Making a leather bag from scratch
There are so so many different ways to make leather bags, and depending on what you want the finished product to look like, you can go as simple or as complex as you want or as your tools allow. But all leather bags follow the same basic process in terms of steps you need to take or plan out to transform a flat piece of leather into a 3D bag.
I’ve been making bags for over 10 years, and I love the whole process from the spark of an idea to finessing the finishing touches of a bag. Like any other craft, bag making and leather work allows you to get lost in the flow of making. Creating something with your hands, whilst engaging your brain in solving a construction problem is all-encompassing and mindful. The leather bag making process can be broken down into several stages.
Come up with the leather bag design
Like with any creative process, you are striving to solve a problem. With bags it might be ‘what type of bag should I make if I want to be able to fit my laptop, a book and my swimming kit in it, yet be able to carry it in a hands free way whilst cycling?’ or ‘I’ve been given this beautiful cowhide of thick red leather, what type of bag will best showcase the thickness and stiffness of this leather?’. To solve this problem, a few steps are needed to get to the solution.
The problem you might be trying to solve might not just be practical. You’ll probably want to make a bag that totally conforms to your style, and shouts ‘ME!’. You’re far more likely to use it. I’ve made soooo many mistakes over the years when designing bags. I have quite a relaxed, pared-back style, and don’t like loads of embellishments on my clothes or accessories, but it took me a long time to realise that I should make bags that reflect my own personal style. This is so true if you are making bags for yourself, but I also think it applies if you’re designing and making for other people - it will make the bag far more true and genuine, and not like you’re ‘faking’ it!
Make a leather bag pattern
Unless you want to end up with a wonky bag, you really should make a bag pattern. This can be as basic or complex as your skill level will allow. Even a simple tote bag with just a front and a back piece requires a pattern so that when you come to cut out the leather, you’ll cut 2 identical front and back pieces that make sewing it up much easier. Marking things like where the straps will attach to the body or where the pocket will go will also save you time and stress later on.
Make a paper mock up of your bag
Since leather is pretty pricey, it’s a good idea to carefully plan out your bag and test out a prototype. You can do this by first making up a paper mock up of your bag. Once you’ve drafted your first pattern, you can tape the pieces of paper together (minus seam allowances) with masking tape to give yourself a better idea of what the 3D shape will look like. Consider questions like ‘is it too big?’, ‘how will it sit on my body?’, ‘does it fit all the things in that I want it to carry?’. This way you can easily change things like the dimensions by drafting another paper pattern before letting loose on the leather! As well as making adjustments to make your bag more practical and functional, this stage can give you a better idea of how the bag will look. ‘Do I like the proportions of this bag I’ve designed’, ‘is it aesthetically pleasing?’, ‘will I enjoy using it’, ‘is it me?!’
Make a leather prototype of your bag design
Before I cut into a lovely fresh cowhide, I’ll rummage through my scraps boxes or look for some leather I’ve had for ages, but don’t really love. Some parts of a fresh hide might have scars or blemishes together in a section that you wouldn’t want to include in your final bag - use those sections in your prototype. As I’m a total hater of waste (that cow was a living thing and we should respect every part of it and not chuck it in the bin!) I’ll often stitch bits together if I can’t find a piece big enough for my pattern piece. This is the bodger in me, obviously you wouldn’t do this if you’re designing for Chanel…!
Cut out and mark the leather and cut out lining if using
This is where things get real people. Time to fish out your tools. Carefully lay your pattern pieces on your ‘good’ leather, avoiding scars or weak sections that you don’t want to include in your bag. With a sharp blade, cut round your pattern. With your awl, make marks for any placement of straps or hardware. Take time here, the more accurate you are, the more symmetrical your bag’ll be.
Prep the leather if necessary (by skiving or glueing or finishing the edges)
This step is optional. You might not want or need to skive or glue your leather. Or you might not have the tools to bevel, paint and burnish your edges (or even know what those terms mean!) Just a quickie - skiving is when you shave some of the suede off the edges of the leather along the seam allowance to give less bulkly seams. Edge bevelling is when you trim a thin bit off the edge of your leather (usually veg tan leather) to make the edges more rounded. Painting your edges is when you apply dye or leather paint to the edges of the leather to match or contrast the colours of the edge with the rest of the skin. And burnishing an edge is when you polish the edges of your leather. These are traditional leatherworking stages. And ones that I tend to ignore since I find that over time, the oils from your hands and regular use will naturally bevel and burnish your leather.
Attach leather straps or handles and any hardware onto your leather bag
This step is much easier to do when you have flat pieces of leather than when your bag is already made up into a 3D shape. You can attach straps or closures or pockets when your bag is 3D but you might find yourself trying to awkwardly hammer in a rivet or fiddle around trying to stitch on pockets in tight spaces or corners. Doing it before you sew your bag up requires more planning, but is so much less of a faff.
Sew the leather bag together
Since sewing leather bags with a machine isn’t really possible, (although I did sew up bags using thin garment weight leather on my mum’s domestic machine back in the day), hand sewing is probably where you’ll be at if you’re new to leather bag making and leather craft. Both ways have their pros and cons and will give the finished piece a unique feel. You don’t need that many tools for hand sewing, but it takes a long time and is haaard on your hands! Leather sewing machines cost a pretty penny, but you’ll whip up bags in no time.
Enjoy using your bag and learn from your mistakes
Even when you’ve doggedly planned out your bag beforehand, you may make mistakes. Or you might wish you’d done things slightly differently. Welcome to the creative process! Practicing and making more and more iterations of your bag will make you into the master maker of that particular bag you’ve designed. And it’s only by using your bag day after day in real life that you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t work about it. Making your own leather bags should be fun. Yes, you’ll want to end up with a bag that you can use and that you can brag about to your friends (or secretly hope that passers by will ask you ‘where did you buy that bag?’) but it’s unlikely that you’ll get it totally right first or even fourth time round. I say enjoy the process, get lost in the flow and embrace the perfectly imperfect.