Fixing up an old leather jacket: Part 1

Back in May, I promised to share my tutorial on reviving a thrifted leather jacket, the one seen in my Me-Made-May outfits here, here and here. Thought I’d better write it up while it’s still (somewhat) fresh in my mind…so here it is!

I found a fantastic leather jacket at Value Village for a reasonable $24.99. The leather was in great condition, it fit me well and the style was quite classic.

The only problem was the ripped lining and broken zipper. If I could fix it up, I’d have a jacket to wear for years, decades even.

Because the tutorial is so picture-heavy I’m splitting it into two parts. Part 1 will show you how to replace a jacket zipper, plus how to shorten a metal zipper. Part 2 will show you how to replace the lining in a coat.

Click on any of the images to enlarge them, if you’re following along!

What you’ll need:

  • old leather jacket
  • new zipper: measure the length of the jacket’s old zipper, and find the closest zipper. If you can’t find the exact length, go slightly longer. I used a metal zipper for durability.
  • new lining: measure the length of the body plus the length of the sleeve, to calculate how much lining to buy. Or, wait until you’ve removed the old lining, and either lay it out to calculate how much fabric you need, or take it to the store for more accurate fabric requirements.
  • thread
  • pliers
  • paper clips OR binder clips
  • leather foot for your sewing machine OR baby powder

Here’s what I did to fix it up:

First, I unpicked the old zipper. This works best if your seam ripper is fairly sharp – as mine was not!I started by unpicking on the top surface, and once I could pry the layers apart, I started ripping the stitches in between the layers, as shown in the second picture.Once that’s all done, remove the zipper from between the two layers.

You’ll end up with a little pocket of space, like a sandwich. That’s where you will insert the new zipper, sandwiched between the jacket front and the jacket facing. The picture below shows the pocket-like opening.

Next, take the old zipper and compare the length to your new zipper. If they’re exactly the same, you’re in luck! You get to skip the step of shortening the zipper.

If you’re like me and had to buy a slightly longer zipper, you’ll need to shorten it. First, figure out how much to shorten the zipper.

Then, remove the metal stoppers with pliers. These should come off fairly easily – you can see what they look like when they come off the zipper tape. Save these little bits, as you will add them back to the zipper once it’s shortened.

Then, remove the zipper teeth with pliers – carefully! (You’ll notice a band-aid appearing in my photos after this point – plier accident!)

It’s hard to explain exactly how to do this. It isn’t pretty or graceful, just grab hold of the zipper tape with one hand, and with your other hand, use the pliers to firmly grip the zipper tooth. Pull hard with the pliers, and yank the tape in the opposite direction, and the tooth will come out. (Is that correct? One zipper tooth, lots of zipper teeth?) The zipper tape will get a little mangled where the teeth have been removed, but that’s OK. It will be hidden in the jacket seam allowance.

Once you’ve removed all of the teeth necessary, reattach the zipper stoppers. Wrap them around the edge of the zipper tape where the teeth stop, and give them a squeeze with your pliers.

Now, we’ll insert our newly-shortened zipper into the jacket. Sandwich the zipper into the opening along centre front.

Secure the zipper in place with paper clips or binder clips. You won’t be able to use pins as the layers are too thick! And even if you could manage to jam a pin through all of the layers, the pins would leave holes in the leather.

Continue pinning with paper clips along the length of the zipper. At the top, tuck the tail end inside so it’s not visible.

Now, we’re going to stitch the zipper into the jacket. Ideally, I aimed to stitch exactly into the holes left from the previous stitching. Aimed is the key word, as once you get going, it’s hard to stop or even see what you’re doing. The best tip is to test on a swatch, to figure out the approximate stitch length that would match the existing holes.

Also, leather doesn’t slide smoothly under the presser foot, but rather sticks to the machine. If you don’t have a leather foot for your sewing machine, like I don’t, then we have to improvise. I wasn’t planning to sew a lot of leather in the future, so I didn’t invest in a leather foot. Instead…

sprinkle a light dusting of baby powder on your machine’s surface! I was hesitant to do this as I love my machine, and didn’t want to gum it up with baby powder. Don’t worry, it didn’t cause any damage. Plus, the powder is necessary for the leather to move as you stitch.

Slowly, and using the hand wheel if necessary, stitch in the groove of the previous stitching. Slow down over any thicker areas where there are multiple layers – like where the extra panel is, in the photo above.

Backstitch at both ends.

Repeat with the other side of the jacket and zipper using the same technique. Re-apply the baby powder if necessary – think of it like flouring your countertop when baking. When you’re done, I used one of those air-duster cans to clean out the leftover baby powder from my machine.

Dust off the baby powder from your jacket, and zip up the jacket! You’re done!

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, where I’ll show you how I re-lined the jacket.


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24 Responses to Fixing up an old leather jacket: Part 1

  1. Amanda S. June 25, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    Great tips! I would never have thought of paper clips, but that is a great idea. Finding a leather jacket at a thrift store has always been a dream of mine. Of course I need to actually go to a thrift store in order to find one…

    • Leonard May 8, 2012 at 12:29 am #

      I soil attempt to replace the tooth missing on either side.

      • Leonard May 8, 2012 at 12:32 am #

        I will attempt replacing the missing tooth on either side of the zipper first.

    • SPIGGY March 10, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      In England we call thrift stores a different name. They are called “Charity stores” and this tends to make the quality of items donated for sale very much higher than their equivalent in the US. ( I have extensive knowledge of these stores in both countries ).

      Indeed, in many wealthy parts of the UK it is difficult to realise that a store might even be a Charity store because the staff, the surroundings and the items for sale are on a par with a bona fide retail outlet. In the US I have only found this in a few thrift stores in New York city, where, as in England there are even some that specialise in high quality, designer brand or up market vintage clothing. An upmarket store of this type is well worth while visiting in either country, especially since some of their stock will be brand new with the original retailers labels still attached.

  2. Trudy Callan June 25, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Thank you for sharing this! Excellent tute. I didn’t know about the baby powder and paper clips before. Great tips!


  3. CGCouture June 25, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    Thanks for the tutorial! Now I’ll have to start trolling my local thrift store to see if I can find an awesome jacket like this. ;-)

  4. Darci June 25, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Great tutorial! I’ll never look at castoff leather jackets the same way again ‚Äì and am heading to Goodwill today! Can’t wait for Part 2.

  5. The Cupcake Goddess June 25, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Oh this is fantastic! Great tutorial and such great tips for working with leather! This is most definitely bookmarked! Thank you!

  6. Marie June 25, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    thanks for sharing. I will now be keeping my eyes peeled for clothes (esp a leather jacket) that I can fix up.

  7. ~Sherry~ June 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    Your leather jacket was a great score – love the colour and the style, and it fit’s you great – definitely worth restoring!

  8. Fourth Daughter June 26, 2010 at 6:09 pm #

    Great tips, I’ve just had to replace a zip in a me-remade item because I used something from a cheap Chinese place the first time… lesson learnt, will always buy brand-name zips from now on… removing the teeth to shorten the zip is a good idea, why did I not think of it? Instead I was working the excess length into the design of the garment as a decoration… will do a post to show what I mean when the project is finished.
    And leather – I’ve nearly finished sewing a jacket with leather trims, it has not been as tricky as I imagined but then the leather I was using was very thin. Again, will post when I’ve finished it.

  9. Tasia June 27, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Thanks everyone! I’m pretty pleased with the result although it was a labour-intensive project! I’m still writing up Part 2 but it’s coming soon…

  10. Angela June 29, 2010 at 4:53 am #

    Baby powder? Cool! I’ll have to keep that in mind when I try to work with leather. Thanks!

  11. Jane November 6, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    Great tutorial! I already have a great leather jacket that has had the zipper replaced professionally once. It needs a new one again! (Yes – I wear it that much.) A couple of follow questions: did you use a special needle and/or thread?

    Thanks for all the great posts!

  12. Tasia November 6, 2010 at 9:06 am #

    Hi Jane! I used special leather needles, I bought them at my local fabric store. Thread, I used regular all-purpose polyester because that was the best option to match the colour. Topstitching thread would be better if you can find a good colour match! My stitching is smaller and not as sturdy looking as the original jacket thread but it did the trick..
    Good luck with your jacket!

  13. Jp November 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Great info, but there’s one thing you should change:
    Rather than pulling zipper teeth off the tape, you can use a diagonal cutter and CUT the teeth, one by one, from the back.
    You have to pinch the narrow part of the tooth with the point of the cutters- sometimes it slips, but when you get them, the cutters will snap and the (now broken) tooth will fly off.
    This avoids the issue of possibly snagging, pulling, ripping that tape.

  14. Barb March 23, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Was asked to replace a zipper in a heavy leather jacket. Sure appreciated your tutorial! This one had a wide facing on one side and it was a struggle to match the top and bottom layers even with clips, but I did get it close enough that I think it will be OK. Zipper functions well, and it looks perfect from the outside :-)

  15. FredM September 21, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    I have a leather bomber jacke that needs a new zipper, but i have zero sewing skills. Any idea how much a professional who does this sort of thing would charge?

  16. jammit February 3, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I was doing a little random Google searching and got to this website. Be forewarned, I have absolutely no experience in sewing. The thing about adding baby powder seems to be a good idea, but I was thinking what if you sewed wax paper along with the leather you’re sewing? The paper sits between the leather and sewing machine, and can be ripped off after sewing.

  17. Jason C. December 22, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi, there! Nice tutorial on the leather jacket, with repairing/fixing the main zipper. I do have a question, in regards to something that I’m currently working on. I recently acquired a motorcycle jacket from my parents, and I love it but the sleeves are a little too long, though it fits nearly perfectly in ever other aspect. It does have zippers in each sleeve from mid-forearm to wrist…the problem with the sleeves being too long, and even when the zipper’s zipped closed, when my arms are at my sides, the sleeves nearly cover my hand. Is there an easy way to take out the zippers and reinstall them to make the sleeves fit tighter at the wrists, or to actually shorten them? Any help would be greatly appreciated. I’m pretty new to customizing anything clothing-wise and am open to any and all tips. Thanks for any help.

    • Tasia December 22, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

      Hi! There’s no real easy way to remove and reinstall zippers at the cuffs, and adjust the fit of the sleeve. Especially in leather. It would take a lot of work to do and it still might not look very good if you’re using a home sewing machine! My advice would be to decide if you can live with the sleeve length as is, or pass on the jacket. Sorry there isn’t a quick fix!

  18. Neill March 27, 2015 at 2:40 am #

    Just emailing to say thanks to your post, i know have fixed my the cuff zips on my 1960’s bike leather and its back in my wardrobe…

    I cannot believe I have not attempted this sooner (jackets been out of action for at least 6 years)…

    I had a slight problem with the paper clips catching as I pulled them off, however i think that was because they where too small.

    Thanks again…

  19. Ashley Reed June 11, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    I have an old leather jacket that my father gave me for my son. I want to fix it up before I give it to him. At first I wanted to try a DIY method, but I’l let the professionals deal with it. It’s such an old jacket, if I make one wrong stitch it could ruin the whole look.


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