People have been using sewn leather to clothe and cover themselves for thousands of years, and in modern times have found many unconventional uses for the material. Leather is animal hides that have been chemically treated for preservation. In order to use leather, it must be cut, shaped and ultimately sewn using special techniques that have been developed over the course of many years.
The earliest evidence of leather sewing comes from the Paleolithic period in the form of hide-scraping tools and basic needles, which were made from bone, ivory and thorns. The use of these materials continued through to the Neolithic period, when evidence of other textiles and more complex garments first appeared. During the Bronze Age, leather sewing tools like early needle-pushing thimbles were cast in bronze metal, leading to the eventual invention of the steel needle by the Chinese and the modern mechanization of leather sewing. Today, leather is largely sewn in factories by machines, though there are many leather enthusiasts who prefer the craft of hand sewing.
The most common animal hides used in modern leather sewing are cowhide and suede, which can be made from the underside of calf, goat, pig or deer skin. Cowhides are used to make coats, pants, jackets, hats, handbags, belts and a variety of non-garment items like car interiors and furniture coverings. Suede is a popular choice for handbags, upholstery and accessories. There are also synthetic versions of leather that are made from pasteboard, coated fabric, rubber and cellulose. Sewing synthetic leather is somewhat different from real leather sewing, though the materials are used to make the same kind of products.
Leather can be sewn in a few different ways. Traditionally, leather is hand sewn with a special chiseled-head needle that is sturdy enough to penetrate leather, and heavy waxed thread. Thick leather requires pre-punched holes made by a chisel or punch. Machine sewing can sometimes be done on a home sewing machine with a heavy-duty leather needle, but only if the leather is of the fairly lightweight type intended for garment use. Heavyweight leathers will require a sturdier industrial machine.
Leather sewing has, in the past, been an asset to human beings and aided the survival of many by providing a means of creating clothing, shoes and shelter. Leather is long-lasting and extremely durable, often taking decades to start decomposing. Resistance to tears and punctures is high in leather. Sewn leather is flexible and comfortable. The nature of the material allows for breathability and insulation in cold temperatures, and protection in the heat and wind.
Leather sewing is not easy, and can require expensive specialized materials–particularly the leathers themselves–and a great deal of practice to perfect. There are also animal rights issue to consider. The leather industry has often come under criticism for perpetuating widespread poor treatment of animals and contributing to environmental pollution through the modern chemical treatment processes. Those that are concerned with animal cruelty issues may choose to work with synthetic leathers instead, although some of these, too, often have a trail of environmental pollution attached to them.