are alike. When sewing leather, it's important to find good machines that have optimized motors, body construction styles, and feed systems.

Motor Rating

Leather machines need more powerful motors, which are rated by the amount of current they draw. Typically, 1.2- and 1.5-amp motors are common, but anything less is insufficient. The most effective motor systems also include ribbed drive belts, reduction gear systems, and other precision-engineered devices that eliminate the tendency for the materials to slip while being sewn.

Construction Factors

When sewing leather, it's best to go with all-metal sewing machines. The forces generated by the motors trying to drive the stainless steel needles through the material are immense, and the machines housed in plastic bodies can't handle them without breaking down. By sticking to metal body machines, leatherworkers save money on machine upkeep and usually have an easier time sewing thick materials.

Attachment Systems

While almost all sewing machines use the feed dog system, a few heavy-duty, home-usage machines implement additional specialty mechanisms. These optional add-ons help reduce the friction between the presser foot and sticky leather or Naugahyde vinyls as well as improve the ability for the material to move along evenly and not bunch up.

Rolling Presser Foot Attachment

This type of presser foot has little wheels or rollers in it that allow stickier materials to move forward without catching. Depending on the capability of the machine with the type of roller foot, it may make omni-directional sewing more difficult.


Walking Foot Attchment

A walking foot, or even feed foot, is a combination style foot. They usually have two presser feet, one on the inside and one on the outside, and the two alternate oscillating up and down as the machine moves the needle. This ensures that the material is held in place while the needle is puncturing the material and again while it is lifting out of the material. The material is left free to move in between these stages.

Needle Compatibility

Another important consideration is that certain types of needles are more appropriate for sewing tougher fabrics. Needles with thicker shanks are tougher, so they can puncture the denim or leather without bending or snapping. Their wider bodies also let them pull the thread through the hole cleanly without snagging the material on the edges. While most general usage and denim needles are made to fit into the same standard-sized holder, the appropriate, heavy-duty leather models only work with leather-specific machines.

Walking Foot Machines

Not to be confused with walking foot attachments, walking foot machines are the next step up. They're ideal for sewing multiple layers of thick leather, dense vinyl, and tough denim upholstery. They're ideal for sewing multiple layers of thick leather, dense vinyl, and tough denim upholstery. They allow stitches to zig-zag and move around in all directions with more ease, yet they still prevent slippage or missed stitches. Walking foot machines differ because they move the material with a combination of different methods in addition to the feed dog, and they all generally have a pair of independent presser feet, instead of just a single dedicated one.

Drive Configurations

Walking foot machines come in different varieties based on their drive configurations.

Triple Feed/Compound Drive

In this system, the needle and inside presser foot move in sync with the feed dogs. These machines are usually more effective at sewing all types of heavy material without causing stitch irregularities. Most leatherworkers prefer triple feed systems because they work well with a variety of projects.

Double Feed Drive

Appropriate for vinyl and mark-proof leather, this type of machine moves the material by moving an outer presser foot in concert with the feed dogs.


Jump Feed Drive

In this system, a slotted presser foot lifts up to allow the needle itself to move the work. This is effective for holsters and thick harness projects because it keeps the workpiece moving with the current stitch.


Presser Foot Feed Drive

In this system, the presser foot itself has teeth on the contact surface. While most general usage presser feet are smooth, this feed drive ensures that the presser foot can really get a strong grip on the material. Unfortunately, it also leaves little marks on softer leathers like those that have been vegetable tanned with natural processes.


Snap Feed Drive

Snap feed drives move the material by pulling it from the bottom with the feed dogs while the outer foot pivots on a hinge. The hinge is spring loaded, so when the feed dog drops away, the foot lifts and then snap forward. This system works well with projects like buffing wheels where it may be necessary to pivot the material a great deal while sewing.


Finding Denim and Leather Sewing Machines on eBay

The best way to find appropriate denim and leather sewing machines on eBay is to begin by using the Search box located at the top of any page. Just type "leather sewing machine" into the search bar.
Another effective term to search for is "walking foot sewing machine." Other searches to try include "denim sewing machine" and "upholstery sewing machine." Most shoppers find ample results by entering the heaviest type of fabric they expect to sew along with the term sewing machine, such as "canvas sewing machine." After any of these searches, select different desirable features to narrow the results down. 


The best type of machine for sewing projects depends largely on what kind of materials the user is sewing and how the machine is used in those projects. Remember that certain leather machines are more appropriate for certain common items like holsters and motorcycle saddle bags. While apparel leather and denim can be sewn on general industrial machines, people who want to take their crafts to the next level should definitely buy dedicated machines for heavier materials.

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