Introduction: Kali's Arm in Leather

About: I re*make mobility devices and materials and give them new lives. I re*use often. And sometimes I staple drape.

Now that Kali's left arm (one of them, anyway) is patterned I can make it out of leather.

I'm re-making an old aluminum walker into Kali, the multi-armed Hindu goddess of time and empowerment. Her "skin" is being made out of leather scraps. In this portion I'm building one of her left arms. Kali is represented in all sorts of ways with several different arms, but I'm trying for 4 sets in this piece. Let's see if I can fit them all in!

Check out the other Kali Instructables if you'd like to see what led up to this tutorial. To see more mobility art, check out the Jazzy Peacock Scooter Instructables (all 17 of them) or take a peek at Opulent Mobility if you want to know why I make such fancy scooters, walkers and wheelchairs.

Here are the tools I used:

An ironing board

Scrap muslin as a press cloth

Quilting pins

Sharp scissors

Muslin mockup from the last tutorial pattern

Leather scrap from jackets, pants, sofas and upholstery samples

Office binder clips

Sharpie pens in black, blue and red

Clear plastic rulers

Sewing machine and a size 14 leather needle

Black polyester thread

A blue store mannequin torso and arms

And the back of a wooden spoon.

Step 1: Mockup Pinning

The easiest way to make my muslin mockup of Kali's left arm lay flat was to cut it apart along one of the design lines. I chose a line that went from top to bottom, just outside of the pinned underarm seam. The pinned seam was a little complicated and I wanted to clean it up. The plan was to cut out each piece along the design lines and use them as patterns for the leather. It was a good plan, but the pieces needed cleaning up before I could get started.

I flattened out the muslin with the pinned seam on top and took a look. The seam was reasonably smooth, but there were areas that needed more pinning. There was also added muslin at the wrist that needed sewing down. I left most of the safety pins in place and added straight pins at the wrist area to hold the seam together. I pinned along the line and added a cross pin to hold down the overlapping wrist muslin piece.

Pro tip: there are two basic methods of pinning a seam together. You pin along the seam line or across it. Pinning along the line makes for accurate stitching but it takes a while, because you're turning the fabric over regularly to make sure the lines are matching on the top and bottom. Cross pinning is faster, but the two sides of the fabric can shift a little bit as you pin and the resulting seam is usually not as accurate. Cross pins are great for marking notches and keeping little flaps of fabric or seam allowances in place as you sew.

Pinning can seem like a tedious waste of time, but it really helps keep your sewing in line. Literally. I don't always use pins because I have a lot of practice with sewing, but I definitely use them when I have complicated seams because I am sorry when I don't.

Step 2: Mockup Sewing

I took the muslin mockup to the sewing machine and set the machine to a pretty standard straight stitch for the underarm seam (0 width and midway between the 2 and 3 for the stitch length). I started sewing at the bottom of the arm, backstitched and sewed my way up the marked seam allowance. I pulled each pin out of the way as I sewed, both the straight quilting pins and the safety pins.

I then straight stitched the curved seam at the top of the shoulder cap, pulling out the pins as I sewed. When all the threads were clipped, I switched the machine over to a standard zig-zag stitch (midway between 2 and 3 for both the length and width). I used this stitch to sew the added on wrist pieces down. When I was done, I clipped the threads and took the muslin over to the ironing board to prep, iron and label it.

If you look at picture #6, you can see how my Bernina 1020 is set up. All home sewing machines are set up a little bit differently, but most of them made from the 1960's on have a pretty similar layout. The width dial is on top and the length lever or dial is on the bottom. The higher the number, the bigger or wider the stitch. The backstitch might be part of the length controller (mine is) or it can be a separate button right nearby.

My machine has a couple of extra great features, like a buttonhole dial and a bottom lever for engaging or disengaging the feed dogs. (Feed dogs are those metal teeth you see underneath the machine foot. They help feed the fabric along as you sew. Some stitches are better with the feed dogs up, some are better with them down.) These aren't necessary for most ordinary sewing, but they can come in handy for the specialized odd stuff I make.

If it isn't clear, I LOVE this machine. It's lasted me since 1990 and I plan to keep it until it croaks. My Bernina is solid metal and I swear it would go through plywood if I gave it the right needle. It's also delicate enough for silk chiffon and fine netting, but I don't test that often.

Silk chiffon, fine netting and anything associated with proms or weddings are fussy and delicate and easy to stain and snag. And I am not delicate.

Step 3: Cleaning Up the Pattern

After laying out the muslin mockup out on the ironing board, I trimmed the underarm seam allowance down to 3/8" and did the same to the curved seam at the shoulder cap. The next step was to cut away the excess fabric along the outside lines. When the sleeve shape was clear, I ironed out the muslin and all the seams so it was as flat as possible. Now that all the lines were clear, I could label each piece and figure out how to put it all together in leather.

A lot of people prefer to make patterns with added seam allowances. I generally don't add any seam allowances. Part of this is because most of my training is in costumes, not fashion. Fashion patterns always have added seam allowances and couture costume patterns do not. The reason for the difference comes down to money.

In fashion, you are always trying to eliminate wasted fabric. The more pieces you can cut out of a yard of fabric, the better. It is also important to lay out ALL the sides of every single pieces of a garment at once so there are as few mistakes as possible. Material and time is money, and you don't want to waste either one.

In couture costumes, you save time by only patterning one side of a garment- if the garment is symmetrical. You draw around each pattern to keep the seams as accurate as possible. You also add variable seam allowances to areas that usually need adjusting: side seams, shoulders and hems in particular. Opera houses and touring shows need their clothes to be adjustable, because you don't know who may change size or who will be recast in a role. They also usually rent out clothing so that each garment can make as much money as possible. Fancy costumes take a lot of money and time to make, and the companies want to get as big a bang for their buck as they can. Adding extra seam allowances makes a garment more valuable.

The other reason I don't add seam allowances is because I prefer to make things that are not symmetrical and/or require interesting engineering. I also prefer to make things once. Mass production holds no interest for me. After I've figured out how to do something, I get bored and want to move on.

Step 4: Pattern Into Pieces

Since the top of the shoulder cap was curved, it wouldn't lie flat. Neither would the flared areas that curved from the wrist out over the top of the hand. I cut along the design lines at the cap and at the bottom just enough to make the pieces lay flat and ironed them out. Then I started labeling the pieces.

Moving from left to right, I numbered the top pieces 1-7. I drew in little notch marks where each piece ended. I left the bottom pieces alone until later. The plan was to divide the sleeve into sections, cut and sew each section out of leather and then put all the pieces together.

Because the first 4 pieces fit together pretty smoothly, I started with them. I cut those pieces out along their design lines and put the rest of the sleeve away. To keep the pieces from being lost (and me from getting confused about how they fit together) I kept them in order on the ironing board. The next step was to choose my leathers.

Step 5: First Three Pieces

In order, the leather for the top 4 pieces came from an old version of Driven's back, 2 thrift store leather jackets and a leftover piece of an upholstery sample I custom dyed for a Swiftwind mask.

(The mask was used for one of Philip Bonneau's photo series. If you haven't seen Philip Bonneau's work with superheros and villains, you are in for a treat!)

I cut out pieces 1-4 from their respective leathers, adding a 1/4" all the way around each piece. At each of the notch marks I made a tiny snip with the scissors, just enough to mark the notch but not enough to leave holes when I sewed the pieces together. I sewed the first 3 pieces together in order, using a straight stitch and a 1/4" seam allowance. After clipping the threads, I trimmed the seam allowances down to a scant 1/8" and pressed them open as best as I could with my fingernails. I used a wooden spoon to smooth them out even more, but they weren't flattening much.

Sometimes the iron is the best answer. I used a scrap of muslin as a press cloth and laid it over the first seam, then ironed the seam open. The iron was on a silk setting (hot, but not hot enough to scorch the leather) and I used a little bit of steam. That did the trick nicely.

Leather reacts strangely to heat and steam, especially if it's been dyed and treated. It can shrink, scorch or shrivel up and it can work out just fine. Sadly there is no way to guarantee how it will behave. The best bet is to test the iron on a scrap of leather first and to use a press cloth. That way you're only ruining scrap.

Step 6: Fourth Piece and Test Fit

I sewed the fourth piece to the first 3 and trimmed the seam allowance down to a scant 1/8". After opening up the seams and smoothing them with a wooden spoon, I took out my arm form to test fit the pieces. The sleeve cap curved smoothly over the top and the elbow seemed to fit well, but it was a little too soon to tell. I needed to have more pieces attached and pull them all around the arm before I could really see what was going on.

When you can't pin into a form, it's a little tricky to test fit pieces. Of course I could have taped the pieces down, but I had already had unfortunate experiences with the tape pulling off chunks of leather when I tried to remove them. Holding them in place gave me an idea of how it fit, but there was no real way to tell until later.

Time to move on and cut some more pieces!

Step 7: Figuring Out Pieces 5-10

The remaining pieces of the sleeve needed a little work before I could cut them out of leather. The notches on the top pieces were all in good shape. I labeled the wrist pieces as #8, 9 and 10 and cut out pieces 5, 6 and 7. I trimmed the underarm seam allowance down to a scant 1/4" and got rid of it where I could.

The wrist pieces looked like they could get confusing, so I added a few notches before cutting them out. It looks like a lot of notches, right? As it turned out, I didn't add enough. After cutting out each piece, I checked to make sure that the edges and notches matched up. Then I decided which sections to put together first. I chose to start with pieces 5 and 6, then add 8, 9 and 10. I would add piece 7 last, since it was a solid piece extending from top to bottom. The plan was to sew this entire section to the first 4 pieces.

When you have a lot of pieces and they don't all fit together in easy, even segments, it's usually a good idea to deal with them bit by bit. Otherwise it can get overwhelming and messy. If you can, choose the ones that fit together smoothly and add them to other segments. It's a lot harder to sew choppy angles and points than it is to sew smooth lines.

Step 8: Pattern Truing and Pieces 5- 6

When I test fit the wrist pieces, piece 8 stopped a little bit short at the bottom. I redrew the bottom edge of piece 6 and trimmed off the excess. Then I checked out the notching one last time before choosing leather.

Piece 5 was leftover rock and roll scrap, 6 came from a chartreuse suede jacket, #8 was upholstery leather scrap, 9 used to be a pair of pants, 10 was more of the rock and roll leather and 7 was sofa scrap. I added 1/4" seam allowance around each piece and cut them out, then laid the pieces in sequence next to each other on the ironing board. That seemed like the best way to keep track of them.

I sewed pieces 5 and 6 together with a straight stitch, trimmed the seam allowance down to a scant 1/8 and fingernail pressed open the seam. Since the curve was a little complex I tested the sewn pieces against the leather to make sure they still fit. They did! I smoothed the seam out some more with my wooden spoon and got ready to move on to the next section.

Step 9: Pieces 8, 9 and 10

After sewing piece 8 to pieces 5 and 6, I trimmed and flattened the seam, and then gathered up the pattern pieces and put them in sequence. I wanted to make where all the wrist pieces went. I matched piece 9 to the notches on piece 8 and sewed them together, trimmed the seam down and flattened it out, and then did the same with piece 10.

I took some extra time smoothing out the seams with the spoon because the point on piece 9 was a little bulky and light blue leather of piece 8 was thick and its suede side was crumbly. After cleaning up the suede bits I was ready to move on.

Leathers can be finished in different ways. Fine garment weight leathers (the kind used for light pants and thin leather jackets) don't have a thick suede backside, but upholstery weight leathers generally do. Belt leather and the sides used for making saddles, wallets and embossed leather crafts have super thick suede backs. It's all a matter of how thinly the hides are shaved. Generally speaking, the thicker the leather, the stronger it is (and the harder it is to sew).

Since I'm using scrap to make Kali, I'm dealing with several different weights of leather. I make my choices based on how good the different leathers look together, how big the pieces are, where they will be on her body and how much handling they will need. The sides need sturdier leather because they get pulled on a lot. The middles don't get a lot of stress, so they can be made of thinner stuff.

Step 10: Putting It All Together

Before sewing any further, I pinned all the pattern pieces in sequence to a sheet of cardboard. I planned on using the pattern again for at least one of Kali's right arms, and I didn't want to lose it. Plus, that way I could easily tell how all the pieces fit together.

I sewed piece 7 to pieces 5,6,8,9 and 10 and trimmed the seam allowance down. This seam took extra time to smooth out with the wooden spoon because of all the joins. When that was ready, I pulled out pieces 1-4, matched up the edges and sewed them to pieces 5-10. This seam had to be re-sewn a couple of times. After I trimmed the seam allowance down, I realized that the stitches had skipped on some of the thickest joins, leaving a few gaping holes. I sewed those back up, clipped my threads and did my best with the wooden spoon to smooth everything out.

NOW I could really see how the leather fit the arm.

Step 11: Clipping 'Round the Arm

I took out the left arm form and a bunch of office clips and clipped the leather around the arm. It looked pretty good! Some of the seams were a little bulky looking, so I trimmed off some spots, but overall it was in great shape.The plan was to leave the leather on the arm and let it stretch out.

I put the arm form back on the mannequin torso to see how it looked. Of course, the office clips got in the way. The arm fits pretty close to the body and the armpit clips kept popping off. I replaced the top 3 clips with a safety pin and all was well.

Of course, now I realized that I didn't have many long pieces of leather scrap left.The pieces I had were fine, but they were short. I didn't want to spend all my time piecing things together, and I had many more arms to make. It was time for a trip to the thrift store!

Next time I'll show you how I break leather jackets, pants and skirts down to use as materials.