10 March 2012

A Leather Jerkin

Dear Readers: I will be traveling for a family emergency for the next couple of weeks. This is the project I planned to start this weekend; instead we'll be getting into it when I get home.  Take care, and I'll see you when I get back!  ~Scott

Youth's leather Jerkin, Museum of London. Detailed in 
Patterns of Fashion, 1560-1620 by Janet Arnold.
Next on my list of Things to Make is a leather jerkin. Doeskin, to be precise. It is quite probably the garment I've procrastinated most of anything I've ever contemplated doing ever.  Don't believe me? I bought the leather ten years ago.

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.

The image above is a pair of doeskin workgloves I had handy. You can see the stitches of the seam at every fold and they never fail to fail at these points. This is a very unstable way to sew up a piece of leather.

When working leather, you need to work with larger stitches and use the right seam for the right task.

The "Arnold" Seam
As I said, you can't really just sew leather and iron the seams flat (actually, you usually pound them flat with a mallet) like you do cloth, and a French Seam is unworkable because of leather's bulk and stiffness. Even if you pare away the leather of the seam, you would end up with a standing seam that refused to lie down.  You could sew it down (a felled seam) or any one of a dozen other solutions, but I'm going to go with a period solution that I rather like.

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.

Lapped Seam

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.

A lapped seam (shown left on the same pair of gloves as previous) is simply overlapping two pieces of leather and stitching the top one to the one underneath.  There are several different variations of the lapped seam and they appear in garments from the distant past to the jacket I have hanging next to the front door as I type this.

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.


  1. I know what you mean about procrastinating, Scott. I've had the leather for my buff coat in the corner of the next room for 10 years. I'm just terrified to start.

  2. When I went to Colonial Williamsburg and cornered the leather working guy he showed me a butted seam that only came halfway through the thickness of the leather. It produced a smooth seam and was simply stunning when finished. I will have to find the photos and post them.
    Also I totally understand the procrastination on leather. No room for errors with leather. Any wrong stitches leaves a mark.

    If you are looking for the punches to cut stars and cresents and diamonds, Tandy leather has a set of punches now that are perfect, they are tiny and in different shapes. I bought them with the intention of making just that jerkin.
    I look forward to seeing it as you go and when finished.

  3. Great blog Scott! It has actually inspired me to try my own hand at garb as my wife doesn't sew. Could you recommend some starting "tools", and resources for a newbie? I am pretty well equipped in wood and leather-working, but a n00b at garb.

    1. Thanks, Chris!

      You will find that sewing is not all that dissimilar from woodworking. It's about taking flat stock and turning it into useful three-dimensional objects. There are those who prefer handwork and those who prefer machines, and those who prefer to do decorative things, but it's all fruit of the same tree.

      Like woodworking, find an experienced craftsperson near you and get them to show you the basics and build techniques from there.

      Tools: If you want to hand-sew all you really need equipmentwise are scissors and a needle. An iron and ironing board are also important. Everything else comes with time and what you feel you need a device to help you with.

      A sewing machine is a great thing, of course. Which one? Like a camera or a kitchen knife the best one for you is the one you're going to use. As long as it does what you need it to and doesn't break everytime you want to use it, it's the correct machine for you. Make a list of what you absolutely need it to do and take that with you when you shop. Old machines with all-metal parts are awesome if you can find one that suits you.

      For period tools, I'll be doing a post soon, I think, on assembling an Elizabethan period tailor's kit. Stay tuned.


  4. Can you advise on where to source leather hide for a jerkin project I have in mind? I can't find anything on Google in the UK.


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