While it is clear that the use of flexible needles such as Hog's bristles (aka Sow-hair, Boar's bristle) became used in the shoemaking industry because of their ability in pulling the thread through curved holes, it is not known when they became common. They were at least in use by the 15th century, according to a Cordwainer's will referred to in Swann, and regularly used in the 17th century, it is clear from that poem that other sorts of needles were in use as well.
Some leatherworkers have suggested that all stitching can, and should be done with harness needles, or ball pointed needles, and in all honesty I prefer to work with these myself. What is important to remember is that when working with all but the thinnest leathers you should be punching holes for the stitches with an awl rather than with the needle. This is not strictly true for glover's needles, which have an awl built in to each needle.
Needles are often gauged with zeroes through higher digits to indicate size. You should find a package of large and package of medium size needles sufficient to last you for quite some time. I have not found the leatherworking needles found in fabric and sewing stores to be durable to work with, but there opinions vary.
With some careful bending, harness needles can be bent sufficiently for use with curved awls.
For the discussion at hand, the following terms will be used: Cord, or the "thread" as it comes away from the spool or skein. Cord comes in plies of three, four, five, six, seven, or eight Threads. These are sometimes numbered to indicate their size or gauge, or referred to by their "weight" in Ounces. Most of the leather working thread, waxed or unwaxed, comes in Five or seven ply.
To be honest, there is an easy way of doing this, one which many re-enactors do. Find a cord size you like, and rub the entire cord through your beeswax. Unless you have a need for a specially sized cord, or want some extra protection for the thread, no one will ever notice.
There are several methods for threading the needle that I have seen, the most simple being shown here: The thread is wrapped back around the thread to hold it firmly in place. The second method, involves running the needle through the "tail" of the thread that has passed through the needle, after tightly twisting the end of the tail. The thread is pulled back while the needle is held firmly. If this is done properly, the needle will be "locked" into place. The third method, starts by taking the thread and twisting it about an inch and a half from the end. Poke the needle through the thread twice, and then thread the needle. Pull the thread over itself and the eye of the needle. This method will also lock the needle in place.
There is a fourth method that begins by threading the needle,
and pulling the thread through so that it can be pulled to two
even lengths with the needle in the middle. Then unravel the
cords and rewind them into a single cord, with the needle sealed
in place at the end.
Since the use of bristles appears, based on their appearance in a cordwainer's will referred to in Swann, to be historical, it would be appropriate to describe their use here as well. I have been hesitant, as I have never personally used them, so that the best I could do is describe the technique as well as I understand it.
Hog's Bristle, Boar's Bristle, etc. is the stiff, course, hair of a swine. It is used, because it is flexible enough to make it ideal for some of the tight curves needed for some of the stitches referred to. Any form of flexible material is, theoretically, usable (as long as it is thin, stiffish, and durable.
To begin with, you must use some form of shoemaker's hand wax (which is black or brown), since bee's wax will not hold the thread to the bristle. The wax is warmed in the hand and fingers and then rubbed on the long tapered end of the thread and on the Bristle.
A common misconception among leatherworkers is that the waxed thread sold in leather stores needs a rotary hole puncher and a big fat lacing needle to get it through a gaping hole made by the punch. Moreover, that punched holes were generally slammed home with a hammer and chisel-like tool. Neither of these is true. Stitching holes are made by an awl, which is run through the leather, by hand. Then the thread is pulled through by a needle. Using a chisel to make holes cuts the leather, weakening it, while using an awl pushes the leather apart without cutting it.
Try not to stitch with thread lengths longer than two feet. The temptation is to make a long thread and needle set up because the seam is long, but you're better off with short lengths and knots. For one thing, if the thread gives out the whole seam won't go with it and for another thing you can lose a lot of time trying to untangle long lengths of thread.
Don't dig your awl in too deeply. Get the feel of pushing it just deep enough to let the needle and thread pass snugly through. Many people feel that you should never have to use pliers, but that if the hole is too small, you should back the needle out and use the awl to make the hole a little larger.
When punching the hole, the line of the stitching should run across the diamond of a diamond-shaped awl. This is sometimes called a harness stitch, and is mostly used with stiff leather. The loop, or whip stitch, which goes round and round the edge up the length of the seam, needs an awl hole which has its length run parallel to the edge. The idea is to get the thread to pull across the width of the awl hole because it gets to grab more leather.
The whip stitch would be used on center seam or one piece shoes, and when it stretches out each stitch seems to run across the line described by the seam.
Leatherworking of the Middle Ages - Threads in Sewing
Leather Copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001 I. Marc Carlson
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