Intro: Hand Stitched Leather Backpack
If you've been following my account for a while, you'd know that I've been doing a lot of leather work lately. Unfortunately, this will be my last leather project, and instructables, for a while. I want to thank everyone who checked out my past instructables, wrote me comments of support and constructive criticism, and voted for me during the contests I participated in! I'm truly thankful and I'm glad I was able to be such an active member of this community during the past year!
With that said, let's begin the project! This backpack is geared toward my life as a student and was designed to carry my laptop, phone, writing utensils, books, snacks, and a few other small items. However, I wanted to add some cool features to make it a little more special. These include a secret pocket beneath the main front flap, protecting it from the elements and thieves. I really like how straps with buckles look, but I don't like having to undo buckles every time I want to open the bag, so I added magnetic clasps! Because of how easy it was to open the magnetic clasps, I included two hidden zippered flaps at the top of the bag as another step of security. I also wanted to include a holder for my favorite water bottle and due to its unique shape I was able to do this with only one strip of leather. You can simply leave this out if you don't want a bottle holder, or adjust the designs as necessary for your own bottle. Finally, I knew that I had to include the lash tab (or pig snout) as decoration and a way to hang more things from my backpack.
As usual, this project is geared towards people without professional leather working tools. All the stitching holes have already been marked and everything made to fit. The entire project can be made with basic tools that you should already have around. The rotary punch is the only exception, but you can simply replace it with a nail and a hammer.
All these designs were created in Adobe Illustrator and will be provided as a PDF in the step below!
Step 1: Materials & Design
For this project you will need the following items:
- Leather (I used an entire side of 5 oz vegetable tanned leather)
- Design (see below and be sure to print on 11" x 17" paper)
- 1 Large Buckle
- 2 Medium Buckles
- 4 D Rings
- 4 Magnetic Clasps
- 1 18cm Closed End Zipper
- 1 25 cm Separated Zipper
- Waxed Thread
- X-acto Knife
- Leather Awl (Just use large needle if you don't have one)
- Rotary Punch (nail and hammer will work as well)
Most of my leather accessories I bought online from Buckleguy.com. I'll link the items so you can see what I used.
Step 2: Design Process
The design process for this backpack started 2 months ago with a lot of research on pinterest. Basically, I looked a bunch of examples and took bits and pieces that I liked, which resulted in a schoolpack/rucksack that had all the features described in the introduction. I then took my ideas and began to realize them in illustrator. I started making the designs while I was in France, so I made the front and back panels the size of A4 printing paper. It wasn't until I began to make the bag in the USA that I realized that "A" paper sizes are not used in the USA so I had to tweak the design to fit 11"x17" paper. It's for this reason that most of the measurements are in the metric system but the outer dimensions are in the US standard system. In the end I ended up making the make 17" x 11" x 4.75" or 43cm x 28cm x 12cm. After a couple months of working on the design and waiting for the opportune time to begin working, I ended up having a 6 page pdf. Like I said, this project is beginner friendly so every single hole has been already laid out and everything ready to be stitched together
Before we begin putting the backpack together, I want to warn you that you may notice some of the photos do not match what is being said in each step. This is because I decided on the steps after I already created the backpack and reordered what I did to make it as easy as possible for you guys. So for example, you may notice from the pictures that I started to put together the outer pockets before attaching the clasps to the outer face of the pocket. I realized afterwards that it made much more sense to do it the other way around and that is what I instruct you guys to do in the steps. The pictures serve as wonderful examples of what the process should look like, but don't rely entirely on them! All righty, lets make this backpack!
Step 3: Scoring, Cutting, and Poking
Print out the designs on a heavy weight paper and cut them out with the scissors. Place each design on the leather and use a needle to score the outline onto the grain of the leather. Don't forget to also mark the stitching holes! Afterwards, use an x-acto knife to cut out the designs. Finally, use a large needle to poke out the holes.
Don't forget that some of the designs need to be used more than once, and sometimes they need to be flipped front face down for the second use (e.g. backstraps, sides)
Take your time during this process, the slower you go the better the results
Step 4: Snaps and Buckles
Start off by preparing all the clasps so we can attach them to the appropriate panels of the bag before we stitch them all together.
The magnet clasps are used in four places. Two are used for the outer pockets straps, one for the main strap, and the last for the bottle holder. Despite being used in different places and ways, the process for "installing" the clasps is similar and described below:
Take the disc and center it on the leather clasp squares with the rectangles angles at 45 degrees. This is to make sure that when we bend the clasps into place, the protruding metal won't cover the stitching holes. Using a needle mark the slots and use the x-acto knife to cut them. Next, slide the clasps into the slots, place the disc on top, and bend the metal into place.
For the clasps being used in straps, the female part of the magnet will be stitched onto the front panel of the backpack or the front panel of the outer pockets and the male part will be stitched onto the piece holding the buckle. For the bottle holder the female part of the clasp will be stitched on the side panel and the male part will be stitched on the opposite side of the band of the bottle holder.
When stitching the buckle pieces don't forget to include the buckle loops! I place mine right above the center of the magnet or as close as possible if the stitching did not allow for being right on top.
For all stitching concerning the buckles we are going to use the saddle stitch. This is because the saddle stitch is very strong and doesn't become undone as easily to more decorative stitches. Here's a good tutorial for saddle stitching.
When stitching, make sure to back stitch 2 - 3 times before snipping off the ends. I usually like to knot the thread and hide it if possible, but if you back stitch enough times you can simple just snip the excess without worrying about the stitching coming undone.
Step 5: Zippers
The next step is to stitch on the zippers. Using the closed end zipper we will create the hidden pocket. Simply center the zipper in slot on the front panel and use alternating X stitches to fasten it in place. Make sure to fold over the loose ends of the zipper onto itself and stitch over them. This helps make the stitching look clean and avoid the zipper from getting caught in the loose ends. Make sure that when you stitch the top part of hidden pocket zipper, you also stitch the actual flap that makes the pocket.
The process for the separated zippers on the security flaps is exactly the same.
I just want to mention that if you have little pins, you can use them to hold everything in place as you stitch. I did not do this and you can tell that my zippers look a little warped because of it.
I quite like the black that I used for the zippers, but I can't help but think if the backpack would have looked better if I was consistent with the colors and had used silver instead. Maybe that's something that you can try!
I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but when choosing the length of thread for a certain part of stitching take at least 3.5 times the length of the stitching area. We need at least double the length because we have needles on both ends of the thread and they need to go at least the length of the stitching area, minimum. The extra length takes into account the distance of going to opposite sides of the leather and making sure you have extra thread at the end to easily finish stitching with a couple back stitches.
Step 6: Front Panels
Ok, so now we are going to start attaching our outer pockets to the front of the bag. Begin by attaching the straps to the pocket flaps using alternating X stitches (only attach the upper two rows of stitches of the straps). Next, stitch the flaps onto the front panel and make sure that at the same time you are stitching the bottom part of the hidden pocket as well. Once you finish that, its time to attach the the pocket. From step 4 we should already have the female components of our clasps attached to the front face of the pocket. I continued by stitching together the front part of the pocket to the side of the pocket, and the stitching that to the front of the backpack. Make sure you are using the saddle stitch.
Step 7: Bottom and Side Panels
Once you are finished with the pockets move to the sleeve. Using alternating X stitches we are going to attach the sleeve to the side and bottom panels. I orientated the sleeve so that the grain of the leather would be facing the front of the bag. I was worried that having the flesh of the sleeve and back panel would create too much friction to easily slide my laptop into and out of the slot, but it worked out fine! If you chose to include the bottle holder, it should already have been stitched onto one of the side panels. That's it for the bottom and side panels!
Step 8: Back Panel
Start off by attaching the main strap to the end of the flap using alternating X stitches (again we are only worrying about the top two rows for now). Attach the lash tab using the saddle stitch. With the same stitch, attach the back straps onto the back panel. I noticed that in my backpack the back straps were attached too high on the back panel and caused the top flap to warp a bit, so I updated the design and lowered it for you guys. Next, we need to attach the D rings to the back straps. Again, because of the heavy pressure we will be using saddle stitches. Finally we need to attach our leather strips to the triangles that will attach to the bottom back of the bag.
It may look like saddle stitches won't be able to hold up against heavy loads, but so far they have been working great for me. If you are really worried, you can always go with rivets instead of thread.
Step 9: Attaching the Panels
Ok so now that almost everything has been attached to the outer panels we are going to stitch them together. I started by attaching the side panels to the bottom panels, then attached the front panel to the bottom and side panels and finally attached the back to the bottom and side panels. Make sure that as you attach the front panel to the side panel that you include the sides of the hidden pocket. Also, remember that when stitching the back panel, you need include the two triangles that will attach to the back straps.
For this process we are going to use the saddle stitch for its strength and durability. The corners can be a bit tricky to stitch around, but there is no right way to do it. I'll include photos of how I did it as a reference.
When I attached the panels, I stitched the sides to the bottom using two separate thread (one for each side) and then used two long separate threads to attach the entire front panel at once and the entire back panel at once. Feel free to change the order you stitch the panels together. My only suggestion is that you start by attaching the bottom first and working your way up so that you won't be reaching into the bottom of the bag to finish stitching.
Step 10: Final Details
To finish this project there are just a few more things we need to do.
First add the perimeter stitching on the pocket and main flaps. You may notice that some of the stitching isn't finished in my project, this is because I ran out of thread haha! Next, holes must be punched out in the straps for the buckles. I've provided suggestion holes but feel free to place them where you want. For the smaller straps I've placed my holes 1 cm apart and for the main strap they are 2 cm apart. Finally, we need to string the strips through the D rings to finish the back straps. Voila! You've made you're own leather backpack!
From here, there are a few more things you can do to make your backpack even better. Firstly, you can check the edges and remove any extra material to make sure everything is flush. Next, you can stain the leather to whatever color you want. I personally am not fond of the natural vegetable tanned leather color and will staining this chestnut as soon as I get some stain. If you're not a fan of raw edges then burnishing the edges looks really good. And of course, you can add whatever attachments and modifications to this design. The great thing about this project is it is so flexible and easy to adapt to your needs. In the future I want to add padding to the back straps, add a handle to the top of the bag, and potentially create another hidden pocket in the flap.
I hope you guys enjoyed this tutorial and if any of you try to make this backpack please post some images. I really do enjoy seeing you guys recreate and improve my designs! Also, I know I forgot to mention some details so please ask me and I will get back to you as soon as possible! As always, if you have any tips for me or anyone else who may take on this project, feel free to write them below.
Grand Prize in the