I Don't Know What I'm Doing But: I DID Make a Burlap Handbag

No, you don't need a sewing machine. Just step into the office supply closet.

Jul 6, 2011 at 1:02pm | Leave a comment

So here are a few of the things I did over the holiday weekend: got totally spooked when I walked into a bar where my friend and I were supposed to spin four hours of vintage punk rock to find a birthday party grooving to that terrible Beyonce song that I always think should be a commercial for NuvaRing, but is probably just about begging to recapitulate the normative bourgeois paradigm; screwed up a lavender-lemon sorbet by forgetting to add an entire cup of lemon juice I had just squeezed; and succeeded in pulling off my first-ever vegan barbeque (this maple grilled tempeh -- pretty awesome!). And oh, yeah. I made a burlap handbag.

Those of you who read last week may remember that last week’s attempt ended in failure and thus I gave up and made a sunglasses case instead (what I did not mention is that right after that, I lost my sunglasses for the first time in three years). But this week, it happened. Which is how I found myself wandering the aisles of Staples, the only office supply store open in Brooklyn, at seven in the morning. It seemed appropriate, as I was there to get actual staples.

Inspired by the low and no-sew bags in Jodi Kahn’s book “Simply Sublime Bags,” I decided I was going to make this bag without using my sewing machine. I do have one and I am medium-OK at using it. But I figured it would be fun to slowly work my way up the curve of sewn projects. While Kahn’s book doesn’t have any bags made out of burlap -- though she does things you never dreamed could be done with placemats, shower curtains and Astroturf -- she does have a cool idea for rendering your sewing machine obsolete: Use a stapler instead. Though until my morning trip to Staples, I never knew how many innovations have been made in stapler technology, the one I used was a plain black, classic schoolteacher’s standard stapler. But let’s start with the burlap:

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Yes, it's basic burlap (and no, I don't recommend letting your cat hang out on it for long). I got two yards for $5 (which is way, way more than you will need, but I wanted to leave room for failed experiments). But a few words of caution: Don't, as I did, assume that any old hardware store will carry the kind you need, lest you be disappointed, as I was, by showing up to Lowe's gardening department, only to realize that this stuff is woven way too loosely for your needs. 

As it happens, the fabric store where I bought my burlap was selling fabric remnants for $1 each. I decided to use one of these to make a lining for the bag. To keep it simple, I used the lining as a pattern for the bag itself. I folded both the lining and the burlap in half, pinned the lining over the bottom fold of the burlap, and cut around it with scissors:

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I then laid the two squares of fabric on top of each other -- always put right sides together -- and folded them in half with the lining facing upwards. To make the top hem, I folded both layers down and taped the hem in place with Scotch tape. 

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(Yes, those are my feet, as I stand on the chair to get a better angle for my shot).  Now just start stapling. Try to keep in a straight, neat line and remove the tape as you go. When you are done with each hem, staple up each side of the bag.  If you screw up, guess what? All you need is a staple remover:

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When you are done stapling, you will need to reinforce the seams with duct tape. I used clear tape, but if you wanted to have fun with it, you could choose something shiny in a contrasting color. 

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Now comes the most magical part of sewing (or "sewing"): Turn the bag inside out. You might have to push at the corners a bit to get them crisp (I used the eraser end of a pencil):

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Next, I added the handles. I cut these out of an old handbag, but if I had got it together to get to the trimmings store, I may have chosen these or these or these

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To attach the handles, I just cut a loop of burlap and stapled it in place right at the hem line. I didn't worry about the staples showing, because I had a plan: I covered the outside line of staples with a ribbon, secured in place with fabric glue. 

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Looks like a burlap handbag, yes? The handbag that inspired me to try this, however, also had a flower attached. So I looked online for flower templates. I found these and these and these. But after printing out a few, I realized none of them were sized quite right. So I just decided to make three concentric circles, stacked on top of each other using my tape rolls as a template.

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I then fringed and fluffed the edges. A little messy is OK, in fact it's good. I used a pin to attach the flower to the outside of the bag. 

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You can also make the flower and attach it to the outside of the bag as your very first step, even before you attach the lining. But made this way, it's a pin that you can put off and on or replace at will (maybe with a vintage clip-on earring). You could hand-sew the seams using thick embroidery thread that you want to show on the outside of the bag. You can also buy colored staples or colored duct tape to use as an embellishment. If you want to change the color of the bag, this is a pretty good place to start. And, oh yes, if you'd like to use a sewing machine, I guess you could do that, too.