I’ve been meaning to try making leather earrings with my Silhouette machines for quite a while. I freely admit I’ve been coveting those worn by JoJo on Fixer Upper. I was attending a country wedding this past weekend so finally had the motivation to get it done. My son’s BFF was getting married in a barn (groom and his guys in boots and cowboy hats – you get the picture), so I just HAD to wear cowboy boots with my dress and needed great earrings to match.
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Let me say right off the bat I’m not the expert on this, but I can tell you who is. Cindy Pope is doing AMAZING things with tooling leather on her Curio. She’s also a metal clay artist. You can join her Facebook group here. This is just my “stick your toe in the water a bit” version.
I found some leather pieces on clearance at JoAnn’s a few months ago so decided to do my first attempts on that. I also got a cheap remnant bag at Hobby Lobby. That gave me some stiff leather and some softer pieces to try. Personally, I have loved the stiffer veg tan leather, but I’ll show you examples of several others as well. Silhouette (and other companies) have faux leather sheets, which are a nice option for more intricate cuts. You can even cut up old belts, purses, etc. The main thing to watch out for is the thickness of the leather. You need it to be able to fit under the silver roller bar and not interfere with the white rollers. That means a max of 2mm for Cameo 3, Portrait 2 and Curio, 1mm for all other machines.
Cutting leather is going to take some good blade strength and sharpness. And yes, it will dull the blade more quickly. Typically, you won’t be able to cut all the way through leather. If you have a Cameo 3, Portrait 2 or Curio, then I recommend the deep cut blade since those machines have that greater clearance area under the bar. You can use a regular blade on earlier Cameos or Portraits. The premium blade is made of a stronger metal so it’s a great choice on those machines.
This is a recommendation from Cindy Pope and it’s a great way to keep your mat clean while cutting leather. I’ll explain more in the instructions. You can find it at Joann’s here or on Amazon here. It’s great for extending the life of your mats.
Painter’s tape (optional)
Embossing machine and folder (optional)
On some sets, I just used interesting shapes and combinations with beads. But I also love the look I got by embossing my cut pieces in my Cuttlebug. You can also use leather stamps if you like.
Hole punch of some type
This can be as simple as a hammer and nail or weeding tool. I happened to have a tool for punching through metal so used that. Because we only need a tiny hole and the leather is thick, I don’t find I get a good cut on the machine for this.
Coloring agent (optional)
This is optional, but I find it really takes the earrings to a different level. Try to find something you already have on hand. I used both shoe polish and alcohol inks. You can use dyes meant specifically for leather like this one. And I’ve got some other ideas below.
Leather conditioner (optional)
If you like the natural look or your leather has more of a finished look already, you can skip this. I found that I had some on hand both in our shoe polish box and a care kit for our leather sofa. Look for a something like this or this.
Cotton rag or soft brush (for buffing)
Since you’re working with small pieces in tight places, I find it very helpful to have 2 pair.
Ear wires, jump rings, beads, etc. Again, I used just what I had in my craft room already.
I did my cutting with my Cameo 3 and Curio. Both worked great. The advantage with the Cameo is the larger cutting area. The advantage with the Curio is that you can unload the platform, check the cut, put it back in and cut in the exact same spot. A Portrait 2 would also work well because of the ability to cut thicker materials (higher bar clearance).
The Cameo 1 or 2 or Portrait 1 will work well with thinner leathers. I’ve got some tips below for making sure the mat can roll in and out smoothly.
I’m less confident that the Original QuiKutz or SD machines would work for this project. The motor isn’t as strong on those models. If you are using one of those machines, do some testing first with scraps or small pieces.
Step 1 – Create the design
I had a lot of fun playing with different designs. Here are a few I used:
- Texas Shapes by Deborah Stine – I made mine 1.5” tall
- 12 inch Doily Border Set Teardrop Edge by Samantha Walker – This is one of those times it pays to look at the pieces within a design and not just the full design itself. I ungrouped and released the compound path until I got the teardrop shape isolated. I made this one 2.5” tall.
- For this leaf shape I used my drawing tools to create my own design based on earrings I’ve seen. It ended up 3.25” tall.
Hint: Cut your design from paper first to check the size and shape.
- It’s unlikely that your blade will be able to cut all the way through thicker leathers (unless you have a Cameo 4 and a 3mm blade). On those, I finished the cut with my heavy-duty scissors.
- I’d also avoid intricate interior cuts with thick leather. I plan to experiment with more detailed cuts in the future, but my focus this time was on getting the hang of working with leather and testing the embossing.
- Keep in mind that you’ll need space for a small hole at the top to attach to the earring wires. You want the earring to dangle freely, but also want some space around the hole for stability.
HINT: Use some leather scraps to test how far from the edge you’ll need to place your hole.
- I mentioned that some of my leather I got on the clearance rack. The packages had apparently been kept near a window and we have pretty intense sun here in Utah, so portions of the leather were sunbleached. That means I needed to plan my cuts carefully so that each earring was either all one color, or each set matched. I also had some odd-shaped scrap pieces. Here’s where a PixScan mat is a wonderful tool. You can put the leather on the mat, take your photo and then open it as a PixScan image. You’ll be able to place your pieces quite accurately. For a detailed tutorial on using a PixScan mat, see this post.
Step 2 – Attach the leather to the mat
The fibers on the backside of the leather can leave a big mess on your mat.
So here’s a fantastic hint I got from Cindy Pope – use Protectofilm, which is a type of clear contact paper (see link in the materials list). Here’s what you do:
- Cut a piece the size of the sticky area on your mat.
- Remove the cover from your mat and put the NON-sticky side of the Protectofilm on the mat.
- Take the coversheet off the Protectofilm, exposing the sticky side. If your mat isn’t quite sticky enough to hold it down firmly, use some painter’s tape along the edges.
- Attach the leather to the mat just like you would with any other material.
The advantage here is that the Protectofilm is pretty cheap for a good-sized roll. When it gets gunked up with leather fibers, you can replace it with a new piece. This keeps your mat much cleaner so that it lasts longer. In fact, you can use this on all your mats, no matter what you’re cutting. Just be aware that if it’s something you’re cutting all the way through, you will likely cut through the Protectofilm as well.
What to watch for on thickness of the leather
Here’s where you need to watch to make sure your leather is not too thick to go under the silver bar or impede the white rollers on a Cameo or Portrait.
- Load your mat and roll it in and out a few times to check.
- If you hear a grinding sound like the mat is getting caught as it tries to roll in or out, your leather is too thick for your machine. You may just need to cut your pieces out of thick cardstock or thin chipboard, trace them and hand cut the earring pieces. Or buy some thinner leather.
- If you see the fat edge of the outer white roller (the part that grips the mat) lift up as it goes over the leather, you may get a wonky cut. Move the leather in from the sides of the mat so that that edge of the roller is on the mat only, not running over the leather.
- Cameo 1 owners: The rubber rollers in the middle of the silver roller bar could leave an indention along your leather. You may need to avoid placing your pieces in that area of the mat. Or make it a design feature ????.
- Really thick leather can get scored by the blade as it moves into position. Try this trick:
- Add a small square close to your first earring piece.
- Give it a fill or line color that’s different than that of your earring pieces.
- Cut by line or fill color and put the color of the square as the first in the order.
- Add a pause after the color of the square.
- Remove your blade before you send the job to cut.
- When the machine pauses after it “air cuts” the square, insert the blade and then resume cutting.
- If you’re doing several earring pieces on a single piece of leather, then you may want to add additional squares. You’ll need to fill each with a different color and have a pause both before and after.
Step 3 – Test cut
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 10,000 times – ALWAYS test cut!!!! There’s going to be quite a wide variety on leather, so you definitely need to check your settings before you try to cut an entire project. Taking a little bit of time here will save you time, $ and frustration in the long run. If you want to learn how to make smarter test cuts, see this post.
No one can tell you a magic setting that will work every time, but I can give you some hints. I’ve got a more detailed explanation of each of these in this post.
Probably 10-20 range. The default blade for Silhouette brand leatherette is 6. It’s fairly unlikely that the blade is going to cut all the way through on pieces of real leather.
I would definitely say 33. Any leather or leatherette is thick and needs a good deal of force. The Silhouette brand leatherette uses a force of 33.
Go with a 1. As a general rule of thumb, the thicker the material the slower the speed. Plus, you can cut too fast, but you can’t cut too slow. After you’ve done a few cuts, you can experiment to see if you can move it to a faster speed.
Somewhere between 4-8 times, depending on the design (although the default for Silhouette leatherette is 2). I like to make sure I’ve gotten as clean a cut as possible (no extra fibers uncut) and have a deep, consistent groove to follow when I need to finish the cut by hand.
Line Segment Overcut
If you don’t know what this is, check out the post linked above. It’s a total gamechanger setting! Typically, I set it at the default .1. But since leather is thicker, you’ll want to extend the extension. I go to a .2 or .3.
Step 4 – Send the job to the machine
Now’s the time to be brave and cut your pieces. I was SO scared to try it that I put it off for several months. But it ended up being way easier than I thought.
Be sure to check the cut before unloading. If your material is thin, you might be able to cut all the way through and you want to make sure it’s not just ALMOST enough.
Step 5 – Finish cutting by hand
I did my first experiments with a thick, stiff leather. That cut a deep groove but didn’t go all the way through, even with 8 passes on a blade of 20 and force of 33. Even my thinner leathers were still thicker than the depth of the blade could go.
That’s where the heavy-duty scissors come in. Bend your leather slightly to make sure your scissors are in the groove. Go slowly – it’s very easy to get out of the groove and mess up your shape. Try to keep the scissors in the leather and cut with nice long strokes. That minimizes any rough-looking cuts. If you’re doing a more intricate interior cut, then you may not be able to get scissors in there. An exacto blade is helpful there.
HINT: Don’t toss the background scraps. You can use them to test colors, finishes, embossing patterns, hole placement and technique, edge finishes, etc.
If your leather is stiff, you can clean up the edges with sandpaper or a file when your shape is cut out from the background. I found that with thinner leathers, they didn’t have enough body to stand up to that. The more I sanded, the more they flaked. If you’re experiencing that, you might want to check into using a product to seal the edges.
Step 6 – Emboss
This part is optional, but I LOVE it! It gives the leather texture really quickly. I used my Cuttlebug and embossing folders I already had. Here are some tips:
- Using a rag to SLIGHTLY dampen the leather can help the impression last longer (although I found I didn’t need to do this step). If you do, make sure the leather is completely dry before you begin Step 7.
- Watch out for the way you put the leather piece in the embossing folder so that the parts you want to be raised are raised instead of depressed. A quick check with a scrap of cardstock is a wise move.
- You can make the pattern symmetrical or not. I did and loved both. If you want them to be symmetrical, line them up carefully in the folder.
- You may have to crank your embosser hard, depending on the thickness of your leather. But don’t force it — you could break the machine or embossing plates. On one particularly thick piece, I sent it through the embosser without a folder first in order to flatten it some.
Here’s one pair embossed. Isn’t that cool?
I’ll be practicing and sharing some tooling techniques in the future, but needed a quick project this time. I’ll also try embossing and debossing with my Curio and let you know how that goes.
Step 7 – Add color and finish
There are several ways to add color and finish to your leather.
Keep it natural
Sometimes the leather is beautiful just the way it is. Here’s a pair I left natural.
If you like the color of your leather but want a sheen, put just leather conditioner on the piece. It will darken it just a bit but keep it looking natural. Let dry, then buff with a soft brush or cloth. That’s what I did with these.
I had to search quite a bit to find our shoe polish box. I mean, who really does that much any more? Pretty sure most of my experience with shoe polish was with the white bottled kind back in high school. If you don’t get that reference, then you might be too young…. (uh, ya, it was for my lovely white marching band shoes to pass inspection, that’s it). Let’s just say no sleepover was complete without some shoe polish and toilet paper.
Anywho…. I found the paste kind to work the best. Use a soft sponge on cloth to rub it on the leather. Give it a few minutes to dry. Then use a clean cloth or a really soft brush to buff it to a shine. It makes all the difference in the world!
I think I have every color ever manufactured. But since I seem to always make a total mess so I don’t use it often (even though I always love it when I do). After seeing the pics of a few pair I sent to my #1 fans (a.k.a., my sisters), one requested a pair of Texas ones in navy blue to go with the blinged out Dallas Cowboys jersey I was making her for her bday. Since I didn’t have blue shoe polish, I went searching in my craft room and found the alcohol inks. Perfect!
I put the alcohol ink on a piece of felt and pounced on the leather. This stuff is made to color things permanently, so do it like this or use gloves.
On another set, I used brown alcohol ink to get a deeper color on my leather. For a more worn look, I kept the color more mottled than solid. You can also use 2 similar colors to get a deeper, more interesting look.
Do a bit at a time and let the ink dry before going on. The colors are more intense when wet, so allowing it to dry helps you see the true saturation level. Because the ink soaks into the leather, it gives a very flat finish. I like to add a leather conditioner on top to give it a nice sheen. Here’s a look at a pair without the conditioner (left) and with (right). It’s just like oiling any leather – it brings it to life.
There are many other possibilities. Since you’re not washing earrings, the coloring doesn’t really have to be waterfast. You can try (always testing on scraps first, of course)—
- Plain household or cooking oil
- Baseball glove conditioner
- Stamping ink pads or reinkers
- Tea or coffee
- Any type of dye
Another cool option
Here’s one to try. Cut a small design from vinyl and apply it to the earring piece. Use the shoe polish or alcohol ink method to apply your color. The vinyl acts as a mask so that when you remove it, you see the shape as a different color.
What about the back?
Whether or not you color and condition the backs of your leather pieces is up to you. I like the contrast so I don’t.
Step 8 – Mark and make the hole(s)
The big idea here is to make sure your jump ring will fit through and be in a spot that the earring will have freedom of movement, yet not so close to the edge that it’s easily ripped through. This is where those scraps are helpful for testing. Mark on the back side.
If you’re making the popular leaf earrings, then you’ll need 2 holes. You definitely want to test this one on scraps first. Here’s one way to make those marks:
- Pinch the top together.
- Mark 1 side.
- Unfold and mark the other.
Once you’ve got your markings, punch the holes.
Step 9 –Assemble
You’re almost done! Just add the ear wires, beads, etc.
Here’s how to do the leaf ones with the fold at the top:
- Open the jump ring.
- Insert the jump ring through one hole from back to front.
- This is the trickiest part. Pinch the fold and put the same end of the jump ring through the second hole, from front to back this time. Practicing this is why I recommend doing it first with your scraps. You may need to adjust the distance between the holes, or how far the hole is from the edge of the earring.
- Add the ear wire.
- Close the jump ring on the top of the earring, making sure it’s vertical. This is what keeps the fold in place.
- Twist the ring so that the opening isn’t at the top. This is just to make sure the ear wire doesn’t slide out of the jump ring.
Once you get brave enough to start and get the hang of it, you’ll find you can make a pair pretty quickly. I made all these in 1 afternoon. I used several types of leather and coloring.
Here’s a close-up of the ones I wore for the wedding.
And just cuz I want to show off my handsome boys, here’s my full outfit. (Yes, my son’s boutonnière is made from a shotgun shell).
I’m thinking it’s already time to start my Christmas gifts!
Do you have any other ideas for coloring or enhancing the leather?