Working With Leather: Image Transfers & Sewing Techinques

Several projects that I have posted show images transferred to leather. I receive many questions about that technique in the comments, such as in my very last post for iPod cases, so I wanted to write a little more info on the subject for you. Keep in mind that I am not a leather professional, just a crafter who enjoys playing with leather in projects, so a serious leather worker may find my techniques a bit hack. That being said, here’s my amateur-at-best, but simple tips for creating very easy projects with image transferred leather:

First, I recommend you allow for a practice piece or two to get the hang of transferring and stitching before diving into a final piece.
Leather
I use leather swatches from furniture stores samples (I found mine at the thrift store), and second hand leather coats and purses with sections still in good shape. Remove any lining material that is sewn in. If your suede side will be showing, be sure it is in good shape as well and has no adhesives on it. The thickness should be light enough to double and feed through your sewing machine. Leather is so fabulous to work with as it cuts very crisp (with very sharp fabric scissors) and never frays.Sewing Leather
When stitching with your sewing machine, be sure change your stitch length to longer than usual. On my machine, setting 2.5 is standard, 5 is max. I use a setting of 4 for leather. Stitch very, very slow around curves, as the leather does not heal after a mistaken stitch and the hole will show. My machine has an up-down button, I use that instead of the foot pedal when hitting those curves. Also, you may want to keep a needle specifically for sewing through leather, mark with a Sharpie (add stripes to the needle, for example) to identify it from your other needles. Standard thread works just fine for the small leather projects I have shown in my blog.
Image Transfers
I purchase iron-on transfer sheets for DARK T-shirts to print on my desktop ink-jet printer. I have found packs of these transfer sheets at Michael’s Crafts, Target and Staples. They are pretty easy to find. I have used several brands, all with great results. I’ve tried the regular transfers for white and light shirts with very poor results. Transfers for DARK are great as you don’t have to mirror the image before printing and the transfer peels from the backing sheet easily before ironing. It is also a very different material than that for light shirts and doesn’t transfer shiny. I recommend you loosely trim out one image section at a time, peel off backing paper and place onto your leather, then precisely trim out once you’ve ironed it onto the leather.

Transfer images based on the instructions for fabric, such as no steam and no smoothing the iron over the transfer, but pressing hard in sections only. The steam holes on the bottom of your iron occasionally pose a problem leaving non-pressed areas, so utilize the largest smooth area of the iron as much as possible and be sure to press out any steam-hole sections. Do not to re-use the parchement paper supplied with the sheets too many times as it may begin to stick to the image transfer and pull off. You may find that some of the leather that gets heated and pressed outside the transfer image will turn dark or loose it’s natural or faux texture, that shouldn’t be a concern if you plan to use that leather for more transfer work. Otherwise, loosely trim the a section of leather before using your iron.

As a graphic designer, I work with Adobe Illustrator, CS3. It works great for me to measure and trim out the image digitally before printing my transfer sheets so I have simple guides to work with vs. trying to line up a pattern for trimming after transferring the image.

Here’s a great comment question from reader, Jeff, aka: nycdesigner:

“My question about the transfers is: Are you basically covering the surface entirely, and just printing background colors, and trimming the edges so the leather and decal are flush? Doesn’t this sort of make the leather into a sort of “pleather” with the decal being vinyl and limiting the original leather’s suppleness?

My answer to that is:
Great question! Yes, you are correct, you lose the leather surface effect, but may be able to keep the texture. The thick leather cut edges remain, however, giving your piece an authentic leather & suede appearance, which is the best I can get using this inexpensive process. I would not choose to leave sections of leather surface showing, but that is definitely an option. Thank you for asking!

I made a leather key chain in April ’09, that I have used and handled daily since, and the transfer is still in tact, image as vibrant as ever with only light edge wear to the transfer.

Here are several of my leather image transfer projects.

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46 Responses to Working With Leather: Image Transfers & Sewing Techinques

  1. #1 - marysworkshop says:

    That is so nice of you to explain this technique in greater depth, Cathe. You spared many of us the expense of trying several types to find the best one to use on leather.
    Merry Christmas to you and your readers!- Mary

  2. #2 - : industrious fern : Sarah says:

    Great post! Thank you so much!

  3. #3 - Paula says:

    thanks Cathe! I didn't post a question about the transfer but you read my mind! thankyou…this is an awesome project!
    a very merry christmas to you and yours:)
    paula

  4. #4 - ArtSnark says:

    this is very cool – thanks for sharing your secrets

  5. #5 - eva says:

    Thank you for your advice

  6. #6 - Loddelina says:

    Thank you for this detailed explanation, Cathe! Your tutorials are a joy to read, exact and easy to follow!

    have a merry Christmas!

  7. #7 - Mademoiselle Julie says:

    Thanks for the tips & hints! I will table leather for next year! Have a happy & safe holiday season! Cheers, Julie

  8. #8 - Heather Horton says:

    Thank you for these detailed tips. I really enjoyed reading your tutorial because it was easy to follow along.

    I don't have a sewing machine like yours, so I'm going to give it a shot on my hand held sewing machine.

    I'll let you know how I fare, wish me luck.

  9. #9 - Gayle says:

    Thanks for all your wonderful information! I wanted to share with you another source for inexpensive leather, and that is to buy leather skirts at the thrift stores. I've been buying them for years when I find them for $.99 each, and I have quite a collection now – they should work perfect for some of these projects you did!

  10. #10 - casserole says:

    Thanks for the tips!! I linked to your tips on Craft Gossip Sewing:
    http://sewing.craftgossip.com/tips-for-sewing-leather-and-transferring-images/2009/12/22/

    –Anne

  11. #11 - Annalea says:

    Hey Cathe. :o) I dropped by from One Pretty Thing (I think, lol), and I love your stuff. I'm going to have to use this technique soon . . . we're building a home, and I want to purchase very few things to put in it. ;o)

    You know, I know some Holdens from SoCal . . . Susan, with a daughter Sarah (who is in Romania right now) and son Matthew. You probably don't know them (CA is a huge place–where I grew up), but you never know . . .

    Thanks so much, and have a great day!

  12. #12 - La Vie en Rose says:

    I have thought of doing this for ages since seeing your cap redo, wish me luck. I bought scraps of leather in a packet at hobby lobby and used a coupon….can you say OH YEAH!

  13. #13 - Donna says:

    I found a Great old iron at a thrift store w/ No steam holes and it was Very Heavy..Works just great for those transfers and its smaller & easier to handle than my regular iron….Thought Id throw that out there..U might want to watch out for one if u do transfers alot.

  14. #14 - jodpea says:

    Hi Cathe, I thought you might like to see what I’d done with this technique – especially as it uses a vintage book image!
    http://jodpea.blogspot.com/2010/11/vintage-melting.html

  15. #15 - Michelle says:

    I know this is probably a no brainer, but where do you purchase the leather? I need it thick enough to make jewelry. But don’t want it as thick as that key chain above. Thank you for your time.

    Michelle

    • #16 - Cathe Holden says:

      Hi Michelle,
      The best place I have found to purchase leather is at thrift stores. Look for leather jackets and purses the in the thickness and colors that work best for your projects.

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  18. #17 - Rupa says:

    Sorry for asking this so late! Why would transfer paper for DARK not require image flips? I thought if you had lettering etc, you would always print the mirror image irrespective of LIGHT transfer paper or DARK transfer paper…a wee bit confused here 🙂

  19. #18 - Brittany Austin says:

    I LOVE the key chain you made. I want one so bad just like it! I know I dont have the time or crafty ability to make one. Do you sell the things you put on here? Because this is just the thing i need for my keys!

  20. #19 - Elisa says:

    Do you think I could use this technique on a pre-made leather item? I want to transfer an image from a book cover (I’d scan the dust jacket or the front cover of a book) to a purchased Kindle cover.

    And is the reason the image doesn’t have to be printed as a mirror image because you peel the transfer off the backing paper BEFORE you iron it on to the leather? I would actually like to try using an imitation leather (I think they call it PLU or PU now) cover, but I am afraid that because it’s not real leather, the heat of the iron would make the fake leather material melt while ironing on the image.

  21. #20 - Karen says:

    This is a great tutorial! I am trying to transfer an image to my husbands leather jacket…here’s hoping!

  22. #21 - Nick says:

    Hi,

    I have a question as well. I would like to apply logo’s and names to leather racing suits, or just patches of leather to be stiched on later.

    So you are saying that with the correct transfer paper, I can just print an image, iron it on and… It’s done?

    And how long will this last? Is it durable? And can something like this be done:

    http://www.janmanshop.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/15d0c85bcbb3bc995ee43c93c43bf757/s/u/suit-7.jpg

    If you are able to answer my question I would really appreciate it!

  23. #22 - Dorothy says:

    I love all of your ideas! I just wanted to share an idea for book marks I did for Valentine’s Day for my family. I embossed leather fabric samples that were square and slightly oblong with holes already punched at the top. I threaded different types of ribbon and strands of other materials into the holes to finish them off. I wasn’t sure the embossing would work, but they turned out great! Silver detail embossing powder seemed to work the best. (Found this link via a Facebook post by Sister Diane)

  24. #23 - Ese says:

    Hi

    I would appreciate some help please. How do I transfer a photograph on to leather? I saw one which had the photograph transferred on to some kind of paper or cloth like material and then fixed on to the leather.

    Any tips on how to make birthday cards in leather?

    Thank you so very much indeed for your help. I would be grateful if you could reply to my email please. I am sorry if it would be a bother. Thank you so much for your kind help and assistance.

    Ese

  25. #24 - Lori says:

    Hi Cathe, Love your work, particularly the leather iPod case! One question: In the article above, you state, “I recommend you loosely trim out one image section at a time, peel off backing paper and place onto your leather, then precisely trim out once you’ve ironed it onto the leather.” How do you “precisely trim out once you’ve ironed it onto the leather” without cutting the leather itself? I’m missing something here. Thanks very much, Lori

    • #25 - Cathe Holden says:

      Hi Lori, I’m sorry I didn’t state that better. Once it’s transferred, you will be cutting precisely into the transfer and leather together. Then there will be a nice crisp trim of both.

  26. #26 - Hong says:

    Wow, thanks so much for the great tips! I was wondering can you print on any leather finish?

  27. #27 - kelly says:

    Thank you cathe, for posting about printing on leather!

  28. #28 - William Christopher Bowers,Captain US Army,Retired says:

    Hi Cathe,
    As we get older in life we start to appreciate more the things we have done and who we are.I have been looking at Army leather jackets and have not found what I am looking for.
    I have a Brown leather jacket. I was thinking of transferring pictures of Army units I was associated with to my jacket. After reading your article I’m optimistic. I am trying to put together a plan to “get er done.” If I get my pictures lined up what would be my steps to the finished product?
    Best,
    Bill

    • #29 - Cathe Holden says:

      I suggest printing the images on to scrap leather from a cutter jacket or leather samples, then sewing those to the jacket. It would be the safest solution. Test small sections of images to leather to watch for color bleed through from any leather stain. You may be able to have the patches sewn on by your dry-cleaner if they offer mending services.

  29. #30 - John Vizcarrondo says:

    I would like to know if you are able to transfer portrait photos on to these leathers with the dark transfer sheet your were mentioning. Thank you.

  30. #31 - missy smith says:

    Can i heat press the paper on

  31. #32 - Rukhsana Akram says:

    I have a picture made on leather piece. I want to hang it on the wall. What is the best way to mount on what surface to hang it on the wall. Thanks

  32. #33 - Aryelle says:

    I have a faux leather jacket and wanted to know if it is possible to use an iron on transfer safely on the material

  33. #34 - Christa Pollard says:

    I’m new to all of this and just wondering if this might work on a vinyl jacket? My son wants to be a WWII fighter pilot for Halloween and I’d love to put something on the back of his bomber jacket!

  34. #35 - Daphne says:

    Do you have any suggestions for transferring a black &white or sepia photo onto leather? I plan to frame the piece and cover with glass, should there be any special care after the transfer? Thank you for your help.

    Daphne

  35. #36 - Ryan Jacobs says:

    Thank you for this site, the information and tips are great. My question is: if you wanted to heat transfer photos or printer quality designs onto leather shoes (such as Air Force 1), how would you do it?

    Sincerely,
    Ryan Jacobs
    Augusta, GA

  36. #37 - Rick Jorgensen says:

    Just getting started. My son works as a deck boss on a fishing boat. I want to make him a wallet with a crab and and a fish as they fish for both. I want to give the appearance of 3D by working and tooling the outline and in between.
    I will get back to you with some pics and how it worked. Thanks for being here…Rick

  37. #38 - Carla Yeast says:

    Hello – I enjoyed your posting –
    I am interested in having some leather
    Tags or bands made to compliment
    My sons Gradution
    Announcement – are you available
    To hire? I have authentic baseball leather used to make baseballs
    Or leather used to make baseball gloves.
    I need maybe 20 pieces with his name
    Printed on the leather ?

  38. #39 - Georgie Knoles says:

    thank you for the info I am an armature beadier and was trying to figure out how to transfer a pattern to my soft leather to bead. I will try the iron on transfer and see how it works

  39. #41 - Charles Fulkerson says:

    Hi I was just wondering if it would be a good idea to use this technique to transfer images to a jacket. I want to make a battle jacket but I don’t have money for a bunch of patches so I was going to try to transfer directly to the jacket with this paper. Would it be a better idea to transfer to a piece of fabric and then sew that on? I’m just asking because you said the leather around the transfer can lose its original color and I am going to be constantly wearing the jacket to concerts and stuff so I want to try to make it look somewhat nice(that’s really hard to d with my lack of art skills….)

  40. #42 - Roger Nuttall says:

    Hiya, Thank you very much for the information on Leather Transfer Printing. I am a leather craft working in heavy leather for sheaths, belts and the like. I haven’t done it yet but excited and going to have a go. I have a question on proofing my finished product. I normally use a Wax to make it water resistant and to give it a pleasant feel and leather smell etc. I imagine that this cannot be done before or after treatment, however maybe I can use an acrylic coating to waterproof over the image? Have you had any experience of wax proofed leather bleeding under the transfer and so lift it off? Be obliged for you comments.

  41. #43 - kimberly says:

    I’m trying to figure out how to make a camo leather wrap bracelet. To break it down, its basically one very long, thin (about 1/4 in) slice of leather that you wrap around your wrist 3 times. Is it possible to sew the fabric onto this considering how narrow the piece of leather is? Or do you have a better idea? Thanks in advance.

  42. #44 - Kim says:

    I would be interested to know because I work with soft leather also. Could you please email me? morning-glory@live.ca
    I make moccasins too plus many other items. Maybe we can help.each other with tips?