Saturday, November 8, 2014

Geeky purse tutorial: Make your own mini messenger-style cross-body bag.

I do a lot of shopping on, and one of the perks of being a customer there is that they often offer free samples of newly released fabrics.  Even better, they let you pick the design printed on the sample (they do all custom printing)...which resulted in me accumulating a growing pile of awesome 8" x 8" slips of fabric that I didn't know what to do with.

I've used the same purse since late high school.  A friend brought it back from Guatemala and gave it to me; it's small, with just the one main pocket, woven in brightly colored threads, and has a long cross-body strap that ties on one end to adjust the length.  It's simple, and I love it, and I haven't ever found anything worth replacing it with (I've hated every grown-up-looking purse I've every tried).  But it's over a decade old now, and the strap is unraveling and I've replaced the zipper more than once and the inside has become a giant tangle of threads that clings to pens and zipper pulls and bobby pins.

Cue brilliant idea!

Why not design my own purse?  And why not incorporate my geekiness into the design, using those fantastic fabric samples I've been collecting?  So I sat down and drew up my own pattern for a simple messenger-style cross-body purse.  I've since made three of them, and I love them.  I even made them in time to take to Dragon Con, and got a few compliments on them from random strangers, which is always nice. :-)

If you're comfortable drawing up your own pattern pieces, which gives you the flexibility to adjust the size, then this tutorial will be enough to walk you through the entire process of putting it together.  If you'd rather use my pattern, which is sized to perfectly accommodate Spoonflower's 8" x 8" samples, it can be purchased for $1.50 here.  The purchased pattern comes with detailed instructions (with color photos), but this tutorial includes more in-depth instructions for potentially problematic areas, recommendations on materials and techniques, and more (& bigger) full-color photos.  While you'd get the most out of purchasing and downloading the pattern and utilizing this tutorial, each is meant to be perfectly adequate to be used independent of the other.

You will need:
  • ~1/2 yard canvas (I recommend 9 oz. cotton duck; I've also used 7 oz.)
  • ~12" x 24" lining fabric*
  • 8" x 8" accent fabric*
  • All-purpose thread (for sewing lining)
  • Heavy duty thread (for sewing canvas)
  • (2) 1 1/2" D-rings
  • Magnetic snap closure
  • #100/16 needle (for denim/canvas)
*Another option would be use your accent fabric for the lining as well, or to do the entire outer purse (including flap) in canvas, and line the underside of the flap as well as the inside of the body.

Check your sewing machine manual for your machine's instructions or recommendations when sewing with canvas.  I'm only familiar with my machine, and while I'm fairly certain any machine would require a #100/16 needle and heavy duty thread for this project, I can't vouch for your machine's individual specifications.

Preliminary: Preparing fabrics.

Wash and iron your fabrics according to their care instructions, if desired.  I didn't; you can see fold lines in my canvas in the following pictures!  I didn't feel like messing with it, and I figured the lines would go away with use (they mostly have).

Step 1: Cutting.

Whether you draw up your own pattern or purchase mine and print them, cut out your pieces and lay them out on your fabrics.

First, pin pieces onto folded canvas (fold is at the bottom):

Pin pieces on canvas; that empty area on the left is for the strap pieces, which I traced by hand.  I've since added this piece to the PDF pattern, so it can be printed and pinned like the rest.

Cut your pieces out (shown still double-layered):

Next, pin the necessary pattern pieces to lining.  You can do this either folded or unfolded... long as you end up with these pieces, after cutting:

Last, pin your flap pattern piece to the accent fabric:


You'll end up with these:

Step 2: Sewing lining.

That long piece of lining is for the sides and bottom of the purse; the rectangles are the front and back pieces.  You'll begin by pinning one edge of the long piece to the short, long, and short sides of one of the rectangles (right sides together, if you are using a print or other non-reversible fabric).

Start with one of the rectangle's short sides:

Pin the corners like this:

In the end, it should look like this:

If the end of the long piece doesn't match up with the edge of the rectangle, then either your measurements are off (if you drew your own), or you'll need to go back and repin, taking greater care to match up the corners.

Once you've pinned all three sides, sew the two pieces together, using all-purpose thread and a standard needle.

The corners are the trickiest part.  You need to keep the fabric from shifting and keep the edges lined up as much as possible.

Here's my view as I approach my first corner, both pins removed, holding down the fold of the excess fabric toward the bottom edge:

Sew until you're about 1/4" from the edge:

With the needle down, raise the presser foot:

Flip the excess fabric so that, instead of being held flat along the bottom edge, it is held flat toward the side edge you've just sewn:

Flip away from bottom edge...

...and toward side edge.

Holding the excess fabric flat, turn the fabric pieces so that the presser foot is aimed along the bottom edge:

Lower the presser foot:

...and keep sewing.  Repeat the process with the second corner.

It should end up like this:

I used contrasting thread for this tutorial, so it would show up well in pictures.  Since the seams all end up hidden, you can't even tell what color thread I used once it's finished!

Pin the other long side of the sides/bottom piece to the second rectangle, starting again with a short side:

Pin along the long and other short side:

Sew.  The finished inside lining should look like this:

Step 3: Preparing to sew canvas.

Change out your needle, following your machine's instructions to replace the standard needle with one appropriate for canvas (#100/16).  Exchange your thread for heavy duty thread.

You'll probably need to adjust your thread tension.  Practice with a scrap of canvas until you find the correct tension:

Even on the highest setting, the underside of my stitching looks a little bit wonky.

Step 4: Sewing canvas body.

Pin the long bottom/sides piece to one of the rectangles, just like you did with the lining (right sides together):

Sew, using the same technique for the corners as detailed above.

Pin bottom/sides piece to the second rectangle:

Sew.  The finished canvas body should look like this:

Shown inside-out.

Step 5: Sewing strap attachments.

Along the long side of each strap attachment, fold fabric under for a hem and pin:

My canvas was reversible; if yours isn't, this is shown wrong side up.


Each hemmed will piece will look like this:

Top view; you can see my stitches are, as previously mentioned, a tad wonky...

Insert each strap attachment through a D-ring, wrong (hemmed) sides of canvas together:

Stitch through both layers of the folded strap attachment, as close to the D-ring as possible:

I recommend stitching back and forth over this line a few times:

The lighter the weight your canvas, the closer you will want to stitch to the D-ring.  The distance shown worked perfectly for my 9 oz. canvas, but on this particular purse, which was made with 7 oz. canvas, I should have raised the presser foot over the bottom of the D-ring so I could stitch closer--as it is, the ring sometimes turns sideways when I'm using the purse.

You'll end up with two of these:

Flip the canvas body right-side-out (so the seams are on the inside) and pin the finished strap attachments to the ends, D-ring hanging down toward the bottom of the purse body:

You can pin and sew one at a time, or pin both first and then sew.

Sew the strap attachments onto the body:

Step 6: Sewing flap.

Pin the accent fabric flap to the canvas flap, right sides together, leaving the back edge open:

Sew, leaving back edge open:

If desired, trim the corners before you flip it right-side-out:

Flip flap right-side-out:

Sew along all but the open back edge, about 1/4" from edges:

Step 7: Attach magnetic snap closure pieces.

I found a three-pack of these magnetic closure pieces in the purse-making aisle at my local Joann Fabrics:

Left piece will go on the flap; right piece will go on the purse body.

Disassemble the pieces, taking apart the front and back halves:

Use the little silver backing piece to mark your placement on the underside of your flap (tip: make sure the backing piece doesn't overlap with the stitching, or it won't fit on the inside):

I used a disappearing-ink fabric pen to mark where to cut slits, tracing those two lines on the backing piece:

Note: It's better to cut the holes too small, and have to force the prongs through, than to cut them too big, which will result in a loosely attached closure piece.

Set aside the silver backing piece, cut slits where you've just marked, and push the prongs of the flap's snap closure piece through those two slits in your fabric, from the outside to the inside:

Looking through the opening at the back edge, into the inside of the flap.

Slide the backing piece over the prongs:

Bend the prongs outward by hand:

My magnetic snap closure pieces came with no instructions, but I figured out through trial and error that bending the prongs outward makes the closure piece much more stable than bending them inward (which is what I did on my first purse).

Finished, it should look like this:

Placing the second closure piece is a little more complicated.  I placed it too high up on my first purse, which was made with lighter weight canvas, so unless the purse is completely full, the flap bunches a little above the snap, so I usually just let it hang free.  On my next purse, which was made with heavier weight canvas, I overcompensated, so the flap just barely reaches the snap if my purse is overfilled.  I think I got the placement just right on this third purse, though--but it may not be perfect for a different weight of canvas, or for a purse that's filled differently.

The two factors that should determine where to put the snap on the purse body are: 1) the weight of the canvas--it should go lower for lighter weight, or higher for heavier weight; and 2) how full you intend to keep your purse--it should go lower for an emptier purse, or higher for a purse packed full.

Use the silver backing piece to determine your desired placement:

Mark where to cut your slits:

Cut slits, push prongs of closure piece through your slits from the outside of the purse body to the inside, and secure with the silver backing piece:

Step 8: Attaching lining to canvas body.

Turn your lining inside out (seams on the inside):

With the canvas body also inside out (seam on the outside), insert the lining into the canvas body (right sides together, all seams showing).  Pin the sides and front together at the top edges, leaving the back edge open:

Sew, leaving back edge open:

Step 9: Attaching flap.

Flip your purse right-side-out (through the open back edge), so that all seams are now hidden:

Pin the back edge of the flap, with the right side (accent fabric) against the outside back of the canvas body, the back edge of the canvas body (the open edge):

Do not pin the flap to the lining--just to the canvas!  Leave the lining open:

Sew the flap onto the canvas body:

Fold the back edge of the lining under itself (like a hem) and pin along the seam you just sewed attaching the flap to the canvas body:

Sew the lining edge closed:

The seam will show on the back of the canvas body:

The finished purse body should look like this:

Step 10: Sewing strap.

Pin your strap pieces together, right sides together.  Trim one end to a point before pinning end:

(It doesn't matter which end.  Just pick one.)

Sew, leaving flat end (not the end you just trimmed to a point) open:

Sorry, the end I just told you to leave open didn't make it into the picture!

Flip the strap right-side-out, through the open end:

This step--flipping the strap right-side-out--is a royal pain.  Especially with a heavier weight took me over an hour to get the whole strap flipped with the 9 oz. canvas.  It's the necessary evil of this project, I guess...

You may need to use a stick or similar tool to press out the edges from the inside:

To to this, push the end of the stick all the way to the pointed end of the strap, bunching the fabric up as you go.  Then work from the pointed end all the way down, pressing the stitched edges against the end of the stick to force the edges out so that they'll lie flat:

It should look more like this when you're done:

Stitch 1/8"-3/16" from the edges, all the way around but leaving the flat end open:

This will make your strap lie flat:

Step 11: Attaching strap.

Determine on which side you'll be wearing your cross-body purse.  Tie the strap through the D-ring that will be toward your back, leaving enough excess (between the knot and the pointed end) that you will be able to adjust for a longer strap if necessary:

Go through the D-ring, from the outside toward the inside.

Fold over, from back to front.

Pull through.

Pull tight.

Next, insert the opposite end of the strap through the other (front) D-ring.  (Tip: If you don't want to untie that knot later, make sure your strap isn't twisted before inserting the flat end through the front D-ring.)  Hold the strap in place while you "wear" the purse to determine your desired strap length, pulling the necessary length of strap through the D-ring to adjust the length.  Trim the end of the strap (cut off as much as necessary--it may be only a little, or it may be several inches, depending on the width of the canvas you used and your height), leaving about an inch of length to be folded through the ring and sewn onto the strap to attach.  (For lighter weight canvas, you have the option of leaving a little more length and folding the end under again to hide fraying, as pictured below; you won't be able to sew through additional layers with heavier weight canvas, though.)

With the end of the strap inserted through the D-ring, fold the end back onto itself above the D-ring:

Optional: If using a lighter weight canvas, fold end under to hide fraying:

Pin in place:

Sew a single line across all layers of canvas:

(I recommend sewing over that single line a few times.)

Finished, it should look like this:

Step 12: Admire your work!

You're finished!  Take a moment to admire your work...maybe snap a few pictures:

This, by the way, is how I got the purse to hold its shape for the photo shoot:

Yay for Duplos--favorite toddler toy ever! :-)

Here are all three of the ones I made for myself:

My first attempt was this "Harry Potter" Ravenclaw-themed one:

I used 7 oz. cotton duck and this design for the flap.  I used 2" D-rings, which I found were too big, and placed the magnetic snap closure piece too high on the body.  Fortunately, this was the purse I expected to use the least, which is why I made it first, so I'd learn and improve for the next two!

My second project was this "Firefly"-themed one:

I used 9 oz. cotton duck and this design for the flap.  This one is my favorite!  The heavier weight canvas holds its shape much better than the 7 oz. (though it's harder to work with--especially flipping the strap right-side-out!), and this sample was of Spoonflower's faux suede.  It turned out perfectly!  Plus, I own no less than five six (I forgot one!) "Firefly" shirts, so it goes with about a third of my wardrobe... :-P

My third and final project was this "Doctor Who"-themed one, featured in this tutorial:

I used 7 oz. cotton duck and this design for the flap.  While I liked working with the 7 oz. canvas, it is a bit floppier when it isn't full.  Still, it's held up well (and goes great with my three "Doctor Who" shirts--what can I say, I like my shirts geeky!).

These are the perfect size for me.  They're not at all bulky, but they're big enough to fit everything I need.  The fullest I've packed them was definitely for Dragon Con, and I was able to pack: my wallet, a small camera, a pack of tissues, a protein bar, mini deodorant, travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, travel-sized bottle of lotion, a couple tampons, a pen, the DC pocket program, a small stack of business cards, various papers (including printouts of our schedules and a copy of the area map), my badge (when not in use), and on the first day, I also managed to fit one of the little ribbon tag blankets I sell on Etsy (I was hand-delivering it to a customer at the con) in there, too.  It was tight, but easy to keep organized, and I had no problems snapping it closed.  To put the size in terms of technology, it is the perfect size for my Kindle Fire; it's too small for my iPad 4, but I often carry my Kindle Touch around in it.  I tend to travel pretty light (when I'm on my own--my diaper bag, with two kids, is a different story!), so these purses actually feel rather roomy to me!

What fabric do you want to showcase if you make your own purse?  I'd love to see your finished project if you use my tutorial or pattern--link it in the comments! :-)


  1. Wow! I'm thoroughly impressed and now want to go use my sewing machine!

  2. Looooooove this idea! Thank you for your tutorial! This seems much easier than what I tried to make^^"

    1. You're welcome! :-) I still use these purses ALL the time and am considering making another with my latest fun fabric sample! :-)

  3. I recently found remnants of a blue and brown woven fabric that reminded me of the 10th Doctor and a TARDIS print cotton. I've been looking everywhere for a pattern that I could use both with and this is perfect! Now I want to make one for all my fandoms (I love your Firefly bag too). Thank you for the pattern <3

    1. Your fabric combo sounds amazing--Ten is my favorite! Thank YOU! Happy crafting! :-)