Once you’ve got your basic tools and equipment the next thing you need is fabric. There is a huge variety of fabric suitable for bags in every colour and pattern imaginable. Want a cute teddy motif on a pink or blue back ground for a nappy/diaper bag? You’re sure to be able to find it Or how about a clutch in sophisticated satin with a sheer netting overlay? No problem. It has been my experience that if I can think of it, someone has already made it – or something very like it. Let’s look at some of the choices available.
I love this fabric for bags because it so versatile and comes in so many designs and colours. It is quite hard wearing and easy to cut and sew. When matched with a soft interfacing it is perfect for frame purses and wallets, a firmer interfacing makes it suitable for handbag. You can make straps and handles from it with the addition of iron-on interfacing. If you are making a bag like a market bag it’s a good idea to wash, dry and iron the fabric before cutting out. That way you can wash the final bag with no problems.
For bags that are constructed in a way that prohibits washing you might consider not washing the fabric as the ‘dressing’ in the fabric is often an advantage. It keeps the fabric crisp. Finished bags in cotton fabric can be sprayed with a protective spray like Scotchguard to repel dirt and length the life of the bag. Quilting cotton is generally 112cm (44″-45″) wide, 100% cotton except for quilt backing which is much wider. Other cotton fabric may be a mix of cotton with another fibre, or wider as in the case of cotton sheeting, or a more dense weave. None of these things preclude it being used in bag making, you just need to know what you are using. Always check the label, or the fabric details if buying on line.
This makes great bags as it is generally hard wearing and can often be bought as off cuts. There is a vast array of types of furnishing fabric and you need to decide whether what you are buying is suitable for the bag you are making. If the fabric is heavily decorated, for example beaded or sequined, will it stand up to the use you want to put it to?
Does it fray easily? Will it go through your sewing machine once you’ve got a couple of layers together? Some furnishing fabric can be fragile or have surface decoration like faux embroidery which might make it a bad choice for an everyday bag but suitable for an occasional evening bag. The furnishing fabric I use most often is printed heavy weight cotton. Many modern designers do a range in this weight and it is perfect for handbags that get a lot of use. Use a jeans needle to ensure smooth sewing.
This was, traditionally, close-woven cotton or linen cloth with a coating of boiled linseed oil to make it waterproof. These days the linseed oil has been replaced with PVC giving a smooth, waterproof coating. For large bags like an overnighter or carry-on bag, to market bags and handbags, this versatile fabric is great for being long wearing and easy care. As long as you use a teflon foot and a sharp, 14/16 or jeans needle you shouldn’t have any problems. Don’t pin oilcloth in any area where it will be visible after the project is completed as the pins will leave tiny holes.
The little bulldog clips or Wonderclips are a really good alternative to pins for oilcloth. If you need to hold small parts, like a pocket, in place while you stitch try sticky tape. Any sticky residue can be removed with eucalyptus oil. Never iron directly onto the front of oilcloth. Try flattening out the cloth and leave it overnight. Store it rolled rather than folded. If it has really obvious folds that aren’t fixed by these means, iron it carefully on the back of the fabric keeping the iron moving. (Test on a small piece first.) Don’t confused oilcloth with plastic fabric. This is usually thinner than oilcloth and ‘cheaper’ looking. Inexpensive plastic tablecloths are made from this. You can make an equivalent to oilcloth by using an iron-on plastic coating on cotton fabric. I have tried a couple of different types of this but I have to say the result is never as good as the actual thing.
A lovely, strong fabric for all sorts of projects. Tweeds and tartans make very smart looking bags, and plain woollen fabric comes in loads of gorgeous rich colours. I think it works best with firm or heavy interfacing which makes the layers quick thick. Use a heavy needle, 16 or jeans, and a walking foot, if you have one, is quite useful. If you are using tartan allow enough fabric to match the pattern at the side seams.
Velvet, Velveteen and Cords
All these high pile fabrics are suitable and make particularly pretty frame bags and evening purses. I find cotton velvet easier to work with than synthetic or silk velvet. Remember to cut out your pattern so that the nap goes the same way on the front and back of the bag. Use a 14 or 16 needle. Satin lining gives a very luxurious finish with these fabrics. Corduroy is quite hard wearing so is a good choice for a messenger bag or even a nappy/diaper bag.
Plenty of other fabrics are appropriate for bags of all sorts given a little thought about interfacing, bag type and fittings. Glamour fabrics like silk, satin and the like make beautiful evening bags, denim makes a really sturdy, robust bag for frequent use and is a good choice for a ‘man’ bag. Canvas is ideal for a backpack. Keep in mind how any fabric will stand up to constant use and allocate more fragile fabric for occasional bags.
As a general rule I line my bags in cotton. It is strong enough for the pressure of holding the contents of a bag, it is easy to sew and can take zipped and slip pockets.
In between the outer fabric and the lining is the secret of a well-made bag – the interfacing. This layer adds weight, structure, shape and support to your bag. There are many different types of interfacing and here I am going to talk about the main types I use. You don’t need to buy loads of different types as you can achieve different results by layering interfacing, and using the same interfacing for different reasons. I will try to use a generic term for each type and then give brand name examples for clarity. However, some types of interfacing are called by different names in different countries. If you are unsure put the brand name example into your search engine and you should be able to work it out.
Fusible or Iron-on interfacing.
There are quite a few types of iron-on interfacing from light weight to heavy. The type you need depends on the result you want and the type of fabric you are looking to interface.
For purses and wallets, backing a pocket, making straps and handles, and general light weight interfacing I use medium or firm iron-on. Available in black and white, matt on one side and shiny on the other and non-woven. Cut it to the same pattern as the bag pieces and iron the shiny side down onto the wrong side of the fabric over a damp cloth. This gives a crisp finish. I use it on cotton, and lightweight wool.
Brand example: Vilene H250.
This is heavy weight fusible that has a tiny ‘honeycomb’ look rather than completely flat. It is sometimes called craft or pelmet weight. It can be used on cotton, wool, denim and furnishing weight fabrics. This interfacing offers great support and allows the project to hold its own shape. Great for shaping on basket-style bags, clutches, evening bags and anywhere where an extra firm finish is wanted. Apply according to the instructions that come with your product.
Brand example: Vilene Fusible Ultra Heavy.
Sew In Interfacings
Like the iron-on or fusible interfacings, sew-in interfacings come in various guises from lightweight and soft, to heavy weight and firm. You can attach these to your fabric with 505 spray or use pins or clips. For some patterns it’s easier to stitch the interfacing to the fabric in the seam allowance and treat as a single layer.
This is a soft light/medium non-woven interfacing available in black (or dark grey) and white. If you are using a fabric that you can’t apply fusible interfacing to like an embellished evening fabric, use this instead. It is also useful where you don’t want a crisp finish, but prefer a soft look like a gathered bag or a ‘puffy’ frame purse. It doesn’t give much body, so for a thicker effect I would use another interfacing as well.
Brand example: Vilene sew-in 2V310 or Vilene sew-in 2V312.
This gives a padded, soft feel to bags and is weighty enough to make the bags a bit more robust. You can use a low loft quilter’s fleece (batting) or even thin polyester batting. The sew-in fleece I use is Vilene Thermolam. It is a smooth, white, soft, needled fleece that lies flat behind cotton and other fabrics and is easy to sew. It adds structure without weight and is washable.
Brand example: Vilene Thermolam Compressed Fleece Sew-In White 2V272.
This is similar to the ultra firm fusible but obviously has no fusible side. I’ve used the pelmet weight for boxy bags and other bags where I want to maintain its shape, and for flaps and closures. Metal fittings don’t rip out of it so you can cut a small piece as backing behind magnetic snaps on cotton lining. It works with most fabric types from cotton to heavier fabrics. Always use a strong sharp needle.
Brand example: Vilene Extra Heavy Weight S80/240.
But there is another sew-in that is slightly heavier still. It does the same job but is even heavier and stiffer, but not hard or heavy. It can be challenging to work with but gives a really sturdy, robust result and is exactly what you want for big bags like weekenders.
Brand example: Timtex
In bags that have a flat base it is a good idea to add a firm bottom. Cardboard can give you the right amount of firmness but will fold and buckle over time and disintegrate when wet. A better alternative is plastic canvas grid. This is light weight and can be cut to size. Because it made of plastic it is more durable than cardboard and the grid makes adding bag feet a breeze. It is sold in craft shops, sewing shops and hobby shops.
Brand example: Darice plastic canvas.
These are the interfacings I use most often, but are only a sample of interfacings available. Try other interfacings and see what you like.
The next thing to think about is bag patterns. There are so many patterns to choose from, how do you know that the one you buy is going to be easy to follow and will help you make the bag you want? Commercial patterns generally give complete instructions for cutting and sewing your project along with pattern pieces in tissue. But the pictures are small sketches, not colour photos.
But these days they are not the only source. The internet has opened up a whole world of sewing crafters who write their own patterns and offer them for download. The best way of checking whether you will like the format and style of any designer is to check on their website and see if they have any free downloadable patterns.
You can then decide from the freebie whether they are understandable, have clear pictures and offer good advice. Another source of patterns is bag making books and sewing and craft magazines. Often these have the patterns included and give step by step instructions.
Having said all that, once you’ve made a few different bags you will see that many of the techniques and steps are the same from bag to bag. A bag may differ in shape or size but after mastering a few bag making design steps you can draft your own patterns quite easily.
You can find a list of independent bag pattern designers here.