Just between you and me (and - given that this is a blog - the whole boundaryless internet, really), I think I'm nuts. I mean, I'm in Relaxed Mode right now, with Halloween and birthday party season finally over and no costumes to make and -for the most part - boycotting the Handmade Christmas Gifts For Own Family movement etc. And what do I do to relax? Write tutorial series(es), that's what. Remember last year? Just before Christmas, I did the tutorial series on adding lights to toys. Happy as a lark, writing about LEDs and Physics. The year before that, I did the Pockets Series. It's a bad habit, clearly, because I'm back at it again this year. Last week I did the two-parter on winter hat making. Which was really only a warm-up to this next tutorial series I'm about to introduce. More on that in a while, but just wanted to say that I am honestly perplexed at why I can't just "relax" like most regular folks, whatever "relax" means. Maybe I desperately need nutella again. Or a real beach, with real seawater at 26C (no, I refuse to measure tropical temperatures in Fahrenheit - it's just wrong).
So... I am very excited to introduce a new tutorial series!
I hope I'm not shooting myself in the foot by what I'm going to say next but I truly, truly believe that you should not have to buy a pattern or even follow a tutorial to make a bag. By that, I don't mean that bag patterns are useless. Afterall, the market is flooded with commercial bag patterns, isn't it? Everyone seems to be making bag patterns, and they all have one or more of the following features:
- Their beauty shots feature designer quilting cotton or designer home-dec fabric.
- Their name includes the word "tote" or "clutch".
- They are named after a woman e.g. "Jillian Clutch".
- Their name includes a descriptor promising ease or speed e.g. "5-minute Jillian Clutch".
- They make you feel as if, with them, you can make products that can pass off as professional enough to sell in a shop.
And so on.
Now, I myself make bag patterns (actually, only three). And I would love it if you all continued to buy my (three miserable) bag patterns. So, what sort of tomfoolery am I up to, setting you up like this?
Here's the thing: I feel almost depressed that folks feel they need to buy a pattern to make a standard tote bag. Especially beginner seamstresses. Right from the start of their exciting creative journey, they are fettered to the idea that they need someone else's patterns to sew even the simplest of projects. It's one thing to buy a commercial garment pattern to sew a dress with darts and curves but a bag is largely rectangular pieces of fabric to which more rectangles are attached. Anybody can do it. And anybody should be able to do it, without another person's pattern or instructions. Yes, anybody. Like my five-year-old preschooler and three-year-old toddler. Who both did it. It can't possibly get more anybody than that.
Obviously there is more to bag design than just geometric shapes and dimensions. For instance, there is the fabric, the color scheme, the texture, the multiple pockets, the way it slouches against your body or sits perkily on the ground beside a luncheon table. That's art. Bag pattern design, however, is Math. Like basic-elementary-school-geometry Math. I feel that when you fork out money for a bag pattern, it should be something that's unique and interesting i.e. have features that you've never seen before in other designs. Or involve new techniques that, upon mastery, add value to your current repertoire of sewing skills. Or maybe it does something exciting and magical, like morph into an elephant when you close the zipper. At the very least, it should transcend fashion and trend so that you can adapt it many times over to truly make it your own. But it should not be something you buy simply because you can't be bothered to visualize and draw out the templates yourself.
Everything I know about designing bag patterns and sewing bags was learnt by simply looking at bags. After looking at enough bags, your brain should start to form categories and sub-categories into which to group them: tote bags, flat tote bags, box tote bags, gusset bags, cylinder bags, and so on. Each of those categories has a standard method and sequence of construction. And every subsequent bag you see can then be analyzed into one of those categories and - voila! - you will instantly know how to make that bag.
If you draft clothing patterns from blocks (aka slopers) like I do, you might know what I mean. Every garment begins from the featureless basic block, which is then modified to create categories (e.g. a princess-line shift dress) and subcategories (e.g. a sleeveless, boat-neck princess-line shift dress) of garments with embellishments (e.g. a sleeveless, boat-neck princess-line shift dress with pin-pleats at the neckline and a scalloped hem with a back slit). Add to that some construction elements (e.g. full lining, invisible back zipper, french seams) and you have designed a dress pattern. It takes time, yes, but conceptually, it's that easy. All you had when you started were the body dimensions of the wearer and a broad understanding of the kinds of garments there are on the market. I've found that, ironically, one is actually freer to create one's own garment if one just knows how garments are categorized, than if one were working with a commercial pattern that is already a variation on a pre-selected subcategory. I think of it as cooking from raw ingredients to make a Bolognaise sauce - one has much more freedom to steer the flavor in a particular direction than if one were trying to adapt a bottle of Prego by adding more onions, or trying to mute the taste of garlic with extra wine. Provided, of course, one has foundational knowledge of how sauces, in general, are put together.
Bag making is exactly the same. When I design a bag, I begin with the dimensions of the finished bag - I want it to be a certain size for a particular purpose: to contain all my baby paraphernalia or swimming gear for all three children, or a pair of red- and white-wine bottles, for instance.
With those numbers, I mentally sift through different shapes that have those dimensions.
Then I pick one, and decide how that shape is made from individual flat pieces of fabric.
Then I calculate the sizes of those individual pieces of fabric that make up the shape.
Next, I sculpt its shape - round off its corners (how round?), maybe taper its opening (how slanty?).
And I fine-tune the dimensions of those flat pieces of fabric, manually re-measuring the parts that cannot be conveniently calculated.
To this I add the features I want it to have - straps (how many? How long? Attached? Detachable?); pockets (where? What kind? How large?); fasteners (buttons? Magnetic snaps? Buckles? Drawstring cord?); embellishments (ruffles? Pleats? Yoke? Purse feet? Piping?).
Finally, I choose the construction method: fully lined or unlined (french seams or serged seam allowances?), flat seams or externally bound seams, hole-in-the-lining or topstitched opening?
And there - I have designed a bag. Without even broaching fabric, interfacing or color scheme.
Just as with garments, all I had when I began were the dimensions of the finished bag and a broad understanding of the categories of bags (or geometric shapes of three-dimensional solids, if you will).
When my girls grow up and are bitten by the bagmaking bug, I hope that the thought of buying a pattern or looking for a tutorial never has to cross their minds. They should (provided they stayed awake in their Math classes) be able to design their own and thus freely turn it into whatever they want it to finally look like. This series, like everything else on this blog, is for them. But it is also for you, as an early Christmas present from me. I hope it changes the way you look at planning and design and gives you a good foundation and the confidence to say, "I can do it myself". Or, at the very least, open your eyes to what goes into making a bag pattern so that you can better appreciate the ones that are truly worth your money. May you keep buying the patterns you love and also enjoy learning to make some of your own. Here's to empowerment- see you soon for Chapter One!