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Takin’ it to the streets

July 30, 2015

Look at my swanky new project bags!  I do love a project bag.  I have several project bags of my own and have made quite a lot for other people using all kinds of sizes and shapes.  They're brilliant for just corralling your projects as you work on them, but also for taking your work on the go with you, whether you knit, crochet or stitch.

This very unprepossessing boxy zipped project bag is one that goes with me, whenever I'm on the move:

It was one of the very first I made using some decor weight gingham from my stash and it really helped me work out what kind of features I like in a project bag as well as showing me that this particular shape is absolutely my favourite for taking on the move.  The size and shape is perfect for sitting on your knee as you travel in a car (no, not while you're driving) or on a bus or train.  I tend to take crochet with me when I travel, just because I find it easier to pick up and put down, and I can just unzip this bag and work straight out of it, leaving my yarn and the worked part of my WiP inside where it's clean and safe.

When I was first encouraged to make a project bag of this type (thank you Leonor!), I was a little put off by what looks like a complicated construction, and more than a little put off by the kind of acrobatics you and your machine appear to be required to perform when it comes to sewing the side edges of the bag around the ends of the zip.  As regular readers of this blog will know, me and John, my basic entry level John Lewis sewing machine, have a rather emotional past when it comes to challenging sewing projects and I don't like to wind him up if I can avoid it, so I've become quite adept at finding workarounds that ensure a happy working environment for us both.  There was also a time when the idea of putting a zip into anything horrified me, but once conquered with the help of 'let's make this fun for John workarounds', I'll put zips into anything!

So if you'd really like to make a project bag for yourself but think that you can't because you're frightened of zips, horrified at the idea of making a complicated looking bag shape, don't think you can top stitch, or just don't have the best relationship with your sewing machine, read on and I'll talk us both through it 🙂

First, we need to choose our fabric and think about how we'll use it and whether it needs and help in the structure department.  My decor weight gingham bag isn't interlined at all.  I used one colour for the outer and another for the lining and found that the fabric was stiff enough to hold it's shape without any additional help.  However, as cotton fabric goes, it is quite stiff.  If you're planning on using a standard cotton print as most of us do these days, you're going to need to interface at least the outside of the bag, but it is super easy to do if you know what to buy and how to use it – which I'll explain.

My fabric choice for these bags was easy as soon as I saw Dashwood Studio's Street Life collection, I thought it'd be perfect for a travel project bag – it's always fun to theme your fabric with your subject and I love the cheerful colour palette of this collection:

I suggested to Dashwood that this would be a fun tutorial to share with others via their blog too and the lovely people there agreed and sent me a Street Life Fat Quarter (FQ) stack – hurrah!  Given that I was working from FQs, I decided that it would also be a good idea to slightly adjust my 'go to' project bag size and work out how to make a bag within the size restrictions of an FQ.  The finished dimensions of these bags are:

These designer type cottons are so lovely and soft but still have a bit of body that doesn't need a massive amount of help to make a bag of this shape and size.  I thought that it'd be interesting to try two different interfacing approaches using exactly the same weight and weave fabrics and see what difference this made to the end result. For my 'Cars' bag, I only added fusible fleece to the outer of the bag and for my 'Park' bag, I used the same fleece on the outer but also added some medium weight interface to the lining too, which definitely added more structure.  I added the medium interface to the handles of both bags too, just because it makes it stronger and avoids it getting all wrinkled up if you use it a lot to carry the bag.  Both these bags are still super soft though and you can easily squish them into another larger bag when you're on the move, if you need to.  I love the idea of a business woman commuting on the train to the City and working on her latest pair of knit socks out of one of these bags and then squishing it into her designer tote with her laptop as she pulls into Liverpool Street 🙂

On balance, I definitely prefer the end result of the Park bag – the shape looks so crisp, you could almost believe that it's stuffed to fill it out, though I promise you neither bag is, in any of these pictures.  There are a few more differences between them, which the sharp eyed among you may notice…  I made the pull tabs quite a bit wider on the Park bag and found that this worked much better and avoided the darn things accidently shifting about when I was sewing the slightly tricky side seams.  The handle is also half an inch longer and put on the right way up and the right side facing out, unlike the one on the Cars bag!  Yes, we all make mistakes 😮

The internal slip pocket doesn't quite work on either bag – it's too large on the Cars bag and I positioned it half an inch too low on the Park bag.  Practise makes perfect though – my next one will be awesome in every detail!

So you'll need just 3 FQs to make a bag and you will have leftovers – a lot of leftovers in the case of the third print that you'll use for the handle and other trimmings.  Here are the materials you're going to need to make one bag:

  • 3 co-ordinating FQs
  • Fusible fleece.  I use Vilene's Volume Fleece Interfacing (code reference H630)
  • Medium weight iron on interfacing.  Again, I like the Vilene one (code F220)
  • A 12 inch closed end zip.  I use YKK dress zips because they're great quality and come in lots of great colours
  • Sewing thread.  I use Gutermann Sew All thread for this kind of project – polyester threads are such good quality that you don't have to stick with cotton thread to sew cotton these days.  I've used two shades when making these bags – a plain white for the construction part of the sewing and a co-ordinated yellow shade for the decorative / top stitching parts
  • Quilters' tape – or you could use a bit of low tack masking tape if you don't have any of this handy.  Don't leave either kind of tape on fabric for long though – it can stain

As to tools and notions, you're going to need:

  • A sewing machine that sews in a straight line (or you could even hand sew, if you wanted to and had the time!), ideally with a walking foot and a quarter inch foot, but you can manage everything with a zig zag foot, if you need to
  • Pins and a hand sewing needle
  • Fabric scissors
  • A pencil and ruler
  • An iron and a pressing cloth (a man's white cotton handkerchief is ideal)
  • Some kind of thread to use for basting – any hand stitching thread will do

If you also have a cutting mat, rotary cutter, non-slip cutting rulers, a pair of stainless steel hemostats for turning out (you can find them on eBay – they will revolutionise your 'turning out' sewing life) and some Clover wonder clips, you will be super happy and make life much easier for yourself 🙂  I'm going to give measurements in inches only throughout this tutorial, because that's how me and my rulers roll but, you can convert anything you like using this handy dandy convertor, if you're fully metric.

Let's start with the fabrics.  Whichever fabrics you decide on, start by taking a good look at them.  You can stroke them if you like – you know you want to…  If you're embarrassed by the idea of stroking your fabrics, you might want to unfold them, smooth them with your hands and refold them a few times – it has the same effect whilst looking very business like and unemotional 😉  Does the print have a particular direction or a feature that you definitely want to use on the bag?  Now's the time to think about that and plan for it, before you get to cutting.  I'm really glad I took the time to think about how to cut this cute Michael Miller woodland print so that I could feature the fabulous foxes on this commissioned project bag, before I put my rotary cutter to it:

Next, iron your fabrics – it will make your sewing so much more straightforward and will ensure that your measurements are accurate as you cut out the pieces you need.  

It's now time to start cutting and we'll begin with the outer pieces for the bag (my directions that follow assume that you're just cutting your fabric in the most straightforward way and not doing any 'fancy' cutting of the printed pattern).  Lay out the FQ you've chosen for the outside of the bag on your cutting mat and get it straight – you can eyeball it against the printed grid background – don't assume that the selvedge is straight though – it isn't always.  Apologies for the quality of some of the tutorial photos – I took them all with my phone and the weather has been so overcast over the last week or so that I struggled to catch some good light!

Making sure that the top edge of the fabric is over the vertical '0' mark to the left of the mat, cut across the width at 9.5":

Then placing your freshly cut edge on the 0 line of your mat, straighten the other edge, as required:

Turning each piece the other way, make sure that the horizontal edges you just cut are sitting square on the horizontal guidelines on the mat and that the selvedge (that you'll cut off in the next step) is hanging over the vertical 0 mark on the mat, and cut to a width of 14":

Now put you're newly cut vertical edge on the 0 of the mat and trim off the selvedges at the 14" line:

Cut two pieces of fusible fleece to 13" wide by 8.5" high.  We're making these smaller so that we don't clutter up the seam allowances, or the area where we're going to put the zip, with unwanted extra bulk for your sewing machine to cope with.  Lay the fleece pieces onto the wrong side of the outer fabric pieces, making sure that the fabric is thread and lint free and that the fleece is glue side down onto the wrong side of the fabric (you can feel the nubbly texture of the glue with your fingers, if you aren't sure which the glue side is).  You can see that I've placed my fleece so that the top edge of the fabric where the zip goes is free of fleece by a good half inch:

Now, using your pressing cloth, which you've wet and wrung out well, and an iron set on 'wool' with no steam, fuse the fleece to the wrong side of your fabric.  If you're using the same fleece as me, you should hold the iron on it for 15 seconds at a time – don't 'iron' with it and move the iron around, just press one part at a time without applying pressure.  Once you're done, set these pieces aside to cool down and set a timer for 20 minutes so you know when it's safe to work with them.

While your outers are cooling, cut your lining pieces in exactly the same way and apply the medium interface, if using.  Again, you use the dampened pressing cloth on wool and no steam and, if you're using the same interface as me, press for 8 seconds at time.  Set these aside to cool – they'll also take 20 minutes before you can work with them again.

To make the simple slip pocket for the inside of the bag, grab one of the offcuts from the outer FQ and cut it down to 7" high by 6.5" wide.  Fold it right sides together across the height and pin it all around:

Now, using a quarter inch foot, seam it all around the 3 sides, leaving a small turning gap in the bottom seam.  Trim the corners to get rid of any fabric bulk and ensure clean angular corners when turned out:

Turn right side out, pushing the corners so that they're sharp and turning in the seam allowance at the opening – you won't need to sew this closed as you'll catch that when you sew it onto the lining fabric – just press it for now to make sure the edges are tidy and straight.

Put the pocket aside for now and we'll get to making up the handle, pull tabs and zip end covers using your 3rd fat quarter fabric.  First up, cut out the handle – it needs to be 7.5" long and 4.5" wide.  Make sure you think about the direction and orientation of any pattern on the fabric when measuring up:

Cut a matching piece of medium weight interfacing, fuse to it and set aside to cool for 20 minutes.  Now cut out 2 pull tabs at 4" wide and 4.5" long each:

The final pieces to cut are the zip end covers and you'll need 4 of those at 1.5" wide and 2" long.  You can just see in this picture that I would have been wiser to have cut mine the other way on this fabric print, but you don't see much of them on the finished bag, so not a huge deal.  Sometimes though, if you're using a print with the right scale, you can turn these little covers into a real feature by fussy cutting from your fabric and highlighting part of a print:

Before fitting the zip end covers to the zip, using a little tacking thread, stitch the top of the zip above the zip head closed (making sure you don't pull it too tight – it needs to stay flat and the little plastic stoppers need to stay aligned) to ensure that everything stays in place:

Now position two of the zip end covers over one end of the zip, with the right sides of the fabric facing the zip, and pin in place.  You can now immediately sew the covers on, but I personally prefer to add a few tacking stitches just over the plastic end of the zip and remove the pin.  This means that the work is nice and flat to sew on and that I know exactly where the plastic end of the zip is under the fabric, so I don't accidently sew over it and break my needle (have you ever done that?  It's only happened once to me and John and we both needed an hour off and a pot of tea to recover):

Sew the other 2 covers into place at the other end of the zip and then remove the tacking stitches.  Use your iron to go over the line of stitches you just made, before turning the covers right side out and pressing back, away from the zip:

Now increase your stitch length a bit and add a line of top stitching close to the fold and only over the zip section, to make everything tidy and run over that with the iron to set the stitches.  Now trim the fabric covers to the same width as the zip and it's ready to use:

Put the zip aside and take up the fabric pieces for the pull tabs.  These tabs need to be quite thin as we're going to position them over the zip ends where we ideally want to avoid any bulk for ease of sewing.  If you want to, you can omit these tabs entirely, but I find that they're really useful to have – using them to hold the bag taut while you work the zip avoids you pulling on the bag itself and creasing the main fabrics.

So, we're going to construct them by making little tubes that we'll turn out and top stitch.  To make each one, fold the piece of fabric across the width, right sides together, pin and stitch along the open side using a quarter inch seam:

Turn each piece right side out and press, making sure the seam you just made is nice and flat, before adding a little decorative top stitching 1/4" in on each side:

The handle should now be cooled down so we can work on that next.  Take it to the ironing board and fold and press in half lengthwise, wrong sides together:

Open it up again and press in a 3/8" seam on each side.  You're making these folds a little larger than 1/4" so that you can catch them securely when you top stitch at 1/4" in the next step:

Tucking in the edge seams you just made, refold in half again and pin, right sides out.  Take it to the sewing machine and make sure that if there is a 'right side' to your handle (think about how it's going to look on the finished bag – you ideally want the open, stitched edge to be facing down and the folded edge to be the one you look at) you're top stitching on the right side, and stitch the open side closed:

Then repeat the line of stitching on the folded edge for pettinesses sake.  You can see here that my printed trees on the fabric are the right way up on the top stitched side, and the seam of the handle is at the bottom:

Now we can attach the pocket to the lining piece.  We're going to attach this to the side of the bag that will be facing you when you open the zip, so keep this in mind when you're positioning the pocket onto the lining – make sure everything is the right way up!  You're going to want the open part of the pocket to be positioned 3" down from the top edge of the lining and centred into the middle of the width, so first of all, find the centre of the lining piece by folding it in half and making two little creases:

Now fold the pocket in half, right sides facing, and position the folded side against the centre line fold so you know the centre of the pocket will be at the vertical centre of the lining.  Measure down to 3" (not 3.5" as I've done in the photo here – remember that I took my pocket too far down!):

Pin and top stitch into place close to the edge of the pocket:

Snip off the threads, leaving a long tail at both the start and the end, then thread each end of the topstitch threads onto a hand stitching needle and stitch over the top ends of the pocket several times to make sure it is well attached and strong where it will have more stress:

Take the thread to the back of the work when you're finished and tie the two ends together to secure it, which avoids messy thread ends on the good side.  I like to do a simple loop knot and then follow it with a quilter's or surgeons knot, but tie it however you prefer:

That's all the 'bitty' jobs out of the way and we can now get to actually sewing the bag together!  Take one of your outer pieces and lay it right side up on the table.  Now lay the zip onto the top edge of the fabric with the zip head to the left hand side, facing down.  Clip into place:

Take the lining piece without the pocket and making sure that the top of the print (if it has one, as this one has) is at the top, and that the edges of it line up with the edges of the outer piece underneath, lay the top edge over the zip and clip into place:

For those who are very confident machine stitchers, you can probably skip this next part, but if you like your sewing to go super smoothly as I do, you might now want to take your tacking thread and a hand sewing needle and tack all three layers of the outer, the zip and the lining together along the very top edge:

Now make a mark using a pencil half an inch in from the edge at either side – you won't be sewing beyond this point:

I then like to mark my quarter inch sewing line from the top edge with a pencil and use my walking foot with the needle set to the left to stitch the zip into place:

You'll want to move the zip head out of the way before you start stitching and then move it back, once you're past that point:

I do sometimes find that I have to stop and start sewing because my walking foot is too chunky to pull the zip head past after sewing the first bit, but I still prefer that to changing to a zip foot.  If you're not used to sewing zips, do go slowly and keep adjusting the fabric as you feed it through to make sure it is all flat and even.  If you're not happy with how it looks, better to stop, unpick and fix it.  You shouldn't have any problems if you're using a walking foot, but if you use a zip foot or regular zig zag foot, it might take you a bit of fiddling to get the machine tension just right and avoid any skipping, bunching or creasing.  I swear that finding the right machine needle for the fabric on every project and buying a walking foot changed my sewing life!

Remove your tacking stitches if you used them and press the outer and the lining back away from the zip so that each part sits crisply back from the zip fabric with a nice clean fold.  I admit that I sometimes go out walking in the local woods without ironing the t-shirt I'm wearing, but I will never skip any ironing job on a sewing project – oh no!

We'll now add the other side of the bag to the other side of the zip.  Lay your second outer down onto the table, right side facing up.  Lay your 1st part of the bag that you just completed on top of this with the lining side facing up, and with the zip head over on the right side this time, and clip into place:

Lay the lining piece with the pocket on top of this, right side down – make sure you've got the top edge of this lining piece over the zip and that your pocket is the right way up, with the open side looking up to the zip edge:

Tack into place, mark the half inch 'don't sew beyond here' marks on either side and stitch into place, moving the zip head out of the way near the end, as you did at the beginning with the first side.  Remove your tacking stitches and press back from the zip on this second side too – here's how it looks on the inside / lining side:

And the outers:

The last step for the zip is top stitching it into place and, again, I use my walking foot for this with the needle set to the left, but we need to do a couple of other things first to ensure a good finish.  Making sure that your outer and inner pieces are nice and smooth and sit crisply back from the zip, pin them together on both sides about 4 inches down from the zip.  This will make sure that nothing moves about or gets creased when you're top stitching:

Then, use a little tape (I use quilters 1/4" tape) to mark where your half inch 'don't sew beyond this point' marks are.  This might seem like a pain, but you will be very glad you did it when it comes to sewing the edge seams!

Lengthen your stitch and using your walking foot as a guide on the edge of the fabric where it meets the zip, top stitch both sides from the start to stop marks and leave a long tail of threads at the start and end of each line of stitching:

Remove the pins and tape and take the ends of your top threads through to the back where you can tie them off as we did before with the pocket piece on the lining:

Give your top stitching a press to set it and trim off any excess from the zip end covers on each side:

Next we need to get our pull tabs into place.  Take a tab, fold it in half lengthways and place it right side down on the zip, with the fold facing in.  Pin it in place and add a few tacking stitches to keep it there so you can lose the pin (avoiding bulk again!).  Position the other tab at the other side, in exactly the same way:

Now we need to seam the bottom edges of the outers and the linings, so turn everything around and pin the outers and linings together so that the zip is in the middle and wrong sides of the outers and linings are facing outwards:

Seam the outer parts together using a quarter inch seam, and the linings using a half inch seam (we want the lining to be a bit smaller than the outer so that it fits tidily into the bag).  When you sew the lining seam, leave an opening of 3 to 4 inches that we'll use to turn everything out through later on.  Open up both of the seams and press them open with the tip of your iron, making sure that you cover the fleece and interface with your pressing cloth so that you don't mess up your iron:

Now we're ready to deal with the side edges but first, half open your zip for turning later (very important step!).  Now you need to arrange the pieces so that you make a sandwich of the zip – this is where the bag starts to take on the boxy shape and it's much easier to show you how it looks than tell you but the order from the bottom up is: outer bottom seam, outer zip, lining zip, lining bottom seam:

Let's work on the outer part first.  Bring the edges together and pin them so they don't move about.  Then clip the lining parts of the bag out of the way and mark a half inch seam line on the outer sections:

This is how it looks from above when you've prepared both sides:

Now, using your walking foot with the needle set to the left, sew along the seam line from one side to the other going over the centre section where the zip ends and the pull tabs are a couple of times, to make sure they're well secured.  You don't need to back stitch this seam at the start or the end because we're going to be cutting through it shortly.  Repeat this half inch seam on the other side of the outer pieces.

The lining parts are next and we're going to deal with those in exactly the same way as the outers, but this time, mark and stitch a quarter inch seam.  Again, you need to go over the zip in the centre and this is why we went to the trouble of marking that half inch 'don't sew past here'  when we inserted the zip – this makes sure that you have room to fold back the outer and stitch your seam on these edges.  Told you it was worth it!  This was also why we added the zip end covers to the zip and cut the fleece for the outer that bit smaller – all these things make sewing this seam much easier than it would be otherwise – it is definitely the fiddliest bit of the construction, but the workarounds make it doable 🙂

Once all four of your side seams are sewn, this is how the sandwich looks from one side (thanks to my glamorous tabby assistants):

Now you can mark up and cut out the corners that we're going to use to create the box shape of the bag.  Using a pencil and ruler, mark up a 1.5" by 1.5" square on every corner of the outer and the lining.  You need to measure from the side seams you just created to the fold along the edge, like this:

I'm definitely a measure twice and cut once girl (although I still sometimes manage to get it wrong!) so once these corners are all marked up, I go around with the ruler and double check them before using my fabric scissors to cut them out:

Before we get to sewing up these corner seams, we need to add in the handle that we made earlier.  Using the corner holes to peek through, orient yourself to the zip head end of the outer of the bag and feed the handle through one of the corners on that side, making sure that the right side of the handle (if it has one) is the right side up and facing right side out.  This is one of those moments when you need to look hard at the bag and think about it!  You can see in the picture below that my outer pieces of the bag are at the bottom of the sandwich and my handle is the right way up for the print on the fabric.  The top stitched side of the handle is facing into the bag so that it will be facing out when we turn it out and everything gets reversed.  Position the centre of the handle to the centre of the hole and pin in place:

Pull the other end of the handle (make sure it isn't twisted) through the opposite corner hole, centre and pin that in place too.  There's a good double check that you've got things the right way around in this picture – the open, stitched side of the handle is facing down towards the bottom seam of the outer, which means it is the right way up:

Mark and stitch a quarter inch seam on each of these first two outer bag corners.  Before you get to pinning and stitching the other 2 corner seams on the outer, use one of them to put your hand in and undo the zip all the way, which will make turning it out much easier.

Now close the 2 open corner seams in the outer and then deal with the corners on the lining part of the bag, but use a 3/8" seam there to make the lining a bit smaller than the outer, as we did with the other lining seams:

Look how odd and messy it looks now!

Time to work some magic and make this look like a bag by turning it out through the hole you left in the lining bottom seam but, just before that, check your edge seams and clip out any bulk you don't need around the zip: there really shouldn't be much but you might have a bit of the edge of the pull tabs that could be trimmed:

Once you've turned everything the right way out and enjoyed that extreme feel good moment when you know you sewed it all right and everything is in the right place and facing the right way, you need to close up the turning hole in the lining.  To do this, you can just stitch over it with the machine, but I much prefer the neater finish of a ladder stitch seam by hand, which is very quick and easy to do.  Just partner up a stitch on each side and every inch or so, pull them closed and watch them completely disappear:

Don't over tighten the stitches though – you don't want to pucker the seam.

Now push the lining into the outer, fill the bag with something soft and filling – I like to raid the clean sock drawer and stuff them into the bag until it's full – zip it closed and press all over with the iron.  Done!  All you need to do now is find a reason to hit the streets with a project on board 🙂

I hope that you do make a bag using this tutorial – please let me know if you do – I'd love to see a picture!  I've checked and double checked this tutorial to make sure it's free of all those irritating errors and omissions that drive me bonkers when using some tutorials but, if you spot anything I've missed or got wrong, or any way I could improve it, please do leave a comment here for me so I can fix it.

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  • Reply Natalie July 30, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    Fabulous tute Debbie! I've pinned it for later xxx

    • Reply crimson July 31, 2015 at 8:56 am

      Thanks Natalie! 😀 x

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