Sunday, 7 November 2010

things I've learned about making bags

I am by no means a professional when it comes to making bags, and I'd encourage anyone who wants to get to that level to go and learn a thing or two from the bag lady herself, who blogs a lot of great tips, sells really detailed and instructive bag patterns and runs the occasional workshop. For the rest of you, the ones who aren't expecting schmick, but want to be able to make a bag that works, that doesn't fall apart or otherwise behave in ways you wish it didn't, here's a few things I've learned the long way round. There's also a few tutorials over there in my sidebar you might find helpful too.

It's easier to get a good finish if you keep your basic shapes simple. The further you go from the basic tube with a bottom concept the more variables there are to challenge your precision. Keep curves to a minimum and don't make them the centre piece. My favourite basic shape at the moment is a tube with a squarish oval base. I've varied the height and proportions of the base over time, but for ease of construction as well as overall polish this is my tried and true. It forms the basis for my shoulder bag pattern and fabric kit over at Ink and Spindle as well as several of my own handbags in recent years. I simple squared off base on a flap top messenger bag is also a good one, especially for kids.

Leather is the most durable material for making bags and despite what you may assume, it is quite feasible to sew leather on a regular garden variety sewing machine. But I can't say sewing leather is much fun. You can't use pins and you can't unpick which does create a certain pressure. For this reason I prefer using fabrics, but tend to sturdier ones - canvass, linen, hemp. I've also worked out that I am a serial monogamist when it comes to handbags and I tend to start thinking about a new one on pretty much an annual basis, less because the old has worn out than because I just get bored so longevity isn't my absolute criteria.
The outer fabric needs more durability and structure than the lining, but I like a solid lining too (nothing worse than losing stuff into space between outer and lining). Bitter experience has also taught me to think pretty carefully about how it will look after a bit of wear and tear. I will never again make a bag where the print features distinct areas of white for example. In fact very large scale prints while bold and appealing can be hard to work into a bag effectively, so you need to think very carefully before you cut out about where print features will end up and you may need extra fabric to ensure you can work around details.
I like lining that isn't too dark because it makes it easier to find things if you have a lot of stuff rattling around the bottom of your bag. I'm not stressed about a bit of grubbiness in there so my concerns about pale outers does not apply to pale inners. I also like a pattern that makes me smile when I look inside - a bit of cute or sweet or clever. I like my outers to be bold and interesting but also go with everything and stand up in a corporate as well as casual environment, but the inners can speak to my personal quirks.
I will also never again make up a bag without testing interfacing on the outer fabric first. I'll talk about interfacing more in a minute but since its the number one critical feature to good structure, a fabric that doesn't take interfacing well will always look crap. Ask me how I know that. A special mention here goes to the wonderful canvas fabrics you can get from Ikea. They look fantastic, they are inexpensive and sturdy but in my experience, they do not like stick. Washing might help, but either way if you can't get interfacing to stick solidly, uniformly and stand up to a bit of scrunching and pulling without bubbling, don't use it.

If you want a bag that looks like something more than a sack of fabric, whether its a stand up or a slouchy version, then I can't say it enough - interfacing, interfacing, interfacing. And not that cardboardy fused junk from spotlight. The first time I used a really good quality fabric interfacing was a revelation, it gives substance, strength, structure without taking away the fluidity and fabric characteristics of the outer.  And there's no need to stop at one either, combining the individual characteristics of different interfacings allows you to add the exact combination of stiffness, strength, softness, fluidity etc that you want. My latest bag has no less than four different kinds of interfacing and structure - an all over treatment with a medium weight iron on fabric, some stiffening with Vilene to make the bag stand up well, some wadding to add softness and protect my ipad and some template plastic in the base to make it super sturdy on the bottom.
 Make sure your interfacing is absolutely and completely attached - I use a pressing cloth so I can crank the heat right up and really press hard and then I leave the fabric until it is cold before I start moving it about. It goes without saying that you should press all your seams really well as you go too. Once the bag is complete you won't find pressing so easy since pockets and closures get in the way and you need to be very very sure you keep your iron well away from any plastic hardware or webbing straps you may be using. Yeah, ask me how I know about that one too. Oh and you put your structure on your outer, not your lining.
As a general rule I cut my interfacing to the exact size of my intended bag, iron it on to my fabric and then cut the fabric with seam allowances added. I think this helps me be more precise when I sew it up later. I use 1cm seam allowances and top stitch open any straight seams for strength but I don't bother finishing off seams unless the fabric is very fraying - in which case I would add a bit extra on the seam allowance and double stitch or overlock

When it comes to lined bags there seems to me to be two basic construction methods - making a single piece out of lining and outer that you then turn right side out through a hole in the lining, and the make an outer and inner as separate pieces and join them through top stitching. The former is a must if your opening has a curve (like this), but the latter allows you to use much firmer structure without needing to scrunch it all up to turn it out through a small hole. It's also easier to my way of thinking.

If you join everything using top stitching you can put pockets and so on in your lining and adjust it  knowing exactly where everything will be in the finished product. You can also use the join between inner and outer to place a flap to close the top of the bag if you want one, or even your straps (though I tend to sew my straps onto the outer as a separate exercise because I think for a larger bag carrying lots of stuff this hangs better). For the record I'm also a fan of top stitching as many of your seams as you can doing construction it adds strength and helps everything sit nice and flat.

You may have noticed I'm a real big fan of pockets and internal organisation. I love that a quick glance can tell me if I have all my critical things - an empty pocket alerts me to something that's missing.
I've played with this aspect of bag making and while each new bag seems to have more and more complicated add ons, I haven't yet gotten tired of a super organised system. This is absolutely a personal thing so if you want to go the pocket-o-rama route you really need to work out what stuff you always carry, how big everything is and your preferred balance between security and ease of access.

I don't like zip closures, or anything that requires two hands to open, but there are some things that can drop out when you bend over so I have a few pockets with simple press studs or elastic across the top. My latest discovery is the slot pocket - a slot opening in the lining with a pocket bag in the space between the inner and outer. This is what I did for the ipad and ipod pockets - and the former I added an extra layer of batting to both sides to keep it super snug. I don't add structure to any other pockets - they don't need much int eh way of strength and I don't want to add unnecessary weight. I also now add a length of cotton tape into the lining side seam with a swivel catch to hold my keys.
The placement of pockets is also important - if they are too close to the top and they carry much stuff they will pull even a firm structure down and prevent the bag from standing up on its own. You can see from the picture above (the lining after I have attached all the pockets but before I have sewn it up) that I tend to have most of mine finish close to the bottom, with a few critical and light ones near the top.

I am a fan of the webbing adjustable strap for my everyday handbags. I wear my bags messenger style most of the time but sometimes switch to shoulder bag style. Webbing can't be beat for ease of use and strength, and you can buy all the slides and loops in numerous styles for whatever width you want. Too easy. For softer bags (like the beach sling bag) I use an all in one outer and strap with a bit of interfacing for strength. I also like magnetic fasteners if I want a bag closure because they are easy to fit, strong and and can be opened and closed with one hand (though try not to have them too close to electronic equipment like phones and ipods/ipads since they can fritz the system).

I think that's it for my collected wisdom, such as it is. Do shoot questions through but I will answer them here in the post if I think they might be useful to others. If you want a personal answer just send me an email rather than leave a comment.


Catherine said...

thanks for such a detailed post - will definitely help when I get brave enough to start a "proper bag" (as opposed to a basic shopper...)

Lisa said...

What a great post! I love making bags and am always on the lookout for new hints and tips. One I wanted to share was born out of desperation for a softer finish for a less structured bag - up here in the country the range of interfacing/pellon etc is very poor, and (for me) I need to touch it before I buy it so internet shopping has not been an answer. I bought some cotton flannel and light iron on interfacing. I cut the flannel to the exact bag size, and the interfacing including seam allowance. I then attached the flannel to the bag by sandwiching the flannel between the interfacing and the bag outer fabric (wrong side of course). The edge of the interfacing attached to the bag outer and holds the flannel on. Then it's all sewn up as normal. I find this works especially well with softer bags made out of quilting cottons, such as sling style bags. Hope you don't mind me adding my 2 cents! I also wanted to second your point that you can (and should) use various interfacings etc within one bag. That is perhaps the single best thing I've ever learned about bag construction.

Tanya said...

Thanks Sooz, that's one I will refer back too. How did you go with "Her fearful symmetry"? I was pretty disappointed in Audrey's second novel, after the Time Travellers Wife which was a wonder, in my book!

Margaret @ Konstant Kaos said...

what a great post! Thankyou for taking the time to write it all down and blog about it!

flamehair said...

I had no idea how awesome woven iron-on interfacing was until I bought a Nicole M bag pattern. Now I use it all the time. And fusible wadding too actually.
Thanks for doing this post and putting in all the photos of the 'inner parts' of your bags. I love seeing how other people arrange their pockets (yeah, that sounds a bit weird doesn't it?) and get ideas for my pocket placements.

Stitching At Stone Cottage said...

a great post..thanks...but where do you store all those bags??

Tania said...

Blimey. I am too tired to string a sentence together, much less take in such a post in all its glorious detail. But I'll be back - oh, I'll be back, to read this again (and again) and then probably again for good measure. Starlet. Thanks.

Posie Patchwork said...

Awesome tips & great fabric choices on the ones you've made. I'd also add that when you're top stitching (visible stitching) fabrics with weaves (like gorgeous thick screen printed linens & upholstery types) straight stitch can look, well, not straight & neat, so i use a small zig zag stitch instead. Happy bag making, love Posie

kim at allconsuming said...

well that is just fucking intimidating. I mean, incredibly insightful and educational. But now I'm just scared. SCARED I tell you.

You know I love you.

Melbourne Vintage said...

You are a genius! Thanks for this. I also just passed the beautiful blogger award on to you but you deserve a real life one I reckon!

Nikki said...

Great post, Ms Sooz. Many, many thanks.

SewHum said...

Thanks for all of that
I would like to post this link on my blog... so I can find it again!!!
Well done.
I love all the ink & spindle fabric too!

.tonBouton. said...

Just discovered your blog :)
I'm in!

Helmi said...

Love all the bags, thanks for sharing.

Jo said...

I just found this post and wanted say how wonderful it is - I love making bags and there are so many great tips here. They will certainly make my bags better and more durable. Plus your bags are so beautiful and inspiring! So, thanks :-)

~ Wen ~ said...

thank you very much, I guess I am about to start sewing(bags), my mom bought a nice sewing machine and hasnt used it so I thought I could give good use to it and since I am a tote/bag/purse/backpack lover, why not make my own. all the best. Wen

Tab Bossenbroek said...

This is a wonderful post I was directed to by pinterest. I have been searching for the best way to line and give structure to a crocheted bag I'm working on. This gave me a few tips I didn't know or think of before. (I am a little worried though, as I won't be able to interface the outside fabric it will have to be the lining which I'm now afraid will screw it up.)

Dee said...

what a great article - thanks for sharing your accumulated wisdom. I laughed my way through the post because I could relate to what you were saying.

herosmum said...

I am newish to bag making but in a fit of 'have to do something to help' I made 24 basic soft bags for a local sale of work and they went down a bomb ! I was so pleased (and relieved) that I have now started to replace all my own bags with custom made colour co-ordinated bags to fit occasions. I love your blog and will keep referring back for more tips. I know what you mean about foul-ups too, I've had many many..many..Linda

Sruthi said...

Wonderful post. it was really helpful for me. thankyou...

Emma StavegÄrd said...

thank you for a very informative and helpful post, some things I hadn't thought of before! now you have me wondering about the different kinds of fusing (I mostly use vilene as I like sturdy bags) but will have to go through my fabric shop's stock next time =)