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Chris Metcalf

specialization is for insects

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Most people who know me well know that I’m a bit of a bag whore. I seem to accumulate them. Special purpose bags mainly. Bags for backpacking. Bags for sailing. Bags for hauling laptops. Bags for protecting cameras.

And for general purpose bags, I’ve accumulated a couple messenger bags, namely a Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger and a Patagonia Critical Mass bag. The Critical Mass, by the way is a great bag - practically indestructible and big enough for up to a week long trip. Big enough, also, to often be too big.

But I’ve always been craving something a bit more unique. Sure, there are companies like R.E.Load (an awesome Seattle-based custom messenger bag company), but I don’t feel like paying $300 for a full-on custom bag. And it would be much cooler if I made it myself. And I just happen to own a sewing machine. Yes, I’m a straight guy who owns a sewing machine. Don’t mess with me or I’ll sew you a pillow or something.

Fortunately there have been a lot of cool messenger bag designs popping up on the Internet lately. I picked out one of the more popular designs which has also been featured on Make Magazine’s blog. I especially liked his last design, the one based on the pythagorean theorem. Ignore all the mumbo jumbo about “perfect ratios” - what you really end up with is a bag with a nice wedge shape that you can pack full of stuff but still close tightly. And it’s very similar to other bags that I really find comfortable, like my Timbuk2 bag.

Final Results

Read on for more details.

For my first version, I wanted to spend little or no money on materials, since I just wanted to confirm that I liked the design of the bag and that my sewing skills were up to snuff. I’d already purchased some webbing and buckles from the awesome people at outdoor-oriented Seattle Fabrics (about $10 in total), but I still needed material to craft the bag out of. Luckily I just happened to have a couple blue plastic tarps from a recent surf trip. Blue plastic tarps are not only dirt cheap (about $8 for a 10’x12’ tarp), but they’re also surprisingly durable and easy to work with. Eventually my goal is to build a bag out of heavy Cordura or even better something like North Sails “Gatorback” for some bulletproof Kevlar goodness. I have a rough commute…

I won’t get into too much terrible detail, since if you own a sewing machine, you probably are at least as good at using it as I am. Which isn’t hard, because I suck, despite two years of Home Ec. And even if you don’t own a machine, you’re borrowing one from a friend who is also quite likely to be better than me.

Plotting out the design

Starting with the measurements in the Golden Mean design, I applied my awesome 8th grade algebra skills and scaled down the design to about 13” high. Basically I made it just big enough to fit my 12” Apple Powerbook and some other goodies. No sense in making a bag any bigger than it has to be.

Then I laid the pattern out with a yardstick. Three years of high school drafting came in handy.

Measuring and Marking

Cutting

This step is pretty obvious. One of the cool things about the Golden Mean design is that, given a big enough piece of material (like a 10’x12’ blue tarp), the whole bag can be built out of a single piece. This reduces the amount of sewing you need to do, along with the number of seams you’ll later have to seal or finish. Basically you fold it up like a big piece of origami and stitch the remaining edges together.

Finished Cutting

Sewing

Stitching the actual body of the bag together was quite easy. Only four straight edges to stitch. Remember to stitch the entire bag inside out, so the seams are on the inside. If this was a real bag, I’d have stitched in a ripstop nylon liner to make it prettier, and put some trim on the edges. But this is not a real bag, and it’s made out of cheap blue tarp.

Rough Bag Complete

Finishing Touches

After the body of the bag was complete, I still had to put some finishing touches on the bag. After flipping the bag inside out, I “trimmed” the closing flap basically by folding it over about 3/8” and then stitching the flap down. For a more final version of the bag, you’d want to add some webbing to the edge as trim for a cleaner look.

Finishing Trim

You’ll also, obviously, need a strap. For my strap design, I decided to dead-end the strap at one end, and finish the other end with a “flip-buckle” style strap. To provide strength to the strap, so it doesn’t rip itself out, I folded a scrap of tarp four times to create a backing patch, and then stitched through the strap, bag, and then patch.

Strap Dead End

As you can see, I’m not the best seamstress in the world.

At the other end of the strap, I secured the buckle by a short loop of webbing using the same technique as the other end. Then I looped back the free end of the strap and secured back to the buckle itself. The result is quite clean, and I’m very happy with it.

Detail on Buckle

Final Results

As a whole, I’m pretty happy with the results. The bag design I chose has a great wedge shape that feels quite comfortable and looks quite good. And it’s super easy to make. I’m looking forward to making something more finished.

Final Results

Stay tuned for further developments on this project. The next version should be coming soon.