How to Make 110 Small Messenger Bags for the 2010 True/False Film Festival
This roughly catalogs the seven-month sewing project (August to February) that I did for the T/F Film Fest in February, in which I was a sponsor, vendor and volunteer all wrapped up in one.
I would like to thank my ever-lovely girlfriend, Jenny, for helping me with this project. Without her I don’t think this would’ve happened. Thanks, Jenny!
Also, thanks go to everyone who offered to help me with this project. Sorry I didn’t have time to teach you how to sew. Maybe next time.
Finally, thanks go to David, Jeremy, and Paul at T/F for letting me do this and working with me on the design.
Most people probably don’t know what it takes to make a bunch of messenger bags (I didn’t), so I’ve made a list of steps, mostly in order, outlining my process. This probably wasn’t the most efficient way to make 100+ bags (I know it’s not), but it’s how I did it with what I had.
Here’s what to do:
Start worrying about whether or not you can actually make 80 bags--let alone 110. What were you thinking?
Design the basic bag. Luckily, you’d already done this a few months before. Just tweak the dimensions a bit.
Make paper patterns for three size variations and then use those patterns to make three bag prototypes.
Meet with the T/F guys to talk about what size’ll be best, materials, pocket sizes and other things like that.
Start sourcing fabrics. (This might take you a while.)
Order fabric samples. Get disappointed when they suck.
Wonder why it’s so hard to find #10 dyed cotton duck (not in 100yd rolls). What the hell?
Order 50 yards of heavier #8 cotton duck instead.
Order everything else, too: 40 yards of red Cordura nylon, 200 yards of seatbelt webbing, 300 yards of binding, three pounds of thread… And you might have to order more than you need to get the price break you need so you can match the budget you’ve quoted. You’ll use that stuff later, for sure.
Buy five different colors of red thread, hoping to match the embroidered logo a little better.
Order two-dozen Prismacolor watercolor pencils (to use as fabric markers) so you’ll never have to look for one again.
Get excited that you’ve found a source for your favorite thread that’s not way off in Seattle, and is 2/3 the price. (Shipping’s expensive.) Get mad that they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and have lied about what kind of thread they carry. Send back 100-dollars’ worth of thread. Order it from Seattle.
Call that company and ask where your money is after three weeks.
Buy the biggest scissors you can find.
Look for cheap US-made size 69 thread on eBay to use in basting stitches.
Watch the UPS man laboriously carry a 80-pound roll of cotton to your door and hope he doesn’t get pissed at you for ordering such a thing.
Split that roll into two ’cause you can’t carry something that heavy for very far. (You get to figure out how to do that without a roll stand.)
Talk to a sweet old dude named Skip in Bally, Pennsylvania, about Type 2, Class 1a, condition U, 4088 mil-spec webbing (for binding).
Build a 4x5-foot cutting table at your girlfriend’s house (Lab 2).
Wonder why the hell Menard’s doesn’t have an on-site customer saw like Lowe’s does.
Spend a whole day researching (looking for the cheapest) industrial cloth cutter: aka a round knife, electric rotary cutter, laser scissors… Buy one.
Cut that #8 cotton duck into 5-yard chunks and handwash in a Coleman cooler. (Take no chances. You don’t want your bags to shrink when they get wet. Plus there’s a lot of extra dye in the fabric you don’t want there.)
Set up a super clothesline in your girlfriend’s backyard, and consider yourself lucky her backyard’s not swarming with ravenous fabric-hungry pigbears…like your backyard.
Wait for your fabric to dry and then roll it up. Hope those wrinkles come out by themselves.
Finalize the bag dimensions and make a cardboard template of the pattern. (You can use Honeynut Cheerios boxes if you have ’em.)
Have some meetings with the T/F guys about logo design, size, and placement. Especially make sure that Paul likes the size of the logo.
Have several different logos stitched by the embroidery shop and look at ’em for a while.
Have the shop do a couple more.
Finalize contrast stitching details.
Make the final prototype using the cardboard template. Submit it for peer review.
Make cardboard pocket templates: one for the cut line and one for the stitch line.
Mark and rough cut all liner- and shell pieces with your sweet brain-saw fabric cutter. That’s 220 in total.
Re-cut three cotton shell pieces after finding blemishes on the flaps. Nuts. Take a break from factory work and make a fancy bag with one of the blem'd pieces.
Take the cotton shell pieces to the embroidery shop by bike. (Thanks, Xtracycle!) Wait two weeks for them to start stitching. Go and watch them do the first six (it’s a six-at-a-time machine) to make sure they get the size and placement right. Plus, you want to see this machine in action! Sorry I forgot to take pictures (nuts!).
Trim all the nylon liners with your scissors.
Lie to people when they say “I bet you’re making a bunch of money doing that” ’cause you’re tired of having people think you’re crazy for working so much for free. (You get to sell 30 of the bags, though.)
Mark and cut all 220 pocket pieces with your scissors and round knife.
Time to start sewing!
Prep the pockets first: Roll & sew the top edge of the inside pockets, and sew binding onto the outside pockets.
Get your binding attachment to actually work okay for once.
[Usually I bolt this to my sewing machine, but lately I've taken to holding it loose in my hand. This way I can ensure that the binding it totally on the fabric, which is why I've been dissatisfied with this tool in the past.]
Build a sewing table extension onto your straight-stitch machine to increase efficiency and decrease crazed sewing fatigue.
Pick up the bag shells from the embroidery shop. Your Xtracycle has a flat tire (thanks glass!) and you don’t feel like fixing it. Just use a big backpack and do it in two trips. Decide that riding a bike with a 40-pound bag in 15-degree weather probably isn’t the greatest of ideas.
Iron out the crease ring left by the embroidery hoop on all the pieces.
Inspect all embroidered logos. Snip all loose- and out-of-place threads.
Trim all cotton shell pieces with your round knife and scissors.
Take all cut pieces to your house for sewing (by bike).
Cut all webbing and heat seal the ends with a Bic lighter. Let’s see…that’s 770 pieces of webbing.
Prep all strap pieces by folding and stitching the ends.
Attach the liner pockets to the liners. This is done with three separate stitches (because of the built-in pen pocket).
Sew the outside pockets to the shell. Attach the two flap straps.
Wrap tape around your fingers so the skin won’t get rubbed off while you fold the front pocket edges.
Realize you bought ballpoint needles instead of regular ones. That’s what you get for ordering needles on eBay.
Order more regular needles.
Actually set up the sewing pedal properly on your industrial zigzag machine.
Trim the cotton shell pieces again.
Use your zigzag machine to attach the shell and liner pieces.
[I used a zigzag stitch with a lighter thread to minimize fabric puckering. This'll keep the edges of the flap from curling up...or should.]
Attach binding to the straight edge of the bag piece.
Wonder why your binding attachment isn’t working right. (Your binding tape seems to have gotten stiffer. Weird. Or you’ve just lost your nerve.)
Finish attaching the binding by folding it by hand.
Learn how to sew (just kidding).
Attach the key loop to the bag piece. (That’s what that loop is, if you were wondering--for people who use carabiners on their keys. Or you can attach whatever you want to it…lucky charms, your T/F pass, knife lanyard….)
Sew on the shoulder strap pieces using about a million stitches. Look how many stitches are on that thing. It better not come off! Do this 109 times in a row. (You're saving one bag for the end.)
Trim the cotton shell yet again.
Pray to the sewing gods that those weird noises coming from your sewing machine will stop.
Trim the sides of the bag some more and smooth out any irregularities on the flap curve with your scissors.
Don’t forget to sew the most important part onto your bag--your label. Ha.
[I think I'm about to put the binding on here. My camera's also totally effed. Those lines will be in every picture I take with this camera after this one. Ha.]
Attach the binding to the bag. This is the part that takes the most skill and strength in the bag-building process. You’ll want to take breaks when your shoulder and wrist start hurting. Don't forget to stretch first.
[Folding it by hand. The binding's too thick to use with my binding attachment. Plus this is more accurate.]
Shuffle bag pieces in varying stages of completion between your work table, bedroom, and sewing-room floor about a million times.
Mark the center of the flap by folding the bag in half. You’ll have to re-mark the flap-buckle positions later since there’s been some distortion in the fabric and your original marks are askew.
Turn the bags rightside out and add a reinforcement tack stitch to each side of the bag. These stitches will also ensure that the bag keeps its proper shape.
Get amazed at how hot the needle is after this stitch.
Think yourself lucky that that sewing supply company sent you the wrong zipper foot last year, ’cause it’s the perfect foot for the previous step.
Get confused and angry that the foot doesn’t quite fit properly and makes your machine do weird inexplicable things. But it works well enough in the end. You’ll just have to file it down a bit before you use it next time.
Attach the female shoulder strap buckles to the bags.
Make a cardboard template to re-mark where the flap buckles will go.
Use that template.
Sew on the flap buckles.
Take the bags to Lab 2 (Jenny’s house) for the final stage of sewing. Your third industrial sewing machine is over there and will do a better job at sewing through the super thick seam on the bottom corner stitch. Your main machine can do it, but you don’t feel like making the superfine adjustment and then trying to get it back to where you had it (which is perfect).
Turn the bags inside out and sew the bottom side stitches with your incredibly clunky (but strong) Ultrafeed machine.
Turn the bags rightside out again.
[I haven't sewn the bottom corners here yet. Note the inside pocket with pen pocket. I'm gonna call this a boot pocket. Ha.]
Time yourself while sewing one bag start to finish to get an idea of how long it takes to make a bag. That time: One hour, fifty-four minutes.
Of course, that’s just sewing time. The fabric was already cut and marked and there’re a few other factors not included. But actual sewing time for the 109 bags should be shorter since it’s easier to do the same thing over and over because you don’t have to think about what you’re doing and you don't have to change the thread color or presser feet: you’ve reached that Zen state where you just forget and sew. That is, until fatigue sets in, or you get sewing hypnosis and mess up and then have to rip things apart and do it again.
You’ve finished sewing! Woo!
Now it’s time to clean all the guide marks off the bags with a toothbrush and washcloth (and water)…just like you do before going to bed. Ha. And maybe go over ’em with a lint roller, too.
But you still have to thread all the straps into the buckles and attach the webbing clip to the shoulder strap. And box it all up and take it down to the T/F office.
Now you’re done.
Don’t sew again for eight months.
This is the main bag design. There're 80.
This is the only red one.
Body-hugging strap placement.
There're a few with slightly larger logos. Though, you have to look real close.
These are the only two with red binding.
These're the sewing machines I used:
This is my Taco straight-stitch, needle-feed, walking foot upholstery machine. It's my main stitcher.
This is my portable, semi-industrial Sailrite Ultrafeed walking-foot machine. I just used it for that one step, where I had to get over that really thick seam.
This is my industrial zigzag machine. I don't know why I have it, but it comes in handy every once in a while. Ha.
Option two. (The first one actually ran.)
Learn how to use the shoulder strap.
In good company: one of the swellest bike shops in Columbia, and a mighty fine gallery.
This is basically your simple military musette bag with some modern features you’d find on today’s courier bags: like nylon fabric for strength and plastic buckles for convenience and increased adjustability.
If you’re wondering what the hell a “musette” is, let me elucidate: It’s basically a small messenger bag. But being a bag nerd, I like to make a distinction between messenger bags and musette bags. Though it doesn’t really matter, I suppose.
In the cycling world, a musette bag is a small feed bag racers use to carry snacks and stuff they need while racing. These are usually super-simple, flapless bags.
Musette bags were also used widely in the World Wars. One US musette of note is the M1936.
The etymology of musette is pretty fun, too. It comes from the Middle French word for bagpipe, since these small bags sorta look like bagpipe bellows. Fun.
This bag is a lot simpler than the bags I usually make. I like to make fairly complicated bags that expand and contract, and have floating liners, and zippered pockets and full padding.
But these take a fair piece to sew.
So for this project, I needed a bag that I could sew quickly, but still had all the elements every bag should have…like durability, adjustability, and a weather-resistant, comfortable design. Not to mention a classic style.
I also had to maximize fabric usage to keep costs down.
And I think I did a pretty good job. It seems a bit small to me for having a 15-inch flap, but this bag wasn’t intended to be a packhorse. This is a notebook-paperback-sandwich-goin’-to-the-coffee-shop sort of bag.
And, besides, it still passes the six-pack test. Not gracefully, but it does.
Dimension and Material Specs
It’s roughly 15” wide at the top, 12” wide at the bottom, 11” tall, and 3” thick at the bottom. The shoulder strap is about 47” at its longest...which I hope is long enough for most people. Messenger bags are worn higher up on the back than ass-thumping computer bags...and that's where these musettes were designed to be worn--high and secure. Though, if you can go long, go long.
The cotton duck exterior is a 16oz #8 double-fill cotton duck. This is the weight most director chairs are made out of. Appropriate in a way.
I think this might've been treated with something to make it more water resistant, but I gave it a good washing to preshrink it anyway…just in case. This fabric should be pretty water resistant, though. The idea is that a thick, natural, densely-woven fabric like this will swell when wet and prevent more water seepage. That’s why old canoe bags are made of cotton duck (like they had anything else to use). We’ll see though. Let me know how these hold up in the rain.
The liner is 1000 denier Cordura nylon. This is the standard exterior for many courier bags. It’s pretty tough. And it has a thin polyurethane coating on the back side. This coupled with the thickness of the cotton should make these pretty water resistant. I’m loath to use “waterproof,” which is bandied about constantly in this trade, ’cause nothing’s waterproof entirely--especially when it gets old.
The inside pocket on most of the bags is untreated Sunbrella acrylic. It’s pretty soft and strong. A handful of bags have either nylon packcloth or Cordura pockets. I ran out of the acrylic.
The shoulder strap is real seatbelt webbing that wasn’t up to code for some reason or another. I dunno why. I’ve used seatbelt seconds before from other places and you can see definite blemishes. Not the case with this webbing. If it’s good enough to keep you inside your car, it’s good enough to hold up your bag. Ha. The other webbing is just sweet nylon webbing. I won’t bore you with anymore rambling.
These are from Illinois Tool Works. They’re the business. I’ve never had one break. And I’ve had other buckles on other bags break before. Especially when it gets really cold. ITW also makes buckles for the military. You wonder sometimes if the only thing keeping US-manufacturing alive is the military. Hm.
The webbing clip is from National Molding (Duraflex) and a great little invention. Thanks, Duraflex!
Size 92 (Tex 90) bonded polyester thread. I use Coats Star Ultra Dee and Dabond when I can. I used a lighter size 69 for basting stitches on these bags, which some bag companies list in their specs like it’s something great. If you can’t use T90 thread you’re using the wrong kind of sewing machine.
And I think this sums up materials and this post. By the way, everything was made in the US.
This is all you probably need to know about making bags. Let me know if you have any questions. I appreciate comments and suggestions, too. Just don’t ask me to make you a bag right now.