Thursday, July 16, 2020

Airplane Bag

Friends! This post is a two-fer today. Here follow both a tutorial and - in the spirit of healing amidst grief - a story about finding meaning. 

First, the grief story.

Let's backtrack a bit to Christmas 2019, when the kids, the husband and I were prepping for our trip to Singapore. With one or two exceptions when we'd just had newborns, we've made this trip annually, with a default itinerary: a three-hour layover in Tokyo on an otherwise direct flight between Minneapolis and Singapore. A few years ago however, the relocation of airline hubs and rerouted flights changed things up and each trip thereafter became an experiment of sorts - a balance of many factors beyond just the cost. In the process we discovered a new favorite route via Europe. The whole thing is almost 30 hours long, including a 9 hour layover in the Netherlands, but it's still superior to our least preferred route via the West Coast which includes a non-stop 17-hour leg, ungodly transit times and subpar food. More efficient, yes, but regrettably at the cost of everyone's sanity. 

It was always, always worth it, though, to spend time with family in Singapore, and to soak in the warmth after weeks of frigid winter. But it was also always, always a beautiful thing to return home to Minnesota and know that for the next eleven-and-half months, we could enjoy all the memories of those lovely sunny days and none of the actual commute. Then the next year would roll around and we'd do it all over again - because we love and miss our family and because we're actually really thankful (in spite of my grumbling) that we can get on an airplane and bridge those miles in a fraction of the time it would've taken our forebears via steamers and slowboats back in the day.

Summary: contrary to what motivational speakers may say, our trips to Singapore are absolutely all about the destination and not about the journey. After all, there is no escaping the fact that it's a very, very long flight, regardless of how humanely one has tried to break it up into shorter segments via Nicer Airports or transits at unghastly o'clock.

Now, the kids, bless their optimistic and adventurous souls, have gamely undertaken this trip since they were infants-in-arms (also in-utero, but that doesn't count). That is not to say we, as parents, didn't appreciate how tough this has been some years, so we introduced whatever we could to make the traveling a little less odious. When they were little, we'd pack gifts of toys, favorite treats and art supplies they could unwrap mid-flight. When they were old enough to manage their own entertainment, we'd hoard books and download music and new movies onto electronic devices. This past year, the girls were seasoned enough travelers that they researched packable jackets, travel pillows and blankets, headphones, and other things to aid in semi-decent sleep - if sleep were at all possible in relentlessly upright seats designed for people whose heads were at least a foot higher than the average adult, let alone wee ones. It was exciting for them to advocate for themselves and to pack their own carry-ons with items they knew from experience would be useful. And it was a break for me, after more than a decade of packing for four, to be able to focus on just myself.

It was then that I remembered something I'd always needed on a plane and wanted to get for the kids: a back-of-the-seat thingy to contain all the bits and bobs of the cabin experience: spectacles, water bottles, disinfecting wipe packets, headphones, half-eaten packs of snacks, phones and their associated cables and attachments - those random things you'd stuff in that unhygienic mesh pocket with the dog-eared magazines each time you had to stand up to use the bathroom. 

I googled possible retail solutions on amazon, and found instead things like this. Overly sophisticated and thus disappointing - all those multiple zippered pockets, while perfect for flat adult stuff like passports, were a somewhat restricted design for kids needing just one large receptacle in which to conveniently dump all their junk at a moment's notice.

I'd have to sew it, I realized with dawning horror. Which meant that before that, I'd have to design the blessed thing. Which, in any other year, is the story of my life, but in this year felt particularly out of my league.

I am bereaved, I moaned to the uncaring universe. Grief is not compatible with creativity! I don't have the emotional energy to read a ruler, let alone invoke geometry!    

All true. 

Yet a part of me desperately wanted it not to be true, wanted to create again, to find pleasure in the beauty of fabric and colors and a project-in-progress. I didn't know it at the time, but it would've been the perfect antidote to loss and death: birthing an idea into a new, vibrant thing I could see and touch and enjoy. 

It was a stretch, though, so I started small. I sewed drawstring bags to store the travel pillows and all the other travel paraphernalia the kids had been collecting. Which in itself was deeply satisfying in that I got to pull out my stash of ripstop nylon, cord stops and carabiners and custom-make pouches that magically compressed monstrously fluffy things into compact little sausages. All math and no design. Boringly utilitarian but safely methodical. A good first step, and one that loosened something inside me. Freedom, perhaps.

Then I began to remember what it was like to Make A New Thing. How to imagine a shape and the three-dimensional volume it occupied. What that would look like as a bag on the back of the seat in front of me and where it might hang in relation to my knees. How it could sag under weight and fall to one side or the other as it emptied. The sounds it might make in a quiet cabin, to the person seated a foot away. How efficiently it could be hooked on or off to allow that person its space  enroute to the aisle. Which parts would be ultimately visible and needed the nice fabric and which parts would be hidden under outer layers. Which sections needed to be sewn first and which last. What ratios of height-to-width and print-to-solid would look proportionate and aesthetically pleasing.

Designwise, the prototype was pretty close, I thought. But the heft of it was all wrong. I'd hoped to channel the spirit of a hammock or parachute: something almost insubstantial that surprised with its strength. The prototype had interfacing, and it was too thick, too in-your-face heavyweight, too much. 

So I made two more, without the interfacing. Much better. You might be able to see the difference below - the grey prototype in the middle is just that much bulkier.

But you probably want to see them in action. 

Two carabiners hook the bag onto that seat pocket, and the mouth of the bag falls open to access its contents.

There are three external pockets which I'll show you later, but the main compartment, which is the whole point of the design, holds a lot of stuff, even tossed higgledy-piggledy.

Magnetic snaps in the lining

rein things in a bit 

while still allowing easy access to the contents.

To store, just unhook the carabiners, roll it up and toss it into your carry-on.

Here are more pictures in better lighting.

Construction-wise, it's a simple bucket-style tote, with a flat back and curved front. The outer layer of the bag is solid duckcloth and home-dec accent fabric.

The lining is ripstop nylon which apart from being very lightweight and strong, is also easy to clean with a disinfecting wipe.  The bag opening gapes the way it does because of a strip of boning - it's the same concept as those nursing covers that hang from your neck and pull away from your body so you can peer at your baby underneath.

The accent panel in the front is an organizer of sorts with three - two on either side of its midline

and a zippered welt pocket on the front of the left chamber for particular precious items like jewelry and loose change. 

I included a hanging loop because the tray tables of some airlines have a plastic hook/latch which would allow you to suspend the bag at eye level as well as down by your knees.


The carabiners are removable so the bag can be washed. And also so that it can be sewn without the hardware pre-attached. And the strap holds the bag in a compact roll for storage.

When I finished the three bags, I gave them to the girls for Christmas and found myself unexpectedly weepy when they opened their packages. Were this a different year, this would've been when I'd call my Dad on the phone or FaceTime for a tell-all. Or when we'd arrived in Singapore and I got to recount my latest sewn inventions in person. We would've turned these bags inside out and dissected the construction. He'd have examined the fabric and hardware, produced his own collection of carabiners and we'd have brainstormed ways to improve the design or deduced other contexts in which to use a bag like this. It'd be a good bicycle basket, he'd have said, IF it were made of this-and-that material so as to stand up to rain, and IF it had this extra panel of anchors here from which to attach that number of additional carabiners and hooks so it could hold bags there

It was what we always did, both of us wildly animated - he with his stories of sports and pastimes and their associated bags and cases; I with my rants about the scarcity of good utility fabrics in the local craft stores of America. Our projects were quite different - he made cases for compound bows and darts and mandolins; I made morphing backpacks, wallets and handbags with a demented assortment of pockets - but it was a niche we shared, regardless. His ideas were ingenious and ambitious and I would always leave those conversations inspired, excited, heard. But now I couldn't, would probably not find anyone like him, whose mind - of all the sewing people I know - came closest to working the way mine does. Grief has a twisted sense of surprise, I've found. A year after losing Dad, I'd begun to feel a little like my old self again. It wasn't until I'd finished those three bags that I remembered what it felt like not to have him on the other side of a show-and-tell, my sounding board and staunch supporter of all things daring and bold.

So, with the children and husband as solemn witnesses, I bawled my eyes out beside our Christmas tree. And then we got on our plane and flew to Singapore anyway. For which I am so thankful, even though Dad wasn't there. Because after that the pandemic hit us all and no one got to fly anywhere for a long time, which made some of us stir-crazy and others downright miserable. And that, funnily enough, is grief in a nutshell, isn't it?

But back to this bag - Dad would've been amused by it, I think. And I thought I'd share it with you guys, too, because grief is also hope. Someday we will get on planes again and be able to travel to new lands and old friends and family. Someday it will occur to us once more that the world is a good place that's welcoming and exciting more than it is terrifying and unsafe. Someday we will plan a trip with our kids and get all giddy-headed about the novelty of traversing time zones and entire continents in a single day. It seems unthinkable now, but it will happen. Look forward and hope for it, friends.

And when that time comes, perhaps you might like a bag to hold all the kidphernalia on your plane. Or a minivan car seat. Or a bicycle. Or a school locker. Or a wheelchair. Or one of those foldable lawn seats. Or even the back of your sewing chair, like I used in my photoshoot. Which brings us to part two of this post: the tutorial (or, because it's after the fact, the deconstruction). Happy making.

First, download the templates and cutting plan for the Airplane Bag. 

As most of the pieces are rectangles, I didn't bother to trace them all out. Instead, each piece with its dimensions is listed in the cutting plan, along with instructions to cut it out of its respective fabric(s). The full list of materials (fabrics, notions, hardware) is also in the cutting plan. 

Remember that this is a deconstruction and not a real-time tutorial (here is an older post explaining the difference in more detail), so the actual step-by-steps are going to feel skimpier than usual, and instead of WIP-photos, there will be sketches and diagrams.

The Airplane Bag is made as two separate layers: 
  1. the outer bag, which has all the utility features (Organizer on the Front,  carabiner Anchors on the Back, Strap inserted into one side seam),  and
  2. the bag lining, which is featureless except for the (optional) magnetic snaps.
Each bag layer is constructed separately and then connected by a final seam around their opening. 

Because this was meant to be lightweight and non-bulky for packing on board an aircraft, I used thin fabrics that were also strong - duckcloth for the outer bag, ripstop nylon for the bag lining and quilting-cotton or home-dec accent fabric for the Organizer. With this combination of fabrics, there was no need for stabilizer or interfacing. The duckcloth, being of a good weight, provided strength and structure and the ripstop contributed practically no bulk and facilitated cleaning and disinfecting on board the airplane. Feel free to substitute other fabrics, but avoid using interfacing because of their added bulk (you'll notice it when you roll the bag up). 

A note about carabiners: there is a mind-boggling array of carabiners out there in different sizes, shapes, opening-styles (screw, gate, snap, etc) and prices. A helpful thing to remember is that there are such things as weight- (or load-) bearing carabiners which are used in sports like mountaineering and rock-climbing and suchlike. These are often listed along with the load they can bear and will cost a lot more because they are extremely strong. You don't need those kinds of carabiners for this project - look instead for the sort you can find at craft stores or Etsy or even Amazon, which are lightweight, relatively inexpensive and typically advertised in the same capacity as keychains. I used 3" (this is the external height) snap/gate carabiners for this bag, which I found in a pack of 10 on Amazon here.

STAGE 1: Make the Strap

Notes: The Strap wraps around the bag when it is rolled up for storage and portability. For simplicity, I used a length of thick grosgrain ribbon (a lightweight trim or webbing is a suitable alternative) but you can make your own with quilting cotton (again, avoid interfacing - absolutely unnecessary).

The exact width of the Strap is inconsequential. Pick whatever ribbon or trim you have on hand. I happened to have a 1.5" ribbon and 1.5"-wide hook and loop tape, so I used those. The length of the Strap and the positions of the hook and loop tape pieces are also inexact - they depend on the materials you used for the Bag. For instance, less bulky materials produce a tighter roll, for which you'll need a shorter Strap with the hook and loop fasteners placed closer together. You might even choose attach the Strap to the Bag without the hook-and-loop tape. When the Bag is completed, you can roll it up and determine the exact positions of the hook-and-loop tape to achieve a tight, snug roll before attaching them.

I used a length of 11-1/2" ribbon. This included 1/2" seam allowance (SA) at the end that inserts into the side of the Bag and 1/2" seam allowance at the other end that is folded over to prevent fraying.

The finished Strap, attached to the side of the completed bag, looks like this:

Let's begin.

At one end of the ribbon (this will be the free end of the Strap), fold 1/2" over to the wrong side (WS) of the ribbon and place the piece of hook tape on top, right up to the folded edge. With the folded SA sandwiched between the hook tape and the ribbon, sew around the edge of the hook tape to attach it to the Strap.

Flip the Strap over and sew on the piece of loop tape, so that the hook and loop tape are on opposite sides of the Strap, 

and the distance between the pieces is about 7-1/2".

Here is the Strap of the grey bag, on which the hook and loop tape is more visible. Note also that the Strap is attached to the left side of the grey bag,

while the Strap of the navy bag is attached on the right. Either orientation will work. Set aside the Strap. We'll attach it in a later step.

STAGE 2: Attach the carabiner Anchors

Note: Use grosgrain ribbon, trim or lightweight webbing whose width fits the internal dimensions of your carabiners. I used 2"-wide ribbon for my 3" carabiners.

Place the Outer Back piece right side (RS) up on your work surface in the "landscape" orientation i.e. the longer sides are horizontal and the shorter sides are vertical. For reference, this is what the completed Outer Back will look like, with both Anchors attached.

Cut two pieces of ribbon, each 2-1/2" wide. These are the Anchors. Fold 1/4" of each cut side to the WS of the ribbon.

Following the marks on the template, position one Anchor at one upper corner of the Outer Back piece, pushing the folded edges of the Anchor toward each other to create a bulging channel between them, as shown in the photo below. Sew a 1/4" wide rectangle of stitching on either side of the channel, concealing the folded edges of the ribbon within the seams in the process. This is one completed carabiner Anchor.

After the Bag is completed, we will slide the carabiner through the channel. 

Attach the second Anchor to the other upper corner of the Outer Back piece. Set the Outer Back piece aside.

STAGE 3: Make the Organizer

Note: The Organizer is simply a big external pocket that spans the entire width of the bag. In the photos, it is that outer overlay of accent fabric, 

which has been attached at both sides as well as along its midline. The stitched midline divides the large pocket into two chambers. The left half has an additional zippered welt pocket on the front. 

This is arguably the fiddliest part of the whole Bag, and entirely because of that zippered welt pocket. If you'd prefer an easier sew, omit the zipper completely and skip past this first diagram.

If you'd like to install the zipper, let's do that now. In the first diagram below are my measurements for the location of the welt opening as seen on the RS of the Outer Organizer piece. If you have a favorite method of making a zippered welt pocket, go for it. Otherwise, I have a couple tutorials here and here you might find useful. Note that contrary to the instructions in those linked tutorials, I didn't line this zippered welt pocket. Two reasons: I wanted to save time and effort because I was mass-producing these bags for my kids' own use, and I wanted as few fabric layers as possible. What an unlined pocket amounts to is this: I used only one piece of fabric (that's the "pocket facing" in the cutting plan) to face the welt opening, then sewed the zipper directly behind it, so the zipper tape is visible on the inside of the completed pocket. Workmanship-wise, this was a total fail, but it served its purpose with its minimal layers, so an overall win.  

Once the welt pocket is finished (or omitted!), line the big Organizer pocket itself. 

Place the RS of the Outer Organizer and Organizer Lining together, align all sides and sew their top edges together (be sure to account for the position of the welt pocket in determining which of the two long sides is the top edge).

Now bring the WS of the two layers together, press open the seam and edge-stitch on the RS through all layers. This is the top edge of the Organizer.

Baste the three remaining sides together.

Lay the Outer Front piece RS up on your work surface and place the Organizer RS up on it. Align the bottom edge and sides, then baste these three sides together.

Finally, sew (I sewed two rows of stitching about 1/8" apart) along the midline of the Organizer through all layers. This attaches the Organizer to the Outer Front along this midline, an effectively divides the Organizer into two separate pockets. 

The Outer Front of the Bag is completed. Set this aside.

STAGE 4: Assemble the Outer Bag

Note: For conciseness, I'll assume everyone knows to sew seams by placing RS of fabric pieces together etc. and omit those instructions in this assembly. Instead, the following sketches will guide you on the orientation of the various parts as they come together to make the outer bag. The construction sequence is that of the classic bucket-style tote (here is an explanation of that). Remember to snip-and-spread the SA of the Outer Front's lower edge when you attach that to the Outer Base. If you're unfamiliar with that concept, visit the tutorial at that link above. The snip-and-spread method of attaching a cylinder to a round base is more precise and when done correctly, produces none of the bunching-and-accidental-pleats that sometimes happen in other methods that try to "match" the SA of rounded edges to straight edges.

In this stage, we'll put together the outer bag from the four pieces
  • Outer Front (with Organizer)
  • Outer Back (with carabiner Anchors)
  • Outer Base
  • Strap
in this order:

attach the Outer Back to the Outer Front along their short sides, inserting the Strap into one of the side seams. The Outer Back and Front now form a loop (or a short, wide cylinder).

Remember that the Strap can be inserted into either side seam, as long as the side of the Strap with the loop tape lies toward the front of the bag, as shown.

attach the Outer Base to the bottom opening of the loop/cylinder, aligning the curved edge of the Outer Base with the Outer Front section and the straight edge of the Outer Base with the Outer Back section.

This is the completed outer bag. Set this aside.

STAGE 5: Attach the magnetic snaps (optional but recommended)

The magnetic snaps are attached along the midlines of the Front Lining and Back Lining pieces and 1.5" from the top edge of the fabric (i.e. 1" below the opening of the finished bag, as shown in the diagrams). Install these on the RS of the Front Lining and Back Lining pieces, respectively. Apart from the snaps, the lining layer has no other features. 

STAGE 6: Asssemble the Bag Lining

Follow the instructions in Stage 4 to assemble the Front Lining, Back Lining and Base Lining into the completed bag lining. Omit the Strap, which has already been inserted into the outer bag.

STAGE 7: Make the Hanging Loop (optional)

You'll need a piece of trim or thick grosgrain ribbon that's 1/2" wide and 3-1/2" long. Measure and mark 1" from either end. Fold in half the middle 1-1/2" portion and stitch those two layers together. This creates a narrower, double-thickness section. Set this aside.


A note about boning: there are many types of boning and unfortunately not all can be used to good effect in this bag. I use rigilene boning, which is bare polyester i.e. a plasticky-thing not enclosed in a fabric sheath. It's stiff enough to hold its shape in the curved opening of the bag (unlike, say, featherlite boning) but still minimalist so that the whole bag rolls tightly without resistance or bulk. This is what it looks like. I usually buy mine by-the-inch at JoAnn. It should also be easily available on Etsy or from other online sources without having to purchase an entire roll.

At the top opening of the outer bag, fold the 1/2" SA to the WS of the fabric and press. Along just the Outer Front piece unfold this SA and tuck the boning underneath it so that it curves outward to keep the outer bag open. Re-fold the SA to the WS and use small binder or Clover clips (paper clips can work, too!) to hold the boning in place under the folded SA.

At the top opening of the bag lining, fold the 1/2" SA to the WS and press (if using a fabric that can withstand heat; otherwise finger-press).  Along this folded edge, measure and mark the midpoint of the Back Lining piece - this is where you will attach the Hanging Loop.

Ensure both bag layers are RS out. Insert the bag lining into the outer bag so that their WS are together and those folded SA are sandwiched between the two layers.  Align the folded edges of their openings, matching their respective back pieces and their respective front pieces. On either side of the midpoint of the Back pieces, insert 1/2" of both ends of the Hanging Loop between the two bag layers and hold in place with pins or clips. 

Sew around the bag opening through all the layers to connect the two bags, stitching through the boning and the ends of the Hanging Loop.

Slide the carabiners into the Anchors.

The Airplane Bag is finished! 

Hang by the carabiners to use it,

or roll it (with carabiners still attached, yes) to store.


To wash, remove the carabiners, place the Airplane Bag it in a laundry bag, and toss it in the washing machine. I prefer to air-dry these bags but I'm sure they'll hold up in the dryer on the gentle cycle as well (ripstop nylon can withstand the heat).


  1. Thank you for this, and thank you for all of the tutorials, inspiration, and sharing over the years. I've been following this blog for so long and I just realized I've never thanked you properly. I am excited every time a new post shows up on my Reader, because I know you always have something valuable to say. So thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for the tutorial, it's an amazing idea and the bags are really gorgeous as well.

  3. I'm always so happy when I see a post from you. I have no plans or intention of flying anywhere right now but just sat and read your post intently. I love the detail and the engineering that go into your posts. I love how you feel this is a 'skimpier' post than you would like when it's infinitely more detailed than any other blogger would produce. And most of all I love how this shows the progress you have made through the tunnel of grief, we never quite leave it but the light at the end gets brighter and brighter We all travel at different speeds and that's ok.

  4. Thank you for sharing your cleverness for moving through the world physically. I have valued your tutorials and open-handed sharing of your knowledge for years on this blog, using your techniques to create my own items that carry all my baggage. I also want to thank you for articulating so well the messy morass of emotions losing a father creates. I lost mine when I was 7, but I recognize many of your feelings in my own heart, and am grateful to learn the differences in experience too.

  5. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful writing and the way you capture experiences and emotions.

    Your travel bag is brilliant. I wonder if I could make one for my friend who does have to fly next week. I don't have all the materials, but maybe I could hack it with what I have. Our closest JoAnn has become a casualty of Shelter in Place (plus hardly anyone crafts out here).

    The kids and I were meant to visit my parents this fall, and the entire family is meant to live in Oxford, England January through March of next year. The trip to my parents is out. I'm still hopeful that we get this virus under control enough for the Oxford trip (and a delayed visit to my parents) to work out. Or at least by summer 2021 so we can have our planned family reunion.

  6. This post made my eyes well up with tears and my heart with sympathy and love. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I love this! We are camping but as soon as I get back to my machine, I’ll work on these. Your Dad is surely smiling down on you. 😊

  8. Oo, these might be useful for the backseat of a car, too. I may have to try, because I'm pretty sure I've got everything in my stash already.

  9. Lorraine, I haven't been to your site in ages and I miss it! I, too, have such a relationship with my Dad and will ache like you when he is gone. I totally felt your words at missing that one-and-only understanding. And...yet again, you have amazed me at your sewing skills. This bag is also perfect for those pockets behind a seat in car that little arms can't always reach. Thank you for the laughs, the wit, and also the creative genius.

  10. You and your father had a special relationship. I'm sure he is very pleased with your creativity and ingenuity.

    This pattern is so timely! I adapted it for my current needs but do plan on following the instructions as written for airplane travel.

    Thank you so much for all your patterns.

  11. Thank you for this post! I imagine we would have a lot to talk about if we ever met - I go through these same thought processes and have had the same desire for an airline onboard pouch before - I can’t stand chasing things around and I definitely can’t stand the mesh pockets on the back of the seat in front. My solution thus far has been one of those roll up shopping bags that I tie up and put at my feet but I think your solution is much more elegant and useful! I shall give it a go. I loved your story about your dear Dad and his appreciation for your handwork and his shared love of the making. You have some wonderful memories there to keep him close.


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