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January 8, 2011 / passiveprogressive

Arts and Crafts Time: making a new book bag for cheap

Dirty and threadbare, my old North Face backpack is a sad sight. Finally decided to retire it this week after eleven years (I’ve had it since fourth grade!) – but this left me in a pricey predicament.

After shopping around locally, it seemed as though most quality backpacks were in the $70-$90 range. This wouldn’t be such a bad price if these bags were to last ten years, but somehow the lightweight nylon just doesn’t seem as durable as canvass.

In any case, I decided to set out to see what exactly makes a bag so expensive by making one myself.

I’ve always been a fan of messenger bags. Many of my German friends pointed out Freitag as an excellent brand. Basically, they take used tarpaulins off of trucks and turn them into bags. For more information on the process, check out their “about” page.

Just one problem: Freitag’s products cost a fortune.

A Freitag Bag. Price: upwards of $150.

So I decided to shop around for my own sources of vinyl and came across Sunraise Printing in nearby Hadley, MA. I got a small sheet of vinyl to start with, and the manger suggested I come back later if I wanted more. The sheet he gave me had a few ink smudges on it, but was otherwise intact.

Here’s a full list of the materials I used:

  • 3′ x 6′ piece of vinyl.
  • Adhesive Velcro
  • Reflective tape
  • An old karate belt
  • White and green thread
  • Plastic buckles

Psyched by free materials I returned home and drew up some grand plans:

I drew up the pattern for my messenger bag before beginning construction.


Sewing was often difficult because I had to sew through up to four layers of fabric at a time. If you plan on selling through vinyl, be sure to first start off turning the sewing machine by hand rather than using the electric motor. Also, I used denim needles which are thicker and more difficult to break. But if I had the option, I would definitely have used a larger upholstery machine.

I added a few features that I thought would be nice: reflective tape, an adjustable strap, and a black stabilizing strap for when I ride my bike. Overall I’m very please the results:


In retrospect though, I would’ve changed a few things. If you plan on making a bag yourself, pay attention.

  1. If you want the type of messenger bag that hangs across your back as opposed to the type that hangs from your shoulder next to your hip, be sure the buckle for the strap will fall across your chest and not your shoulder. The strap buckle on this bag sometimes it’s my collarbone, making it a little uncomfortable if I’m just wearing a T-shirt.
  2. Vinyl is difficult to sew on, so don’t bother using any fancy stitching, such as a chain stitch. Even a simple zigzag was sometimes too much for my sewing machine to handle.
  3. Make the strap continuous across the top of the bag. I basically cut my strap in half, and then sewed the ends  to the sides the bag. This works just fine, but I think having a continuous strap would make the flap fold more cleanly.

Overall, the bag was a lot of fun to make and I might attempt another one just to see the improvements I could make. What was once a misprinted vinyl sign waiting to rot in a dump for a few hundred thousand years is now bookbag that I can use on a daily basis. Now get out there and start your own!


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