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Bag Making Essentials: Selecting the Right Fabrics & Materials

Bag Making Essentials: Selecting the Right Fabrics & Materials

It’s time for another edition of Bag Making Essentials, the blog series about bag making tools, techniques, and other fundamentals. Last time, we looked at the tools and notions that every bag maker should have in their workroom. Now, let’s unravel the facts about selecting the right fabrics and materials for a project.

If you’re more of a watcher than a reader, you can see the video that this post is based on here:

What Types of Fabrics Are Used in Bag Making?

Almost any fabric can be used to make a bag, and most bags are made of multiple kinds of fabrics. From a canvas tote to a leather handbag, a vinyl backpack to a cork wallet — there are endless options out there.

Selecting the right fabric is an important decision. You could make the same pattern using two different materials, and the bags will look, feel, and perform differently. In this post, we will look at what those differences are, why they matter, and how to select the right fabrics for your next sew.

Natural vs. Synthetic Fabrics for Bag Making

Swatches of natural vs. synthetic fabric

Before we look at specific fabrics, let’s answer a larger question: Can synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, be used for bag making?

While it’s certainly possible to make a bag using synthetic fabrics, I typically do not recommend it. For high-quality bags that last, it is usually best to use natural fibers and materials. In fact, with the exception of faux leather, I rarely use synthetic fabrics in the bags I construct.

Natural fiber fabrics like cotton, canvas, and linen are typically more durable, easier to work with, more versatile, and better for the environment than their man-made alternatives. Sometimes, poly-cotton blends can look and feel a lot like 100% cotton, but they won’t necessarily perform the same. If you’ve ever experienced interfacing not adhering to your fabric, for example, man-made fibers might have been the culprit.

The Burn Test: Is It Natural or Polyester?

Here’s a helpful trick if you’re not sure whether your fabric is natural or synthetic: perform the burn test. Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds. All you need is your fabric and a lighter (and a well-ventilated space). Burn the edge of your fabric for a moment, and then blow it out. Based on the scent and appearance, you will be able to tell whether it’s synthetic. Click here to jump to this part of the video (02:01) and watch the burn test.

Natural Fiber Fabrics

When singed, cotton and linen fabric will smell woody and smoky, like leaves burning. The smoke will be white, and the fire will leave an orange glow along the burnt edge of the material.

Polyester Fabrics

Synthetic, man-made fabrics will smell plasticky and chemical when burned, and they emit gray or black smoke. After you blow out the flame, there won’t be orange embers; instead, the burnt edge will look melted.

Polycotton Blend Fabrics

Polycotton blends tend to fall somewhere in the middle, so you may need to look closely to make a determination. Keep an eye out for any of the tell-tale signs of polyester, including dark smoke, melted edges, and a plasticky scent.

Woven vs. Knit Fabrics for Bag Making

Examples of woven fabric vs. knit fabric

Another common question from beginners is whether you can use knit fabrics to make a handbag. Knits are wonderful to use in clothing because they’re soft and stretchy, but that’s precisely why they are not ideal for bag making. After all, no one wants a flimsy strap or a misshapen bag that droops to the ground.

If you have a knit fabric you are dying to use, all hope is not lost! You can adhere woven interfacing to your fabric to essentially transform it from knit to woven and keep it from stretching. Ultimately, I do recommend sticking with woven fabrics for bag making. However, this can be a good solution if you have a knit fabric that you really want to use to line your bag.

Cotton & Cotton Canvas for Bag Making

Now, let’s get into the specific fabrics used in bag making. Two of the most common are 100% cotton and cotton canvas. Because they are thinner fabrics that are easily accessible, they’re popular among sewists using domestic machines that may not be able to handle thicker materials like vinyl and leather. As long as you keep your stabilizer and interfacing out of your seam allowances, you should have no trouble with cotton and cotton canvas on most domestic sewing machines.

100% cotton fabric is usually used to line the interior of a bag. It’s not recommended for bag exteriors, unless you are making something small like a pouch or a coin purse. Also, because cotton is quite thin, you will need to use a stabilizer to reinforce it. Cotton canvas is more durable, with a thicker weave than regular cotton fabric. For that reason, you can use cotton canvas for your bag exterior.

Waterproof Canvas for Bag Making

Canvas is naturally water-resistant. To make it waterproof, it must be treated with wax or another waterproof coating. Waterproofing isn’t the only reason you might select this fabric for your project. Waterproof canvas is relatively stiff, so it gives your bag some structure and shape without the need for interfacing.

For those reasons, waterproof canvas is an excellent choice for a bag that will be exposed to the elements (or to children!). It’s perfect if you’re making a beach bag, diaper bag, backpack, or bag with a water bottle pocket. You may want to craft an entire bag from waterproof canvas, or use it just for the lining.

One important note: Make sure not to place an iron directly on your waterproof canvas, or you could end up with a big mess! Whether your canvas is coated in organic wax or synthetic polyester, the hot iron will cause it to melt. If you do need to smooth out any wrinkles, work quickly and use a Teflon sheet to protect both your fabric and your iron.

Cork Fabric for Bag Making

Cork is a truly underrated material for bag making. That’s right: the same cork used to make wine stoppers and bulletin boards also makes for a beautiful fabric! Cork comes from the cork tree, native to the Mediterranean and North Africa. The tree’s bark is stripped, dried, treated, and adhered to fabric backing. The result is a fabric ranging from around 0.4 to 1.5 mm thick. For bag making, I recommend cork that’s at least 0.7 mm.

Faux Leather and Vinyl for Bag Making

Swatches of faux leather and vinyl in different colors and textures

Now, let's talk about faux leather and vinyl. Made from synthetic materials, these options are fantastic because they give you that leather look at a lower cost. They come in a wide range of colors and textures, and they are typically easier to sew than real leather as they’re thinner and more forgiving. Finally, these materials are relatively durable and easy to keep clean, so they are great choices for bag exteriors.

One thing to keep in mind when working with faux leather or vinyl is that you should use sewing clips instead of pins because pins can leave permanent holes. Additionally, use a Teflon foot or a walking foot on your sewing machine to help the material move smoothly through the machine. 

Leather for Bag Making

Swatches of Italian leather in different colors and textures

Genuine leather is my absolute favorite material for bag making. Leather is wonderful because of its durability, luxurious feel, and classic look. However, it does require some specialized tools and techniques that differ from working with other fabrics.

If you would like to get more confident in your leather sewing abilities, I developed a class that will help! My new online course, Leather Bag Making by Machine, covers the fundamentals of making leather bags. Participants will work mostly at their own pace over the course of 10 days, with three live Zoom sessions where we will all meet virtually. At the end of the course, you will have your very own leather bag, handcrafted by you! You will also have the skills you need to continue growing as a leatherworker and bag maker.

➡️ Online Course: Leather Bag Making by Machine  Sign-up begins July 1st.

Now, let’s get back to choosing the right leather. Leather comes in various thicknesses, measured in ounces. One ounce equals approximately 1/64 inch in thickness. For bag making by machine, you typically want leather that is around .8mm to 1.2mm thick. With leather this thin, you will have to stabilize your bag.  Examples of leather stiffeners are Salpa, Brio, and Saba, just to name a few. These stiffeners will provide the needed structure for your bag.

Shop High-Quality Fabrics at Simply Classic

Choosing the right fabric for any sewing project is crucial. Whether you go for cotton, cotton canvas, waterproof canvas, cork, faux leather, vinyl, and/or real leather, each material has its own unique properties and uses. Understanding them will help you create beautiful, durable bags that stand the test of time.

If you’re like me, you’re probably already planning your next make right now! Explore the Simply Classic store to find the materials you need to make your dream bag, from buttery Italian leather to durable cotton canvas.

Next Up: Fabric Cutting Techniques

Now that we’ve covered how to choose the right fabric, the next edition of Bag Making Essentials will focus on fabric cutting techniques and methods. Until then, don’t forget to subscribe to Simply Classic on YouTube for more bag making essentials, tutorials, and other helpful videos.

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