Introduction: Creating Leather Straps and Handles

In this last lesson I'm going show you some techniques for creating leather straps and handles, and how to apply those techniques to your bag design. You'll have the option to turn it into a purse with several strap styles, or create a shoulder harness that will turn two of the smaller bags into underarm holsters. I'll show you how to measure to get the right strap length for your own body, and how to turn those measurements into a pattern.

If you'd like to see how to turn your bag into a pocket belt or leg bag instead, check out my instructable on Leather Pocket Belts.

In this lesson I'll be using:

  • x-acto knife
  • awl
  • stitching chisels
  • mallet
  • quartz slab and poundo board
  • cutting mat
  • cutting wheel
  • rotary punch
  • stitching pony
  • double sided tape
  • metal and clear plastic ruler
  • cloth tape measure
  • oak tag for making mock-ups
  • pencil and paper or computer and printer
  • strong sharp scissors
  • rapid rivets
  • snaps and snap setter
  • one 1" buckle
  • one O-ring
  • thick waxed thread
  • grommets and grommet setter
  • thin and thick leather for double and single layer straps
  • rope for the core of a round handle
  • your finished bag or purse
  • Using Grommets

    Before we talk about straps directly, we're going to learn how to use one more piece of hardware that can be useful in belt and strap connections: grommets.

    Grommets are two part metal rings that make a reinforced hole in leather. They are often used to create attachment points for other hardware, or small holes for lacing up a wearable leather piece like a corset, shoe or arm bracer. They can also hold two or more pieces of leather together like rivets with a hole through the center. You can even use them purely for decoration, like I did on my Millennium Falcon Bag. Grommets are a good tool to have in your leather skills arsenal.

    Grommets come in all different sizes and each size needs a different setting tool, which can be annoying. The setting tools have two parts like a snap setter. A concave base that holds the top of the grommet and a shaft with a shaped end that you use to hammer the two pieces together.

    To set a grommet you first need to cut a hole the right size, which is often bigger than standard leather hole punch sizes. Grommet setting kits sometimes come with punches the right size, or you can buy them separately. You can also just use your largest existing hole punch and punch several times to create a large enough, if slightly misshapen, hole.

    Once you have a big enough hole punched, push the larger top piece of the grommet through from the grain side and slide the smaller bottom ring over the central stem on the flesh side.

    Use the setting shaft and a mallet to hammer the two halves together. It can take a bit of force to set them properly.

    Single Layer Shoulder Straps

    When you want to create a strap out of single layer of leather, you need to use leather that is thick and strong enough that it won't stretch or break. You should choose a leather that is at least 6-9 oz and not stretchy. A lot of straps are made from thick veg tanned leather, but in the chrome tanned leather world, a thick latigo, or even a stiff stamped leather can be a good choice for a single layer strap.

    To create a shoulder strap for a bag, first decide what style of strap you want to create. Do you want it to be adjustable or fixed length? Buckle, snap or rivet attachment? It's usually good to maintain continuity between the style of your bag and the style of the strap. Shoulder straps should be between 5/8" and 1 1/2" wide, depending on the size and proportions of the bag. Straps with a continuous width of more than 1 1/2" will tend to fall off your shoulder.

    Straps should attach securely to your bag in at least two places. In this case you need to create a strap with ends that will fit through the 1" D rings we've already attached to our larger bag (or the 3/4" D rings on our smaller bag). To get the length of the strap for a bag, you can look at bags you already wear and measure their strap length, or just take a cloth measuring tape and drape it over your shoulder to find the right length. A strap length that allows the bag to sit around the hip is a good standard length. In my case this is 40".

    To make a strap with an adjustable length, I created a strap with a consistent 1" width, and added a buckle on one side. It's best to put the buckle near one end of the strap because if it ends up sitting on your shoulder or back it will be uncomfortable. In order to add the buckle, the strap needs to be two separate parts. I decided to put my buckle 10" up the strap, so the short end of the strap is 10" + 2" on each end for attachment, 14" total. The long end of the strap is 30" + 4" for buckle adjustment on one end, and 2" for attachment on the other end, 36" total.

    I used a cutting wheel and a metal ruler to cut long strap pieces and then trimmed them to the right length.

    Punch some holes in one end of the long strap, I punched 8 holes spaced 1" apart, then attach a 1" center bar buckle to one end of the short strap.

    Now attach the other end of the short and long straps to the D rings on the bag. You could rivet them on for a permanent attachment, or decide to add snaps so they will be removable. You could also use grommets here and attach the bag with swivel snaps. There are a lot of options.

    Think about which side of your body you are more likely to wear a purse, for me this is the right side, so I attached the long strap to that side of the purse so the buckle will face backward when I have the bag over my shoulder.

    Double Layer Shoulder Straps

    Double layer shoulder straps are basically made the same way we made the double layer belt in the last lesson. Two layers of thinner leather are sewn together to create a reinforced strap with grain on both sides. To create the pattern, just follow the same measurements you used to create a single layer shoulder strap, but laminate two layers of thinner leather to create each strap.

    If you don't have leather that is thick enough to be used as a single layer strap, you can reinforce thinner leather by sewing two layers together. This can be fairly time consuming when you are hand sewing, but it does create a nice finished look with the grain of the leather facing out on both sides.

    To create this kind of strap, design your pattern basically the same way you did for the single layer strap, but add a sewing line about 1/8" in from the edge of the pattern. (In these photos, I'm creating a double layer shaped belt, not a strap, but the idea is the same.)

    To get perfectly matching edges on the two layers of leather that make up the strap, I usually don't make my final edge cuts until I have sewn the two layers together. To do this, cut out a piece of leather at least 1/4" bigger than your strap pattern on all sides. Then glue, or double sided tape, this piece of leather to another piece, flesh sides together, and cut the second piece to the same size as the first.

    Now trace the sewing lines of your pattern onto the leather (I cut my paper pattern pieces out along the sewing lines instead of the cutting lines, and then just traced around the edges). Punch sewing holes along these lines with a stitch chisel or an awl.

    Sew around the leather, attaching the two layers of the strap or belt with a saddle stitch.

    Now, with scissors, or an X-Acto knife, carefully cut 1/8" out from the sewing line to create a clean edge.

    Add a buckle, snap or other closure to your strap or belt in the same way you would if it was a single layer. Just be sure to never punch through your stitch lines when you are adding hardware.

    Round Handles or Straps

    A round handle or strap adds a nice look to a leather or canvas bag and also makes a thin strap stronger. Round handles are often made in pairs which are attached to each side of a bag with an open top. You could also make a single long round strap and attach it to the larger bag design we've created.

    This kind of strap or handle is made by sewing a piece of leather around a core made out of a rope or cord. To attach the handle, you need to create shaped ends on the strap that will be sewn or riveted directly onto the bag, or onto a ring. Designing the shape of these ends can add a distinct style to your design.

    To create a round strap or handle, first decide how long you want it to be. Cut a section of your rope core this length, then measure the circumference of the rope with a tape measure, in my case it is 1 1/8".

    Trace a rectangular outline onto leather 1 1/8" wide and about 4 inches longer than the rope on each side for the strap ends). Cut out the strap, leaving 1/2" seam allowance on each long side. Punch sewing holes along the side lines starting 3 1/4" in from each end.

    Use some double sided tape to stick your rope core down the center of the strip on the flesh side.

    Now take a needle and thread and sew the leather together around the rope using a saddle stitch.

    When you've finished stitching, trim the edge of the seam, leaving a 1/8" - 1/4" seam allowance.

    Shape the ends to your liking, keeping in mind how you plan to attach them. You could leave them straight and rivet them around the rings of a bag, or if you wanted to sew them directly to the bag, you might give them more of a diamond shape like this, and then punch sewing holes through them and the bag.

    Turn Your Small Bag Into a Shoulder Harness

    The last strap variation I am going to show you is a double shoulder harness that will attach two of the smaller bags under your arms. Harness bags like these are great for festivals, concerts and other adventures where you want your hands free.

    To create this harness, we are going to make 4 straps that all meet at a ring at the top of your back, wrap around your shoulders, and snap onto the D rings of the pouches under your arms.

    To get the approximate length of the straps, I took one of my small leather bags and held it against my side under my arm sitting just above the hip where it seemed like it would be comfortable to wear. Then I had a friend use a cloth tape measure to measure from the middle of my upper back over my shoulder to the D ring on the front of the bag (17"), and from the same place on my back to the D ring on the back of the bag (10").

    I marked these measurements on my sketch and then mocked up 4 straps in oak tag that fit these dimensions to check if they were correct. I tried on the mock up and made some slight adjustments so the bags were sitting where I wanted them to sit. I also marked where the front strap crossed the shoulder and underarm.

    I drafted my strap patterns in Illustrator, adding some thickness to the front straps over the shoulder to make them more comfortable, but making sure they narrowed again before the underarm. Then I cut the straps out of my thick black strap leather.

    I used a large O ring in the back of the harness to connect my 4 straps, looping them around the ring and riveting them. I used snaps on the other ends of the straps so they could be looped around the D rings of the small bags to attach them.

    You could come up with a lot of variations on this style. You could use a thinner leather and make double layer straps, or straps with more interesting shape. You could use buckles instead of snaps, or attach small grommets and lace up the back instead of using an O ring. You could also add straps across the front of the chest for additional security and a different style.

    You're Done!!

    By adding a strap or belt of your choice, you've finished creating your own custom bag! If you've turned your bag into a purse, it will be a great size for holding your essentials, and a shoulder harness or hip belt gives you a convenient way to carry small items while still keeping your hands free. I've been wearing shoulder harness around the studio so I can carry my phone and listen to podcasts while I make even more leather projects!

    Whatever version you've created, I'm sure you've found a way to make something awesome and unique that works for you. Feel free to post a picture here of what you've come up with so we can bask in the glory of your creative brilliance :)

    Taking Leatherwork Further

    I hope that this class has left you feeling informed and inspired! It was my intention in these lessons, to not only direct you through the step by step process of making leather projects, but, more importantly, to empower you to come up with your own ideas. I wanted to expose you to the tools, materials and techniques that will help you move forward, but I intentionally left our projects fairly open ended to put some of the aesthetic control in your hands. I'm sure you've come up with some interesting variations on my designs, and I can't wait to see them!

    I also designed this class with the hope of demonstrating that working with leather can be easy! Leatherwork is undoubtedly a complex art, and we've really only scratched the surface here, but look what we've been able to create with just a few simple techniques!

    The best way to internalize any skill is to keep practicing it, so I highly recommend finding another project to work on soon. Instructables is full great leatherworking projects that will give you even more inspiration. Some of these projects use veg tanned leather and a few skills we haven't covered here, like dying, burnishing and tooling. If you aren't ready to tackle these new skills, or you don't have the right supplies, you can often adapt these projects for chrome tanned leather by choosing the right weight of leather and simply eliminating the dying and tooling portion of the project.

    I've assembled a collection of projects that I think your newly acquired skills will make you well prepared for. They are arranged at the bottom of this page page in order from extremely easy to quite challenging.

    I really hope you've enjoyed this class! feel free to ask questions in the discussion section. If you have comments, feedback, or want to share resources you've discovered, please send me a private message via my member page. Please share photos of your projects here, and if you keep creating with leather or any material, I encourage you to publish you projects as Instructables and enter them in Instructables contests! I can't wait to see what you create!

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