Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Leather Tote Bag


I was in The Fabric Store the other week patting lots of gorgeous leathers wondering what I could buy to make myself a pair of sandals from. I had some birthday money to spend and had just received a shiny new sewing machine which I knew would handle sewing leather (more on that later!). I came across a half hide of this vibrant blue leather you see above and knew it was The One. When I unrolled it I realised I had enough to make multiple projects from it and so the idea was born to make myself a bag and a matching pair of shoes. Best. Idea. Ever.

I spoke in my last post Sewing after Konmari about how decluttering my life had lead me to refocus the way I sew. I was so overwhelmingly ready to tackle all the projects I'd put off as too hard. This clarity coupled with the fact that I recently started playing around with making my own leather sandals was what lead me to snap up this hide and face the fear of making my own leather bag.
I figured if I kept it as simple as possible, planned out all the details and made a mock up then I could achieve it. I'm assuming there are a few of you out there that want to do the same thing because I had quite a response to how I'd made it, what needles, thread, pattern etc so reader beware this will be quite an involved post.

I started by grabbing a few tote bags I had around the house and picking different elements from each of them. I discovered that I like tote bags with a square bottom to them with long and really sturdy straps. So that's where I started. I sketched out a plan with some measurements that worked for me and sewed a quick mock up in some scrap cotton to test the dimensions. I ended up with the following measurements.


I highly recommend making a pattern from your measurements from paper or cardboard to lay onto the leather for cutting. I measured this out really, really carefully with a ruler but still managed to cut it slightly wonky. It was easily fixed by straightening up the lines once I'd folded the piece on the dotted line but still, it's leather. Take the time. It's worth it. I used my rotary cutter on my cutting mat as normal and it cut straight through the leather no troubles.

Having the cutouts you see on the sides there meant I could have a square bottom to the bag without any bulk. If you're not sure how to sew this together you should google or pinterest sewing a square bottom bag. It's ridiculously easy. Trust me.




I sewed the side seams at a 1cm seam allowance but you could add more width to the pattern before starting if you want to give yourself some more allowance.

It's funny that I sewed up a small scrap of leather first and my machine refused to sew the leather with a leather needle in. However when I put the universal needle back in it was fine to sew through it. I had to change my tension to 9 to get the stitches nice and even but once I'd figured that out it was humming along nicely. And to be sure my test piece was 3 layers of leather to make sure it could sew bulk as well. I used regular thread for this and had no troubles.


Once the side seams were sewn together I turned the bag right side out and realised it would need a little help keeping those seams looking neat. The photo on the left above shows what the seams look like straight off the sewing machine. I turned it on itself again and got my hammer out. Life got you down? Hammer those seams! Bad day at work? Hammer those seams! Not enough time in your life to sew? Hammer those seams!! It's therapeutic.

Also top tip from Rosie at Artworker Projects - boil a kettle and hold the leather over the steam to make it more pliable before working with it - works a treat! Also I love that a hammer and kettle have snuck into my sewing tool arsenal. Best.

As you can see from the picture on the right above the whole bag looks nicer, cleaner and more professional once you've hammered those seams. Hammers are friends now.


I decided on 70cm long straps but spent a full week mulling over how best to construct and sew them. I knew I wanted to have two layers of leather which would be sewn together to make for a sturdier strap. What I didn't know was how to sew them without creating too much bulk. I toyed with stripping back the fleshy part of the leather to reduce bulk where the strap met the bag but this would still add weight to the strap when the bag lay open and I was fond of the bag being able to stand up by itself as much as the leather would allow. I knew I wanted a 3cm wide strap and so a 3cm long section of the strap would be nice to be sewn onto the bag to make a square I could sew an X into to make the whole thing neat. In the end I chose to cut piece 1 of the strap at 70cm and piece 2 of the strap at 76cm which would give me the spare 3cm at either end.


I took my time topstitching the straps and then neatening the edges with my rotary cutter afterwards. Once the straps were sewn together I butted piece 1 up against the edge of the bag and sewed piece 2 down. This was probably the most terrifying part of the whole thing- topstitching that had to be straight and perfect to create a square and then an X in the middle of it. I had to take breaks throughout this process so I didn't psych myself out.


I love the way the straps turned out. They sit flush with the top of the bag when being carried but fold over neatly when hanging open and don't pull the bag down with their weight. It's really satisfying.

And here's what the bag looks like on the inside.


I bought some products to seal the suede and keep the leather conditioned which I'm yet to apply to the bag. I've also left all the edges raw. I'll be buying some burnishing wax really soon seeing as I'll need it for this as well as any leather sandals I make in the future. But it'll be ok to use for a little while until I seal it properly. I just won't be taking it out in the rain in a hurry.



So that's the story of my leather tote bag. I had to cut this out of the half hide first to make sure I'd be able to get all the pieces out of it. The next project for this leather is to make a pair of matching sandals to go with the bag. I'm excited!


I made a mock up of a leather sandal the other week and learnt a lot so I'll be tweaking a few things about the pattern before attempting the sandals. Can't wait!

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