Hand Stitching Basics
Before the Industrial Revolution and before sewing machines, all leather goods were hand-sewn by artisans. For the early pioneers, a well-made pair of leather boots meant the difference between surviving a blizzard or dying of hypothermia. The hand-sewing technique those artisans used is called saddle stitching.
What is Saddle Stitching?
Saddle stitching is sewing by hand with needles and thread in a way that creates two rows of stitching in one single row of holes.
The photo below shows a closeup of the Werther Saddle Stitch on a wallet.
Hand-Stitching vs Machine Stitching
Saddle stitching is done with only a few feet of thread at a time and must be made by hand. To create each stitch, the entire thread serpentines two times through the layers of leather.
For the machine-sewn, lock stitch, 2 separate spools of thread are used. A sewing machine passes a small loop of thread through the top of the leather which interlocks with the thread from the bottom of the leather.
The illustration below shows what is happening between the layers of leather in a hand-stitched wallet versus a machine-stitched wallet.
Although using sewing machines is much faster and cheaper, a major stress point is created where the top thread interlocks with the bottom thread. This is where a machine-sewn wallet always breaks first. Those 2 small threads are constantly trying to cut one another—the same way fishing line cuts into your hand when you hold a fish by the line.
The handsewn saddle stitch creates leather goods that last much longer. In addition to using thicker thread with hand stitching, each stitch is made up of two strong, independent, stitches. Unlike the lock stitch which will completely unravel, if a thread does break, the saddle stitch will still hold together.
You know how a loose thread on a t-shirt unravels if you pull on it? That's because it was sewn with a machine using a lock stitch.
If the white thread is cut, the orange thread keeps the hand-sewn saddle-stitched wallet together. If the white thread is cut on the machine stitch, both threads will continue to unravel.
Artisans are becoming extinct. Not everybody cares who made their wallet or how it was made. But for the person who appreciates the blood, sweat, and tears—and yes, for me all those are literal—that go into handcrafted goods, you understand why it is worth paying a little more for artisanal goods made to last.
Why does Hand Stitching Matter to me?
It's unlikely that owning a saddle-stitched wallet is going to save you from dying of hypothermia, but for the most personal item you own, my hope is that the care and attention to detail that goes into your wallet makes a small difference in your everyday life.