As my first ever leather project, I've decided to jump in the deep end and make myself a hand-stitched backpack.
This was born out of necessity as my old bag was knocking on death's door. The main zip was busted beyond repair, and the holes were starting to leak coins.
I hope to use the bag for many years to come. When it needs repairs (which I doubt will be any time soon), I'll be able to fix it since I know it inside-and-out.
Most importantly, it will be my bag - the only one of its kind in the world.
This is also a very photo-heavy instructable, please refer to them for more information.
So join me in my journey, and do feel free to leave any comments, advice and suggestions!
Step 1: Research & Design
As any good novice should, research what we're going to make.
Materials, tools, techniques, design, and processes are all important things we should consider - what is the purpose of your bag? What's it made of?
What did I need?I needed a backpack for uni that could fit a 15" laptop, as well as some A4 booklets sideways.
I highly recommend watching guides on YouTube - the Leather Build Along #4: Messenger Bag by the talented Mr. Ian Atkinson proved hugely useful in both the design and the construction process of my bag.
When designing a bag from scratch, it is often easier to use another suitable bag as a rough template for the dimensions of the bag, and the length of the straps.
Additionally, I kept the pieces as whole as possible to minimise seams and stitches as they would be very time-consuming being done by hand, as well as being more durable. To do this, incorporate bends and creases of a whole rather than separate pieces for the edges. This method will tend to produce a more rounded figure as opposed to sharp angles. However, if angles are your thing and you have some time on your hands, go right ahead.
Feel free to download my template and use, or personalise it to suit your needs. But please do give due credits if you share it elsewhere.
Compile a list of required tools & materials
Before purchasing the materials, look at tutorials and images of similar bags online.
This will be very useful in catching anything you might have missed.
When you're sure the list is good, buy them!
I bought my items online, but it's a good idea to shop around for best prices. Check your local tanneries, craft stores, or even your leather-savvy friend.
- Leather - about 16 square feet/1.5 square meters (I used a cow leather side)
- 3x 24cm zips or 1x 50cm (for main compartment) and 1x 24cm zip (interior pocket)
- 50m Thread (preferably waxed) - I used flat, 1.0mm waxed Tiger thread by Julius Koch
- x18 Rivets / Chicago screws
- x2 Buckles to suit shoulder straps
- x5 Screw-back feet (optional)
- 2x Blunt needles - I used size 18 John James needles
- Hole punch
- Stitch punch
- Xacto knife
- Flat-head screw-driver
- Steel ruler
- Edge groover (optional - I used a drawing compass)
- Over-stitch wheel (optional)
Step 2: The Basics
Marking & punching the stitch lines
- Drag any pointed tool + ruler to mark the stitch line. A flathead screwdriver works fine.
- You may also use a leather groover if you want the stitching to be flush with the surface of the leather.
- Hammer along the line with the stitch punch until the punch has cleanly penetrated. Overlap 1 or 2 of the holes for a consistent, straight line.
- Do this on a stable, solid surface with a piece of scrap leather underneath to protect the punch and the surface.
Calculate and cut how much thread is required
- This depends on the thickness of the leather and the stitch spacing, but the general rule of thumb is 1.5x the length of the stitch line when the thread is doubled up.
- Having the thread too long will be very annoying - try to not to exceed your arm's length.
- If you run out of thread in the middle of a stitch line, don't fret! Just tie it off discretely on the hidden side and continue on with a fresh thread.
Threading the needle
- Pass the one end (E1) of the thread through the needle hole.
- Push the needle through the centre of the passed thread, leaving about 1"/2.5cm from E1.
- Pull on the long side of the thread to tighten.
- Twist the length of E1 flush with the long end of the thread. (optional)
- Saddle stitch is recommended - see video
Burnishing the edges
- After stitching, you might want to add a neat look to your edges by staining them with leather dye, and burnishing with a conditioning oil.
- This is optional and I didn't do this since I prefer the rough, rustic look for a backpack. However, I were to make a small item (e.g. a wallet), I would definitely burnish the edges.
*Many thanks to Instructables for the How to Saddle Stitch Leather tutorial, and Tandy Leathers for the Finishing Edges tutorial
Step 3: Template & Cutting
For the template
- Print the blueprint full-scale on an A0 paper at a print-shop. This cost $4 at Officeworks.
- Carefully cut it out with a ruler and knife.
For the leather
- Arrange the template pieces to minimise wastage and tape it down.
*You'll need to reuse the shoulder strap templates to cut 2 sets from the leather.
- Mark/outline the corners with an awl. While you're doing this, it's useful to also mark the rivet points, stitch lines, crease lines, and any noteworthy points.
- Remove the template and cut the pieces out with a ruler and knife.
*Using the chisel for small cuts and holes will be much easier than using a knife
Step 4: Front Compartment
First, let's make the front compartment.
Let me explain my design.
Ever struggled to slide in single, or even thin booklets of A4 sheets into your backpack? Maybe I'm just clumsy, but they always ended up crinkled. I wanted a pocket that would comfortable fit A4 documents sideways, as opposed to upright as most backpacks are made. This makes insertion and retrieval a piece of cake.
By making the front compartment its own entity, I created the enclosed space between it and the front panel of the main compartment into a separate interior pocket. This was done by making a zipped slot on the backside of the piece (as shown in the drawing). If I were to simply stitch on a flap with a lid, this would not be possible. the slot for the zip consists of a single cut line, and this allows the zip to be hidden when closed - see photos for reference.
Additionally, I folded the sides like an accordion. This looks very sleek under ordinary circumstances, but provides excellent storage capacity when required.
Magnet closures were used for convenience. This way, I can sling the backpack over one shoulder and reach inside the front compartment with one hand.
Construction - the following parts assume that pieces are cut out and the stitch points marked
Step 5: Front Compartment: Zip Slot
- Punch the stitch line as marked on the blueprint.
- Cut out the squares at the ends of the zip slot. Chisels are best for easy, clean results.
- See the photo. In retrospect, the 2nd cutout wasn't necessary and disrupts the clean look.
- Make an incision along the centre line of the slot.
- Use thumbtacks to hold the zip in position. Securing the pointy ends with paperclips will prevent them from falling out.
- Make sure the zip is stitching on the epidermis/glossy side, with the zip facing down. Remember, the suede side is the interior, and the zip is to be opened from this side.
- Stitch down the zip.
Step 6: Front Compartment: Magnet Closures
- Cut out 2x 5cm squares to be stitched onto the lid.
- Magnet closures will be attached to these pieces. This prevents the metal backsides of the closures from being visible on the exterior of the lid flap.
- Secure the magnet closures (preferably the thin, dimple part) to the squares.
- Attach suede-side up to match the interior of the lid.
- This step might need hole punches and small cuts to slide the folding pieces in.
- Glue the squares to appropriate locations. (optional, but convenient)
- These are not marked on the blueprint since the most suitable locations will depend on the thickness of the leather and the crispness of the accordion folds.
- Mark and stitch onto the lid.
I advise you not to attach the receiving component of the closure until you've done the next step. This makes it easier to estimate where it should go for easy closure.
The steps for attaching the receiving components are identical to step 2. I didn't make squares for these since it seemed unnecessary.
Step 7: Front Compartment: Accordion Folds
- Mark the fold lines on the leather, using the blueprint.
- Wet the lines with water - this makes it easier to fold and holds much better when dry.
- Make the first fold.
- First fold the wing flush inwards along the line, then press and hold with a flat, heavy object. I used a large book and weights to hold it down.
- Leave until dry - takes anywhere from 1hr to 6hrs.
- When dry, the fold should hold without any pressure.
- Repeat for the second fold, this time outwards along the line, flush with the first fold.
- Repeat for the other side.
After making the folds, it should be easy to estimate where the receiving magnetic clasp should go. Temporarily clip the completed fold to the back panel of the compartment to make this even easier.
Then attach the receiving clasps. Refer back to the previous step if needed.
Step 8: Front Compartment: Stitching to the Main Bag
- Punch & stitch the top and bottom lines of front compartment to the front panel of the main bag.
- Use the corresponding stitch lines A and B on the blueprints as a guide.
- Make sure to get the orientation correct! An upside-down compartment wouldn't be very useful.
- Punch & stitch the sides to the main bag.
- Since you'll be punching through 3 layers of leather, take care to ensure that the angle is consistent.
- Depending on the room, this can get fairy loud. Hearing protection is recommended.
- Use pliers to help push & pull the needles through. A thimble will also be useful.
Like before, use thumbtacks to secure the sections while stitching.
Step 9: Front Panel
Moving on to the real deal.
As mentioned before, I wanted to miminise the amount of stitching needed. So I tried my best to use folds more than stitch lines, as shown. So be careful when interpreting the blueprint - some of the lines are fold lines, not stitch lines!
One issue I had with my old bag was that the zips were very exposed, leading to unfortunate wet documents (and laptop!) in rainy weather. So I incorporated extended zip cover flaps to guard against the sneaky droplets. If you are making this bag, feel free to leave out the zip handle cutouts for extra protection. An additional note regarding the stitch lines - the blueprints include a 1cm leeway from the edge for all stitch lines.
I also used two 24cm zips instead of one long one since I preferred having the opening at the middle. One long zip with 2 handles would be ideal, but I couldn't find any.
Onto the construction!
Step 10: Front Panel: Zips
- Mark & punch the stitch line without the zip.
- Pin along the line with thumbtacks every ~5cm.
- Place the zip on the pins & secure with clips.
- I left about 5mm gap from the stitch line to the zip teeth.
- Stitch in place.
- Since I used 2 separate zips, I tucked the excess fabric in the middle and stitched over them to avoiding bunching up. If you opt for one long zip, this won't be necessary.
Step 11: Front Panel: Corners
- Make a diagonal cut in the corner of the wing, leaving 3mm from the inside.
- Punch corresponding stitch lies into the top of the side panels and the ends of the wings, as shown on the blueprint.
- Try to make the stitch holes align when they are overlapped together.
- Fold the wings over itself and secure with clips.
- Punch & stitch to the edge - you know the drill now.
- Flip it inside out.
- You should now have a very nice looking corner.
- Tuck the remaining flap under the side panel.
- Stitch to the very end using the previously punched holes.
- Repeat for the other corner.
Step 12: Shoulder Straps
After much thought, I decided that it would be best to make the straps as one would a belt. It would be made completely out of leather, with 2 straps stitched back to back for added strength.
Being made this way, the amount of stitching required is quite daunting. But when you have it all prepped and threaded, just put on a movie (or two, if you're a novice like me) and stitch away.
The buckles and loops are secured with rivets/chicago screws.
Step 13: Shoulder Straps: Cont.
- Cut out four copies each of the top & bottom shoulder straps, using the template.
- I cut the ends into a half-octagon shape. This is purely for decoration as unlike a belt, you won't be adjusting very often.
- Group the straps into 2 sets of corresponding pairs, and use clips to secure.
- Punch and stitch.
- Bench vice clamps will make this task much easier.
- For the top strap, leave a portion of the rivet-end unstitched. Instead, box off the stitch about 1-2cm before this end - see photo for reference.
There is really no quick 'n easy way to go about this. It will take time and effort, and you'll most likely end up with sore fingers. However, it's not a bad way to relax - also a good excuse to catch up on movies you've been wanting to watch but never quite found the time.
Step 14: Shoulder Straps: Buckling Up
Top shoulder strap
- Mark and punch out 6 holes with 2cm intervals for the buckle tongue.
- This would be different to suit different bodies, but mine was 45cm from the rivet-end (that attaches to the bag). It's a good idea to use an existing bag to get an accurate approximation.
Cut two 12x2cm straps.
- Punch & stitch flush.
- Use whatever method you're comfortable with - this won't be visible.
- Try not to overlap the ends while stitching - this will make the folds too bulky.
Bottom shoulder strap
- Mark the suitable location for the buckle.
- This will vary depending on the thickness of the leather and the buckle used. I encourage you to try out different locations and find the best spot instead of using the template provided.
- Cut out a 2.5x0.4cm rectangle along the centre of the strap.
- This is for the tongue of the buckle. Again, this will vary depending on the thickness of the leather and the size of the buckle used.
- Feed the loop through, then the buckle.
- The folded flap should go behind. It took me a few tries to get the orientation of the buckle correct.
- Feed the buckle tongue through the cutout and fold the strap over.
- Use clips and thumbtacks to hold the straps while marking the locations for the rivets.
- Rivet down (or punch out holes and attach chicago screws)
- Slide the keeper loop against the rivets.
- Rivet down the other side, trapping the loop.
Test the fit to make sure everything's good, but it's easier to keep the straps separated when stitching onto the bag.
Step 15: Back Panel
For the purposes of strength and minimising stitches, the back panel extends down and folds to act as the bottom panel. For durability, I stitched an additional panel (bottom 2 on the blueprint) onto this bottom section.
Furthermore, I used brass screw-back feet to protect the leather and stitching on the bottom.
Step 16: Back Panel: Hand Strap
- Secure the hand strap to the back panel using thumbtacks.
- Feel free to cut out two copies of the hand strap to double it up. This will make it stronger but I felt it was unnecessary.
- Also note that the interior set of markers are for the hand straps, not the exterior sets.
- Punch & stitch.
Step 17: Back Panel: Attaching Lower Shoulder Strap
- Trim the bottom end of the lower strap to suit the angle of the back panel - see photo for reference
- Don't worry about cutting the threads - you'll go over them again when stitching the strap down.
- Punch the stitch hole following the shape of the strap.
- Stitch the straps onto the suede-side.
- Repeat for the other side.
Important: The inner (not the outer) side of the shoulder strap should be stitched facing the suede-side of the back panel.
Also after this, punch the stitch line to suit the the top shoulder strap at the corresponding locations on the back panel. These are the outer sets of markers on the template - also see photo for reference.
- Align the top strap in the correct position and secure with thumbtacks.
- Hammer with the stitch punch together.
- Don't stitch together yet.
Step 18: Back Panel: Bottom Panel
- Secure the bottom panel to the corresponding section of the back panel - use template for reference.
- Punch the stitch holes on all four sides.
- Stitch only on the top side for now.
- By doing this, you won't be stitching twice-over when attaching the back panel to the front panel in the next stage.
Step 19: Assembling Main Compartment
The back panel will be stitched on top of the sides of the front panel. This is why there is a 1cm border around all sides that will be stitched. This is much more difficult in comparison to the conventional way, but I much preferred the cleaner looking outcome of this method.
Punch the stitches along all edges that will be stitched together. This will require some forethought and insight into how the pieces will be assembled together. Don't rush, take your time and make sure all corresponding edges align.
Step 20: Assembling the Main Compartment: Zip
- Position and secure the zips like you did for the front panel (with thumbtacks ad clips).
- Start stitching from the centre.
- Take care to tuck in the excess fabric at the end of the zip when stitching.
- Starting from the centre will prevent any potential misalignment.
- Cut a notch in the zip flap (see photo for reference) for a smooth stitching transition from zip to body.
- Wire cutters work surprisingly well, much better than scissors or knives
- Transition onto the body of the bag, making sure the back panel is on top of the sides.
- Test the zip for good alignment.
- Repeat for the other side.
Step 21: Assembling the Main Compartment: Sides and Bottom
- Continue stitching down the sides.
- Now continue stitching onto the top of the strap part.
- Four layers of leather is very difficult to pass a needle through, even with pre-punched stitch holes.
- Use awls to re-establish/align the stitch holes and pliers to help push/pull the needle.
- Stop and tie off (on the inside of the bag) when you've reached the bottom panel.
- Start a new stitch on top of the bottom panel, stitching all the layers (bottom panel, bottom part of the back panel, bottom part of the side of the front panel) together.
- Continue stitching around the perimeter of the bottom panel - it should now start resembling an actual bag.
- Tie off somewhere near the middle and repeat for the other side.
The bulk of the work is now done - you're nearly there!
Step 22: Attaching the Top Strap
- Stitch the top straps to their corresponding places on the back panel.
- This should be fairly straightforward given the pre-punched stitch holes.
Step 23: Attaching Rivets
You survived and have now reached the final, and most riveting stage.
Select areas where the joins in the leather would experience most stress, and secure them with rivets for extra strength and durability.
These areas are typically:
- shoulder-strap ends
- handle-strap ends
- flap seams
- corner seams
- ...and anywhere else the leather overlaps on a joint
I used Chicago screws because I wasn't familiar with rivets and didn't have an arbor press, but feel free to pick your fancy! If you are using Chicago screws, it would be best to use some Loctite or similar products to prevent them from getting undone.
Step 24: Finished.
It has truly been a hugely gratifying, fun and challenging journey. As a complete novice to leather-work, the learning curve from nil-to-backpack was incredibly steep.
Sure, it was at times tedious and time-consuming.
Yes, it was an effort balancing uni, assignments, exams and work with this.
But in the end, over the course of about a month, I had something to show for my battlescars (ahem, needle-pricks).
Most importantly, I had something that I am proud to carry.
If you have also completed this project, I applaud your effort and patience. You should be extremely proud. If you are a viewer, I also thank you for having the patience to see this through to the end.
I have a rekindled respect for the artists who do this on an everyday basis, and this is definitely my first of many leather projects to come.