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Reverse Leather Applique

Reverse applique of flowers on a vine, done in leather.
Reverse applique of flowers on a vine, done in leather.

Reverse applique is the process of sewing two layers of material together with the stitches forming some sort of design, then cutting away the positive areas of the top piece of the material. This creates a nice, strong design. Reverse applique using leather is seen in at least one surviving suit of men’s clothes from 1615-20 (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, pgs 30, 90-2). The advantage to using leather in reverse applique is obvious — unlike woven fabric, leather does not fray when cut.


To get started, you’ll need a piece of leather, a piece of cloth, and a piece of tissue with your pattern marked on it. In this case, I’m doing a decorative band around the neckline of a bodice. I have a piece of green leather the width of the band sandwiched between the outer layer of the bodice (the bodice pieces are already assembled), and the tissue with the pattern on it. These three layers are sewn together around the edge of the pattern (the leather and fabric needed to be sewn together there anyway).


Sometimes, due to awkward curves or the size of a standard piece of tissue, you’ll need to butt two separate pieces of tissue together. In this case, that happened at the center back of the neckline. From the tissue side, sew along the lines of the design.


The leather is now sewn through to the fabric in the design of the applique.


Now for a fiddly part — remove the tissue (which is now seriously perforated) from the leather.


The stitches remain (fortunately), and you can finally see the pattern in the leather for the first time.


Now you need to cut the leather out of the spots where leather isn’t meant to remain. Go slowly, and be careful — you don’t want to cut the fabric! In this case, I’m removing the positive area of the design. I start by cutting out the flower areas, which are nice and wide, so I can pinch the fabric from the back to separate it from the leather, and snip through the leather. I cut the vine next. It’s thin, so I cut straight down the center, then go back and trim it close to the lines of stitch. You’ll notice that the leather edge isn’t really neat — I also have to trim the band of leather to the border that I stitched when I attached the three layers together.


Half the design is de-papered and cut. It’s starting to look like something!


Once the applique work was finished, the bodice was assembled per usual…


The whole bodice. The grey edge around the shoulders is bias tape that I applied to the outer layer (through the leather) before I assembled the bodice. This allows me to turn the armscye back *without* having to handsew through leather.


The bodice, finished and being worn.

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