Friday, 10 February 2012

Patchwork Bag

This week I have been busy with a sewing project in every odd, spare corner of time I've had. You know the kind of spare corner I'm talking about, that time before going to bed when you think you will just spend 10 minutes in front of the sewing machine, which becomes 20 minutes, which becomes 40 minutes, which becomes 80 minutes, which becomes "Goodness, is that the time?" Anyway, I have had to get on with this particular project because it's a birthday present for my sister, whose birthday is imminent.

She asked me if I would make her a patchwork bag and, never being one to turn down the opportunity to fiddle around with pretty bits of fabric and my sewing machine, the said patchwork bag was duly promised.

The great thing about this particular project is that it is a "Frugal Special" ie Free! I didn't spend anything at all to make it and if you have any kind of a fabric stash, you won't spend anything at all to make one either! The whole thing was made out of fabric scraps, collected over the years from dressmaking and other crafty projects. Even the thread was free, vintage actually, as it was part of a box of threads, still on their old-fashioned wooden reels, inherited from my grandmother.

The pattern I used for the bag was one I found on Molly Chicken's lovely blog, which is sadly no longer current, but you can still find it on-line. You can find the pattern here. You can use this or any bag pattern as a base for the patchwork or make one up yourself  - doesn't have to be complicated. Molly Chicken's pattern is very good although some of the instructions are a bit counterintuitive. Don't be tempted to divert from them though and do your own thing. How do I know this? Yes, well...!

The patchwork bit however, is my own idea and in case any of you crafty, frugal peeps want to have a go, here's what you do.

You need to draw out the pattern and cut out pieces for the lining and in a base fabric on which to mount your patchwork. My dimensions are a little bit bigger than Molly Chicken's. They are marked on the pattern pieces in the pic, if you want to know the precise dimensions I used. I think you can read them OK if I keep the pic big. The flower is an optional additional accessory. You cut several flowers and stitch through the centre of all of them with a pretty button to secure to the bag. My niece wanted one on hers but I didn't add one to the other two. Though come to think of it, I just might add one now for this birthday bag.

I used a piece of heavyish cotton fabric left over from making some curtains for my base fabric but you can use calico, lining fabric or any furnishing weight cotton. If you have to buy something, buy calico - it's strong and cheap. I used the reverse of my curtain fabric as the right side, in case the pattern showed through on any lighter parts of the patchwork.

Lining pieces
Base fabric pieces for patchwork to be applied on top of
Firstly sort the pocket out. Cut two pieces, one in the lining fabric and another in a fabric that picks up what you will be using for the patchwork. Stitch together with wrong sides facing, leaving a gap for turning. Turn, clip the seam allowances on the curves, press and then stitch in place on one of your lining bag pieces, like this. The original pattern has the pocket on the outside of the bag but I felt that this would look too "busy" with all the patchwork pieces so I put it inside instead.

Lining with pocket stitched in place
OK, now for the fun bit. Get out your hoard of scrap fabrics and choose your overall colour theme. Place your fabrics, uncut, in a rough design laying them out on the base fabric bag pieces. Remember that you will need two of each piece because you've got to cover both sides of the bag. You don't have to make the two sides absolutely symmetrical but I think a bit of symmetry works well. Variety is good here, as is some repetition of pattern / colour. One of the lovely things about this project is that you can use scraps that are really too small to use in other projects and which were really too small to keep in the first place, but were too pretty to throw in the bin.

Once you have a design you feel happy with, photograph it. Do not be tempted to omit this vital step! Otherwise, once you move the fabric to cut the pieces to shape, you will be unable to recall the exact layout that took you so long to get just right. How do I know this? Yes, well...! (again)

The initial design
Now cut your fabrics to shape. I use linear shapes - rectangles, squares and  strips - as this is easy to work with and marries well with my mostly floral, patterned fabric. Cut along the grain of the fabric, not on the bias, or the pieces won't sit flat properly. I cut the pieces by eye - not too difficult with smallish pieces - but you can use a cutting wheel and ruler if you want to. When you cut, allow an extra 1/2 inch all round for turnings. At this point you may want to press your pieces with a steam iron. Your scraps may emerge from their hiding places beautifully smooth but mine tend towards the crumpled, (or even distressed) look, owing to being crammed in with so many others in their boxes! You can use any fabric but I use mostly cotton dressmaking weight fabric because that's what my scraps happen mostly to be made of. I would steer clear of anything slipperily synthetic but if you're more expert at coping with such stuff than me, don't let me put you off!

You now need to prepare your pieces more precisely for stitching. I do this on the ironing board as you need the iron to press the turnings as you go along. Keeping to hand your photographed design, on your camera or phone, place each piece in position on the base fabric, overlapping each one with its neighbour. Press turnings on all raw edges. Doesn't matter too much how deep your turnings are - they just need to be deep enough to make sure that the top stitching catches both layers. Deeper turnings are safer than shallow ones so, to avoid frustration later on, be generous. Some of the raw edges will be hidden under the overlap of the next piece so you don't need to press turnings on every side of every piece. And don't worry about raw edges at the perimeter of the bag pieces as these will be caught in the seams when you make up the bag.

Pressed but not pinned
Now pin each piece carefully in place. You may find as you do this that you run short of coverage especially around the handle area so you may need to add in an extra piece or two if necessary.

Pressed and pinned and ready to sew
Don't ask me what that pocket piece is doing there - it shouldn't be!
You can, if you want, patchwork the bottom of the bag and the straps but it's simpler to use single pieces for these pieces if you have big enough scraps. Just lay the single pieces over the top of the relevant base fabric pieces, pin in place and use just as you would a single layer of fabric. You need the double layer, even if you are not patchworking these bits, for consistency of feel. One of the advantages of this method of construction throughout is that the double layer of top fabrics gives the bag a good weight and strength, which is all to the good because I want to be able to use my bag not just hang it up somewhere for show.

When I made the first of these bags in the summer, I thought it would be nice to patchwork the straps as well, but it was a Bad Idea. Patchworking the straps with this pattern, makes the task of turning them out once they have been stitched, almost impossible. It's a tricksy business anyway but with the impediment of all the extra fabric in the turnings and seam allowances, it becomes the stuff of nightmares. How do I know this? Yes, well... ! (again) If you want to patchwork the bottom panel though there's no problem.

Once you have pinned everything in place, check that you've caught all the raw edges that you need to, underneath the relevant overlaps.

Now machine stitch all the pieces to the base fabric pieces, stitching close to each pressed edge. When you've finished, check to make sure you've not missed any edges because it isn't easy to put right later.

Now pull, or thread through with a needle, all the loose threads from the right side of the patchwork to the back. You need to do this now otherwise the lining will be in the way. How do I know?....!

Wrong side of patchwork
showing where you need all those loose threads to be pulled through to
Stitch all the pieces you are patchworking in this way. Once you have finished you can proceed to make up the bag as per the pattern instructions. As I say, the only tricksy part with the Molly Chicken  pattern is the turning out of the straps. I use an ancient Victorian, wooden, knitting needle with a rounded, bone knob on the top to help push them through. This does help a bit but it just is one of those  tedious tasks that requires Patience. Don't be tempted to use the sharp end of the knitting needle or you risk piercing the fabric. Ahem! Having said that, don't give up because it's worth the effort and although I hadn't used this technique for handles on a bag before, once you're there, it works really well. I like the fact that it makes the straps integral to the bag itself rather than just stitched on to the outside.

Once you have completed the bag as per the remaining instructions, stitch the handles together. I know this is plum obvious but guess who stitched a right hand side strap to one on the opposite side of the bag instead of the same side and wondered why the straps felt rather odd when she tried it over her shoulder?!

I machine stitch a square with criss-crossed diagonals for extra strength to attach the strap ends to one another like this. It makes a very strong join which you need because of all the stuff you are going to cram into your bag when it's in use!

 Pin first to check you've got it right and that the length is good for you.

The Molly Chicken pattern makes a good size of bag - not too big, but big enough to hold ordinary handbag clobber and hook-and-yarn-clobber -  I like to carry my crochet WIP about with me in order to make use of those little windows of time between meetings or while waiting to pick my son up from school. You can probably get a book and a bit of shopping in as well, if you don't have too many balls of yarn in there!

Patchwork bag #1
...with its pesky patchwork straps!
Patchwork bag #2 (complete with flower)
made with my 14-yr old niece
when she came for a sewing day in the summer
Patchwork bag # 3

Close up of the above
Oh dear, the stitching is a bit wonky in places -
perils of stitching late at night against the clock, I fear!
Finished, as I thought, but not quite! Because I couldn't resist adding one of these:

to make the finished birthday bag like this:

Happy Birthday L!


  1. Oh My Goodness! Your bag is a beauty! I love it so very much.

    And Oh My Goodness (x2) how admirable and courageous of you to do such a worthy tutorial. I simply haven't had the courage yet.

    Warm wishes,


  2. Thanks so much! I have made quite a few bags but have never tried this patchwork technique. They all turned out beautiful and I'm sure your sister will be delighted. A very well-written (and enjoyable to read) tutorial :)

  3. Wow, what a beautiful bag! And a really good, clear tutorial. I have not yet made a bag but I was given the Liberty Sewing book for Christmas and there is a very simple bag pattern in there i am planning to make. I may refer to this post for help!

  4. The sign of a really great bag pattern is when you feel compelled to make more than one. And your patchwork versions are so joyful.

    Your blog is BEAUTIFUL Elizabeth - I'm off to have a leisurely read through the archives.

  5. yes love the patchwork bag and i've just got into patchwork and i'm going to give this bag a go i really like the flower attached at the end. i always attach flowers to everything toox

  6. This is just the loveliest bag I have seen. Patchwork is easy and fun to put together. Thank you so much for sharing and inspiring us to try it :)


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