This article is a beginner’s guide to bag handles, purse handles and bag straps to help you find the right option for your handmade bags. It is written by Christine Down of Sew Lush bag patterns. Find her other bag making guides in our techniques section.
When it comes to handles you have two options, either make them yourself or buy commercial ones. These days there are so many brilliant commercial handles you are spoilt for choice: from leather and faux leather, wood and Lucite to metal chain. If you go for hand made fabric handles you can really get the professional look to your project with your choice of hardware and fittings. I find the offering of handles and hardware in bricks and mortar shops are quite limited but once you go online you have a huge selection to choose from. Etsy and Folksy are good places to start.
Handmade Bag Handles
There are a number of ways you can make handmade bag handles that look good. You can make handles that match or co-ordinate with your bag. You can use webbing or rope, cord or even things like beads threaded onto wire.
Fabric Bag Handles
Whatever fabric you choose for your handles you will need to interface it with some sort of stabiliser. Medium weight fusible is ideal for this job. Something like Vlieseline H250 is fine, but I sometimes use something called Vlieseline Fuse and Fold. It is actually for stiffening waistbands but it’s perfect for handles. I never make a tube and then try to turn it out. I always do the fold and fold method.
Iron the stabiliser to the wrong side of the fabric, fold the narrow edges towards the middle and then fold again. This will give you a handle of 2cm width (approximately 1 inch). Stitch down both sides and your handle is ready to have its’ hardware attached
You can also fold over the edges of one piece of stabilised fabric and do the same with another piece of stabilised fabric, place them wrong sides together and sew down both edges. This gives the handles interest and when done with the bag main fabric and lining they co-ordinate perfectly.
When I make a bigger bag I usually increase the amount of stabiliser. Handles take a lot of stress and if the weight increases, as in a big bag, they need to be strong enough to cope. I made a bag to carry the embroidery unit for my sewing machine. I wanted it to be a bit padded so I used polyester wadding in the bag and handles as well as fusible stabiliser. This gives a slightly squishy handle which is comfortable for carrying.
If you sandwich the handles between the two layers at the top of your bag like in the image below you don’t need to use any hardware.
You can also continue the side sections beyond the top of bag so that you have continuous or “grown on” handles as shown below.
Making bag handles and bag straps using hardware
There are loads of possibilities if you do use hardware. I will show you a few of the options below.
This is a very popular and easy method of joining a shoulder strap to a bag. The metal fittings on the strap are called lobster clips or snap hooks. They come in a variety of sizes, colours and shapes and are easy to join to a strap. They have a slot at the bottom of the clip that you thread your strap through and stitch into place.
To join the clips to the bag you also have a choice of hardware for the actual bag. D rings, round rings, square and oblong “rings”, metal eyelets, and other metal shapes.
Of these, eyelets are the scariest to do because you have to actually cut a hole in your practically finished bag! But if you go slowly and follow the instructions that come with eyelets you’ll be fine. You do need a very firm surface for cutting the hole, which uses a sharp metal shape and a hammer. I use a clean brick and put it on the floor and then I punch the hole out with the tool and the hammer.
I use the same system when joining the front and back of the eyelet together. Try it on a piece of scrap made up with the same fabric and interfacing as your project. These are the eyelets I use and I also use the tool supplied although you can buy more sophisticated tools for insertion.
You can also use the eyelets for handles that don’t use a metal clip just by knotting the handle through the hole.
The other way to attach handles that have a clip is to use metal frames with loops or rings. These frames come in different colours, sizes and shapes.
Ribbon bag handles
Ribbons are really not robust enough to use as handles on proper bags. But they make cute handles on gift bags, toys and novelties. They can also be threaded through the channel in the top of draw-string pouch or similar.
Webbing bag handles
These handles are easy to make and again the use of metal fittings can change the look and function of straps and handles and therefore the bag. Webbing comes in different thicknesses and compositions from all cotton to manmade fibre.
Although as a general rule I prefer to sew with natural fabrics, when I’m using webbing I go for manmade, usually nylon. It is strong, colourfast and looks good with the metal. You can seal the ends with a flame as long as you are careful.
Choose an appropriate thickness for the function of the bag. Thin webbing (shown in orange) isn’t suitable as a strap or handles. The cream coloured thicker webbing is a great choice for handles. You can use the fittings we’ve already discussed, and webbing straps are perfect for adjustable across-the-body bags, sports bags and weekenders. You will need a slider and anchor like these shown below.
How to make an adjustable bag strap
This is how you make an adjustable bag strap using the slider and an anchor. This method would also work with a fabric strap.
Thread the slider onto the webbing
Thread webbing through anchor (slider holder) from the front
Thread the webbing through the back of the slider under the central pin
Pin the end to the other strand of the webbing
Fold the end under and stitch into place. (If you are using synthetic webbing you can melt it with a flame. If the webbing is too thick to fold under you can also seal the end with glue like Gutermann HT2 or even clear nail varnish. Once dry, cover the end with narrow zigzag in the same colour as the webbing.) Make sure the slider can move freely.
You can change the look of webbing to make it better match your bag, or just for variety. Cut a straight piece of fabric twice as wide as the webbing. Apply the fusible interfacing to the fabric. Fold both sides to the centre and press. Place the fabric on top of the webbing. Stitch down both sides making sure to start at the same end both times. This will ensure the fabric is applied smoothly without puckers.
Wood and bamboo bag handles
There a few different types of handles that fall into this category. First let me introduce you to ordinary dowel. You can buy this from a hardware or DIY shop in different lengths. You will need to cut it to the length you need and you can leave it natural, stain it, wax it or paint it. It is great for boxy bags that can be used for craft, quilting, crochet and knitting. You can also get straight bamboo handles that can be substituted for dowel.
Of course both wood and bamboo come in loads of different shapes and can add interest and shape to your project. U-shaped handles have slots at the ends and only need a fabric tab to attach them.
The tab is made in the same way as fabric handles, the fold and fold method. Just make sure that you use medium or firm stabliser as these tabs take a lot of tension. For that reason I always triple stitch the tabs into place. (That is sewing three times over the top of the previous row of stitches).
Metal bag handles
Some frames for bags and purses come with a handle attached. This makes life easier and your project potentially quicker.
Other frames come with either loops on top of the frame or little hinged loops that can be pushed inside the bag to convert it to a clutch. The chains that are heavier and chunky are for heavier bags, obviously, and can be used alone or with a top handle. The smaller or lighter chains are suitable for occasional purses or evening bags. The good news is that you can get a whole host of chain handles in an abundance of colours. They just need to be clipped into the loops.
You can also use these chains on bags that don’t use frames. You need narrow tabs and small metal rings in a colour matching the chain. If I am making an evening type bag for myself I would add these rings and a chain because sometimes it is very handy to have a shoulder strap and your hands free.
Other shapes for metal include wristlet rings, oblongs and irregular shapes.
Some bags need a hand hold on the top of them because of the design. You can get some that are already made and are pretty strong, made of leather or faux leather, designed for projects like brief cases or leather bags. Think of a beautiful vintage Kelly bag.
Other kinds of top handles can be attached to a frame to make a vintage style handbag or sewn to the top of large vanity bag. Both of these handles were made in the now familiar fold and fold method. The red one then had metal clips attached to the ends to it could attach to the loops on the frame. The blue handle was sewn directly onto the top of the bag.
This next example is, strictly speaking, neither a handle nor on the top. But it’s close enough to be included in this section. This is an oblong cut into the top of the bag which then becomes the handhold.
Plastic Nylon and Lucite bag handles
These are shaped bag handles that come in colourful variety. Nylon is the trade name of a polyamide. Lucite is the name for an older type of plastic and plastic is a manmade substance that can be moulded. In reality all three are quite similar when applied to bag handles. They are often translucent and easy to work with. They come in shapes like U, circles and squares as well as other smooth, fluid shapes. These handles always remind me of summer and I like to pair them with brightly coloured cotton. Of course these also work well with knitted and crocheted bag bodies.
An added bonus is they are light and hardly add any extra weight to a bag. These types of handles can be made into almost any shape and can mimic things like bamboo, tortoiseshell and metal. So you could have a plastic frame with a plastic chain handle for example. All other bag hardware comes in plastic too so you can match up your handle to other things on your bag.
Leather and Faux Leather Bag Handles and Bag Straps
In order for an article or fabric to be called ‘leather’ it has to come from an animal. Usually cowhide but it could be sheep, goat or even something exotic like kangaroo. But any manmade fabric or article cannot call itself leather so we get terms like pleather, faux leather, leatherette and even synthetic leather or PU leather.
PU stands for polyurethane and it is made by coating a backing fabric such as cotton, polyester or even shredded leather with a flexible polymer and then treating it to look more like animal hide. I am not saying that one is superior to the other only that they different.
Faux leather does have some disadvantages when compared to real leather. Faux leather does not stretch, breathe or wear like leather. Faux leather is very durable; however, it does not develop the same lustre and patina over time as leather. Faux leather is not puncture or tear resistant like real leather.
On the other hand it is cheaper, stain resistant and tends not to fade in UV light. It comes in a myriad of colours and it’s easy to obtain in standard sizes. The colours are standard too, so it’s easy to consistently replicate bags made with it. It doesn’t crack and warp like leather but as I’ve said it doesn’t develop patina either. It’s easier to cut than real leather, you can even use your rotary cutter.
You can make your own bag handles from faux or real leather, either flat strap handles, or by wrapping some cord to give a tubular handle. I have made my own but to be fair they never really look quite as good as the pre-made ones. So now I buy them and they really do finish a bag giving it a professional look.
Premade bag handles whether real or faux usually come with their hardware attached, although you can buy flat strapping by length in different widths. All the previous styles discussed in this article are available in leather and faux leather.
Bag straps that have metal loops or hooks attach to your bag with a metal ring on a tab.
Some bag handles come with holes punched either in the ends of the handles or in the tabs attached to the handles. You stitch these directly onto the bag using strong matching thread. (I use heavy weight quilting thread). When I have sewn it on I force some Gutermann HT2 glue between the sewn section of the handle and the bag fabric.
These handles don’t just come in U shape for elbow or shoulder. You can also get wristlet straps, across the body straps and even back pack kits that have a real/faux leather base, straps and flap.
Finally, you don’t only have the choice of buying new premade bag handles or making them yourself. Check charity and vintage shops for fittings and handles including buying second hand bags and removing the fittings from them. Sometimes fittings can be in surprisingly good condition and the cost is much cheaper than new. Also check DIY shops for materials for handles. I have bought chain and other fittings that are meant for home repairs and turned them into functional handles.
Written by Christine Down.
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