Thursday, June 05, 2014

big hand-stitched leather tote

Final make of MMMay'14 - a big hand-stitched leather tote bag
completed May 26th 

When I worked at Theatrical Shoemakers, anytime we were required to include hand-stitching on medieval/barbarian/spartan etc style footwear, I was the one who got to do it. I really enjoy that kind of thing and it was during weeks of stitching dozens of pairs of sandal boots for a big film job that I decided to make myself a hand-stitched tote bag. And it's only taken me about a year and a half to get around to doing it!

As part of my MMMay'14 pledge, I mentioned that I'm usually hesitant to use up skins of leather in one go and so I tend to go for smaller projects. Well, for this bag I decided to be bold and use a large piece of leather I've had in my stash for aaaaages.

It's a softly textured oxblood-y/brown-y leather with a slight nubuck-y finish. I knew I wanted a bag cut in one piece and so I let the dimensions of the leather determine the size and shape of the bag, aiming for the biggest bag I could get out of the leather. I avoided that curved area at the bottom because structure of that section of the leather was weak and stretchy.

I forgot to take a photo of the pattern making process, but basically I taped together newspaper and cut it to match the shape of the leather. I then played around with folding the paper to determine the dimensions of the bag. I cut the paper into the final shape and then used that as a pattern to cut out the leather.

I used pre-waxed thread (from my stash) which sort of melts into itself making the stitches really stick together, and although specialist hand sewing leather needles are available, I like to use tapestry needles (also from the stash). These are basically the same as the 'proper' needles with large eyes and a rounded point.

I marked the stitching line and made holes for each stitch using the smallest setting on my hole punch. I overlapped the side seams and saddle stitched them closed using a needle at each end of the thread.

This is one completed side seam and the holes punched and ready to stitch on the opposite side. The rectangular cutout section is the bottom gusset. That yellow strip on the bottom right is some double sided tape I used to hold things in place while I stitched.

Side seam and bottom gusset.

I wanted the bag to hold a rectangular shape at the top rather than flattening out against the body, so I did a few stitches to pinch the corners into shape. You can just see the corner stitches in the first photo.

I've been enjoying making mystery braids (as seen in this recent belt) and I thought I'd add a little bit of interest to the straps by braiding the section that sits on the shoulders. 
Here I am preparing the vegtan straps - splitting the middle section into three and punching the stitching holes. I've punched them now because I want the leather dye to get down into the holes so that no natural coloured leather shows around the stitches.

I dyed the leather with Fiebing's "Dark Red" from my stash. It turns out to be a strange colour - at first it looks very magenta and then it settles down a bit. It looks different in different lights and it's tricky to get an accurate photo. I chose it to bring out the oxblood colour of the bag leather.

Here you can see the saddle stitching in progress using the two needles. These two ends criss-cross each other through each hole and the wax on the thread holds the stitch tight. On the left there is one of the pinched and stitched corners.

Trust me, the straps aren't really this fuchsia!

It's a big bag - 18" wide, 12" tall and 4" deep with a bag bottom to hold its shape. I can fit all of the usual stuff I carry around in my nappy bag with plenty of room to spare. Having said that, I haven't actually taken it out for a spin yet and that's because of the crazy sunny-then-rainy weather we've been having, and until I've scotchguarded it, I'm not risking it under these unpredictable London skies!

I'm very happy with it though. I really enjoyed making this bag - it reaffirmed how much I enjoy the process of hand stitching. I just hope it's not too long until I'm swanning about with my new oversized tote. 


  1. I really love your bag! I always make cloth totes but now I think I want to try leather!

    1. yeah, give leather a go! a bonus is you don't have to worry about the edges fraying!