Introduction: BIG BAG From Old Sweaters

Don’t you love felted bags? Don’t you want one without the time commitment of knitting something enormous so you can shrink it down? Here’s your answer -

Step 1: Supplies

You’ll need two sweaters –one in the color of your choosing for the sides of the bag (Sweater A), the second sweater’s color should be dark for the bottom of the bag (Sweater B). These both must be 100% wool and not washable. Some wool sweaters apparently will tolerate machine washing; this is not what we want. I have had variable luck in felting wool sweaters that say they can be hand washed and dried flat. Thrift stores are great places to shop for sweaters. I’ve paid anywhere from $2 - $10/sweater.

You may also have luck hitting friends and family members up for old sweaters! Get the largest sweaters you can find so you’ll have plenty of fabric. Very small moth holes in the body are okay as they’ll felt up or you can stitch the holes closed.

The thicker the sweater the better- it creates a more durable bag. Solid colors are best, as I’m noticing that different colors within a sweater sometimes shrink at different rates. I would also recommend unadorned sweaters – any embellishments (cables for example) may felt unevenly.

Sweater A (main body) is the grey one, Sweater B (bottom) is the purple. Note cutesy cotton fabric!

Wait to buy your yarn for the draw string and shoulder straps and the cotton for the top half of the bag until after you have felted the sweaters, as colors can change in felting and some knits just don’t felt well. There is an alternative to knitted cords, see step 5.

In a perfect world, you will be able to find thick, felt-able wool yarn to knit the draw string and shoulder strap in the same color as the base of the bag. If you can’t find it exactly, find some complementary color that works with your cotton. I used yarn that knits on 15’s and so only had to do 3 stitches across making for very fast work.

At the most you’ll need a ½ yard of cotton fabric that is 45” wide.

You will also need to buy a package of large eyelets. I used Dritz Extra Large Eyelet Kit (item number 660-65) and it worked great. The interior hole measures 7/16’s of an inch (1.1 cm). Well stocked fabric stores carry them.  Note Dritz also makes refills that don’t have the hardware for actually attaching the eyelets – item number 661-65. Don’t buy that unless you already have the kit version at home.

Equipment needed: washer and dryer for felting, standard sewing machine (and supplies), knitting needles to suit the yarn you bought, iron, and hammer.

Step 2: Felting Your Sweaters on Purpose

Felt the sweaters. Contrary to their bad rap, I’ve had no problem even with front-loading machines. I have had a problem trying to felt with a full load of laundry. Felting works best with a smaller load of laundry. Felt to the extent that the fabric is thick enough that things you would normally carry in the bag (Pen and pencil? Knitting needles? Other sharp pointy things?) won’t poke through easily. The individual knit stitches will now be unidentifiable. Beware that normal issues with washing dark colors and light together apply here.

Not clear on felting? Felting is the process of washing wool with some detergent and shrinking it. When you shrink it, it gets thicker and denser. Probably you have done this by accident at some point! Both washing and drying shrink wool so if you are happy with the results after washing do not put in the dryer, just let it dry flat (or my favorite – draped over a small trash can). There is no limit on how many times you can run a wool item through the wash/dry cycle – each time it will get a little smaller and thicker.

Felting also keeps the knit from developing a run.  If it is well and thoroughly felted, you can now cut it without worrying about it unraveling.

Step 3: Cut 'Em Down to Size

When dry, cut the sleeves off of both sweaters along the seam line. Cut off the ribbing on the bottom of the sweaters.

Your bag will vary in size depending on the original size of Sweater A and how much it shrunk. In the table pictured below you will see different measurements. Think of these as guiding your pattern pieces and finished project.  This is not an exact science; you need to be a little flexible with your expectations on size and measurements.

Think lucky thoughts, perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones and your Sweater A will perfectly fit Wool Body Pattern Piece Dimension 1, 2 or 3 measurements so that you won’t have to sew any side seams.  All pattern pieces are just basic shapes you can cut out of newspaper.

Cut 2 circles from Sweater B for the bottom of your bag. You need circles to match ‘Diameter of Finished Bag’ for your pattern size listed below plus two inches (margin of error and seam allowance). So for example 13.5 inches for pattern size ‘3’. I use a dinner plate as my starting pattern and just increase or decrease the cut size from there.

Step 4: Tiny Bit Tricky

Pin the body pieces  (Sweater A) to one of the bottom pieces (Sweater B) as if you were making up and adjust your side seams or trim your circle a little bit to make them all fit together well.

This step will not go well unless you pin the body section (Sweater A, grey here) an inch in from the edge all the way around. Remember you cut the bottom (Sweater B, purple here) two inches too big to allow for error (as if) and seam allowance.

The point of this step is to make sure before you start sewing or cutting that everything is going to fit together right.

Un-pin the sides from the bottom. 

If needed, stitch the side seams together.

Now stitch any design you want that will effectively turn the two Sweater B circles into one piece. The stitching needs to include a sewn outer circle indented an inch and a half or so all the way around. Trim whichever circle you want to be on the inside of the bag so that you have plenty of space to sew the piece that will be the outside of the bag to the sides.

Stitch the body of your bag (Sweater A) to the outside bottom piece (Sweater B) with outsides together (inside out). Reinforce the seam by sewing around a few more times. Trim the seam.

Step 5: Starting to Look Like Something

Cut the cotton piece. I do not pre-wash the cotton because I figure the day is going to come that I need to wash my bag. When I do, as previously mentioned, the wool will shrink more. I figure if I don’t pre-wash the cotton, there is a chance it will shrink at the same rate as the wool…probably wishful thinking.

Fold it in half length-wise, right sides together. Stitch the long sides together – you have a giant tube.
Turn right side out, iron.

Pin the cotton body to the wool body, outsides together. Fold the cotton’s edges back inside the tube (meaning make your tube a little shorter) on each short side of the cotton where the two edges come together so that they overlap by only ½ - ¾ inch at the front, partially unpin and iron the short edge fold over to make the sewing easier.

With outsides together sew wool body and cotton body together.

Step 6: Looks Great or Less Work?

There are several ways to make the drawstring and shoulder straps.

Knit I-cord drawstring- If I were a more patient person I’d knit an 8 or 10 inch segment first and felt it, to make sure that the diameter looks appropriate to my bag and to see how much the cord shrinks. But I’m not. Assuming you don’t know exactly how much this will shrink in the felting process, knit extra long – figure out what length you need allowing it to look attractive with bag fully open and with bag closed and drawstring tied. Once you have this length, multiply by 2.5. If in fact you tried a sample first you’ll be able to get more exact here, but always err on the large size. Measure the knitted but not felted cord.

Felt the cord and let it dry. You want to felt to the extent that the natural stretch of the knit is mostly gone.  Measure the cord – you need to know how much it shrinks so you can make the shoulder strap the right length without a lot of guess work.  Pros: looks great; cons: takes a little longer.

Braided drawstring – double or triple the yarn, braid to the same length as noted above. Felt and dry the cord.  The challenge with braiding it is getting a tight braid over a long expanse of yarn. A tight braid is imperative for it to felt properly! The best result I had was tying a knot to secure the three strands, hooking the end on something, balling up each of the three strands and so getting close to where the action is without tangling the ends. Still I found I needed to hand sew a few spots together and run it through the washer again. Pros: it’s really fast; cons: it doesn’t felt as well without a little TLC.

Step 7: Trap That Cord

Lay the cord inside your cotton tube along the upper folded edge. Allowing a little extra space for ease (an inch or so), sew to enclose your cord – this is your drawstring tube. I think it is easiest to leave the cord in and sew around it, instead of sewing and then trying to get the cord back in, but your call.

Step 8: Strap Them On

Make another cord for the shoulder strap (same choices as for the drawstring). Measure the length of a purse strap on a purse of comparable size that you like to see how long the strap should be. If you don’t have a purse the right size, go to a department store with a tape measure and figure it out. However long you want the finished strap to be, add 6 inches for knots at the ends. Remember this pattern calls for a double strap!

Felt the cord and let it dry. You want to felt to the extent that the natural stretch of the knit is mostly gone or the bag will end up by your knees.

Step 9: All Frustrations Eliminated

Attaching the shoulder strap - Following the instructions on the metal eyelet box, create two eyelets for your shoulder straps on either side of the bag at the top of the knit fabric. For the large bag, the centers of the eyelets should be about 2 inches apart; for smaller bags space closer.

Note: I couldn’t get the eyelets to stay in the fabric using one of those dainty ‘women’s hammers’. You need something with more heft to it in order to flatten the metal so that it is secure, and whack the daylight out them or they will not stay put.

Step 10: Beautification

Almost done! Now it’s just the finishing touches. You’ll want to top stitch the open ends of your cotton tube, between the wool and the drawstring tube and along the cotton/wool edge. Top stitching just above the cotton/wool seam really helps your fabric to lay smooth.

I would also finish the ends of the drawstring by either knotting them, or as pictured wrapping decorative wire or embroidery thread around the ends. I use 20 gauge wire. If you go with wire make sure you poke the sharp ends into the cord. You could strand a few beads on the wire or thread too.

You may also want to make an interior pocket or two – your call on dimensions and locations. Use your leftover cotton. Attach to the wool near the cotton/wool seam for stability.

Thread the shoulder strap through the holes and knot the ends. If your straps are too long, and you have properly felted the I-cord you can trim the ends without them unraveling.

Step 11: Bragging Rights

Show off your creation! Prance about town displaying your bag proudly! Tell all who inquire that it was INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT to make and should not be attempted by amateurs.

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