As I said in a previous post about school uniform, we really don’t need to buy brand new paraphernalia for our children at the start of every school year. I’m a great believer in using what’s at hand and ‘making do’.
That said, my youngest starts school this year. There is no pre-existing backpack, or pencil case, or gym bag. And looking at the things we used for nursery, I don’t feel like there’s a way we can repurpose them on this occasion. So, as I’m not going to buy anything new – as per my birthday pledge – I thought I would share the making process as I attempt a backpack.
There are so many reasons why it makes sense to craft your own items (if you have the ability to do so) and I would definitely encourage you to read many of the amazing works out there about why we should reject high-street fashion/supermarket retail if we can afford to – both Lauren Bravo’s book and Lucy Siegle‘s spring instantly to mind. Plastic fabrics, dyes, and awful work environments are just a handful of issues inherent in cheap, imported goods.* Second hand is a great middle ground if you can’t afford something ethically produced and eBay is full of high quality satchels which are no longer seeing any love.
However, as I’ve got a large fabric stash (mostly inherited) and the skills to make a basic bag, this seems like the most cost-effective, eco-friendly way for me to do this.
So, without further soap-boxing…
Step One – Select your fabric.
I’ve touched before on the advantages of natural fibres, but I’d like to add here that you’re looking for something hard-wearing and duarble. School bags see a lot of punishment from day-to-day. Denim is an obvious choice, and most houses have an old pair of jeans or two which aren’t getting worn. If you’re going to use old clothes, selecting those with as few seams as possible gives you a lot of options as you’ll have larger areas of ‘uninterrupted’ cloth.
Step Two – Decide on your size.
In our case, school provides a book-bag, so this satchel will largely be used for a gym kit, water bottle and snack, so it doesn’t need to be huge. I think a good rule, is to think about the largest thing that will need carrying and then make your design just that little bit larger – around 2 inches on each side is usually a good shout.
Step 3 – Decide how you’re going to carry the bag
In some cases, a drawstring bag will be enough, especially for a gym kit. In which case, don’t make life more complicated than it needs to be and check out this tutorial. It does instruct you to overlock/serge the sides, but you can get around this by sewing a ‘French seam’ instead – tutorial here. For anything else, I would have said to just zig-zag over the raw fabric, or use some pinking shears, but for something that children are going to toss around at school every day, I really think that the seams need to be fray-proof for longevity. I didn’t actually do anything special for the outer layer of this particular bag, though, as it’s a plastic cloth which doesn’t fray. It was my table cloth for years so saw a lot of usage – I know how it’s going to stand up to punishment! – so I didn’t make more work for myself.
Step… I’m just going to start uploading pictures now. Wish me luck.
To start with, I cut my fabric… I chose an old, plastic-coated tablecloth for this bag. Because longevity. And children. And I had it already.
I cut the same size of lining fabric too. This lining came from an old bed sheet – you can see it behind the garish periodic table above.
I folded the outer layer in half and sewed along the side and bottom.
Then I folded the bag in such a way that I could sew across the corners to make the base square. It’s difficult to explain it but I hope the pictures help…
I did the same to the lining (check out those French seams!) and it might be a little clearer here…
I then inserted a zip into the top of the bag. The zip I had in my stash wasn’t quite long enough, so I added some denim scraps to either end…
I’m not sure if you can really see it in the picture above, but after I’d added the zip, I added a little strap with a popper on. If my child chooses not to fasten the strap, the bag has about another 5-6 inches of space. Not necessary just now, but hopefully this will last a while and might become relevant later…
This was actually pretty difficult to do because I’d already put the zip in, but it was possible and that’s the main thing!
I just hand stitched this big metal popper into place. It’s not glamorous as far as closures go, but it does the job.
Then I had a break for about 2 weeks while I figured out what to do with the straps. I wanted a backpack, but I’d already added the zip which made adding straps… less than ideal. I also didn’t really have the various buckles and clips to make the straps adjustable which isn’t really ‘future-proof’.
So I decided to be a bit… creative with the straps. I measured from my child’s waist to shoulder, multiplied this by two, then measured from shoulder to shoulder, and added these numbers together. I then doubled that number. This gave me the length of continuous fabric I needed for… whatever you’d call the contraption I’m rigging up.
I then sewed a second length of this strap fabric and stitched it across the back of the bag, with little gaps for the length of strap to pass through. Because I’d already sewn the zip in place, this process redefined my personal idea of hell.
For the sake of my sanity, I decided to hand-sew the rest of the bag…
Hand stitching is one of those things we’re conditioned to think of as too slow to be practical, but actually, for small and fiddly objects (like this bag!) it’s probably faster than trying to find a machine-friendly alternative. I used backstitch to make the straps really secure and always sew with a thimble – this really helps when you’re sewing heavy fabric like the plastic table-cloth. Also worth noting and contrary to what I used to think, using a thinner needle tends to be easier than a thick one on thick fabrics.
You can see from the pictures below that the straps can move between the two holes and the function of the bag can change from backpack to shoulder bag.
The shoulder strap will make is easy for me to carry when I inevitably get dumped with the bag after school, but the backpack position is perfect for small people…
All that remained was to fit the lining. Again, I chose to do this by hand for speed and ease. Sewing around the zip is just vastly easier this way.
Once I’d done that, all that was left was to turn the whole thing inside out and try it on the enthusiastic recipient…
I’m not going to lie – this does look… homemade. Our school is tiny and rural, and the children are sweet. They do pick on one another every so often but in such a small community, there are few places to hide so I’m not overly worried about my child being bullied for not having something ‘bought’. I do think, though, that this is something which you might want to consider if your children attend a bigger school or is a little older and part of a brand-conscious crowd.
There are ways to ensure that the bag looks as good as possible – all of them easy, some of them free.
– Measure everything carefully
– Press your seams as you go along
– Use the sharpest scissors you have access to
– Use a new sewing-machine needle for each project
– Use as high quality fabric as you can
– Make sure to sew in all loose threads (I think this makes the biggest difference).
I didn’t actually buy anything for this project – most of it came from my mother-in-law’s substantial stash – so it was really cheap. You could technically make it without the strap to fasten the top down, so you don’t necessarily even need the popper.
Have you tried making school supplies before? How did you get on?
*There are, of course, arguments that we should continue to buy from these lower-priced places in order to prevent job-losses in overseas factories. I can absolutely see the reasoning behind this, and if this is where your moral compass is pointing you, then ‘you do you’ – crack on. If you do want change, though, you need to let the retail outlet you’re purchasing from know – drop them a Tweet, ask about how the garment workers are treated, and then don’t act as though the clothes you’ve bought are disposable. If enough brands are held accountable for the ethics of their products, then we might begin to see a change.
Depending on the point in time you’re reading this from, something like Lost Stock might be a good compromise. In short, due to the Covid pandemic, many UK retailers cancelled their orders leaving