One of the things I love most in life is pockets. A combination of making my own clothes and careful shopping means that I don’t own a dress, tunic or pair of trousers that doesn’t have pockets. The warm fleece tunics I wear at the workshop in the winter have front and back pockets, so there’s somewhere to tuck my phone safely out of the way of water from dye pots and screen printing ink. So I’m a fan of pockets.
When I started thinking about making tote bags from scratch one of the things I wanted to be able to include was pockets. I can’t be the only person who happily puts their shopping into their bag and then realises they’ve buried their purse. I hope I’m not the only person who gets home and mutters curses as they realise they’ve also buried their keys.
I wanted to talk through the processes and choices which make up our linen tote bags. It can be hard to see why something is priced the way it is, especially if you don’t sew and don’t know what has gone into making your bag.
Linen isn’t cheap. Linen with provenance is more expensive again. That extra cost is worth it to me because it offers guarantees about how the flax is grown and processed, what impact that has on the environment and how the people who weave and dye my fabric are treated. We pay a fair price not a cheap price.
I spent quite a bit of time looking at fabric widths and working out how I could include pockets. There are lots of ways to include pockets. They can be cut out separately and sewn on later or they can be part of the bag. I chose the second route for a couple of reasons.
Making bags from scratch means that I cut out each bag from a roll of fabric. Keeping the pockets as part of one main piece limits the amount of cutting out I need to do. That saves time. It also saves my hands. I’m lucky enough to have good fabric shears, however a couple of hours solidly cutting fabric is hard going. Having fewer pieces means fewer seams and less sewing. On an unlined bag it means fewer raw edges to deal with. That translates into time saved and in turn that translates into a lower price on the finished bag.
The other huge advantage in cutting the tote bags as one piece is that I have very little fabric waste. If you sew at home the odds are that you’ll feel you sometimes waste as much fabric as you use because pattern pieces don’t fit well together. As I’m using the full width of the roll and I’m cutting rectangles there are no gaps between each piece. It also means less cutting. Double win.
In theory there’s plenty you can do with scrap fabric. I like to have a couple of bits of check sewing machine stitching. I’ve stuffed cushions with scraps. But it’s all to easy to end up with a growing scrap pile that isn’t wanted. Cutting with no waste stops that happening.
The next step for me is to screen print the bags and to heat set the print. So at that stage I have large rectangles of fabric which are printed on both sides. Then the fabric comes home from the workshop because home is where my sewing machine lives.
The inside of a tote bag, showing the pockets and french seams.
The bags are simple to put together. The pockets are folded into place and stitched.
Then the side seams are joined. If I was lining this bag I wouldn’t worry about raw seams because they’d be hidden and protected by the lining. Unlined bags need a little more thought.
If you look at seams in many bags (and most of your clothes) you’ll see stitching which encases the edge of the fabric. That’s overlocking. It’s a good and quick way to finish seams, however the machine that does the overlocking uses polyester thread. That’s plastic, so we avoided that route.
Instead I used french seams. They sound way more complicated than they actually are. Usually with seams you sew with the right sides of your work together so when the bad is turned the right way out the seams are on the inside. French seams start by sewing a narrow seam with the WRONG sides together, then turning your work so the RIGHT sides are together and making a second seam which encases all the raw edges. It’s not quite up there with the magic of turning the heel on a sock but it’s close.
To give the bag a base there’s a bit of folding in of corners to create the gusset. There’s then more fabric folding so that all of the raw edges can be hidden inside the seams on the bottom of the bag.
The top edge of the bag is folded down twice (that covers the last raw edges). the handles are pinned in place and the top edge is stitched in place.
That’s how I make the tote bags.
When I looked at switching to linen from cotton I wanted to make a bag with a beautiful finish. Those details take time and that time equates to cost. Those details let us make a bag without any plastic and I’m so grateful that customers have seen the value in these bags and loved them as much as I do.