Making a Leather Tote Bag
As an architect working at a fantastic mid-sized architecture firm, I haven’t been making scaled models or physical conceptual massing models. I started feeling like I’m losing touch with creativity in the real world. So, I thought about possible new hobbies that would involve making things and decided to try leather working. I’ve always been inspired by people who are able to take a piece of leather, cut it down to size, and hand stitch an entire bag. Here’s the leather tote bag that I learned to make in 4 days and what I learned along the way.
Start with a simple sketch
Since this was my first time making a leather bag, I started my process by deciding on a type of bag that I wanted to make. I wanted something simple that I could give as a gift to Andrea when I was done. So, I decided to make a leather tote bag. Then, I started researching hundreds of leather bags on Pinterest to get some inspiration and figure out what size, shape, and style the bag would be.
After some fast research, I decided that I would make a tall and narrow leather bag and stitch the entire thing – no grommets or rivets. I also wanted to try sewing the edge around the opening of the bag to create a curved lip. With this basic information, I came up with a simple sketch for the leather tote bag.
Cut a template for the bag
Using the sketch, I took a piece of double ply chipboard that I saved from architecture school and drew a template for the bag. Basically, it was the dimensions of the leather bag with an additional 2 inches of the sides and bottom of the bag. As you’ll see later, these 2 inches would create the depth of the leather tote bag.
Cut the leather using the template
Once the template was complete, I unrolled the leather on my table, placed the template in one corner of the leather, and traced it using a scratch awl, which looks like a miniature ice pick. Then, I traced the template onto the leather, flipped the template across the bottom, and traced the template again. To cut the leather, I used a T-square that I saved after architecture school and a utility knife. Cutting the leather was a lot simpler than I thought.
Gluing and sewing
After cutting the leather, I folded the top edge of the bag and glued it using rubber cement for leather. This was very difficult to do because of the thickness of the leather and the length that I was folding over. In the future, I’ll probably fold it over by ¾ inch or more instead of the ½ inch that I did for this bag. When the glue was set, I used my wing divider to scratch a line ¼ inch from the edge of the leather and took my diamond lacing stitching chisel and dead blow hammer to notch holes along the line.
At first, hammering the stitching chisel through the leather was difficult and I was making a lot of noise in my attic where my workstation is located. So, I packed the leather and tools, went down to the basement, set it on my concrete floor, and notched the holes there. It was so much easier and the chisel went all the way through after one strike. Best of all, it was quiet!
When you’ve stitched the sides of the bag and made your way to the last 2 corners, you’ll have to push the side edge of the bag down towards the center of the bottom of the bag. The side edge of the bag should be centered over the bottom and the perimeter of the opening should be glued together and stitched.
This process took about 3 days to glue and sew the edges of the bag because I had to wait for the rubber cement glue to dry. The first day of stitching was dreadful because I wasn’t hitting the stitching chisel all the way through. Once I gained confidence, I worked more efficiently and my stitching looked a lot better!
Inverting the bag
Since you sew the bag inside out, when you’re done gluing and sewing the bag together, you have to turn it inside out so that the leather side is on the exterior. Although this might sound like an easy task, working with leather is difficult. The trick is to slowly invert the top of the bag and turn it in circles as you work your day down. Once you get to a point where the bag is 75% inverted, you can reach your hand inside and push and pull the leather.
Since this isn’t really a tutorial post, but more of a reflection on making my first leather tote bag, I’m sure there are a lot of details missing in these steps. From beginning to end, it took me about 8 hours spread over 4 days to make the bag from the sketch to the final inverting. If I were to remake this bag again, I would leave the top of the bag as a straight piece of leather instead of creating a lip. I’d also use rivets to hold the straps to the bag and add an interior pocket that’s large enough to hold a phone, keys, and maybe a wallet.
This was a really fun experience and I learned so much by forcing myself to try leatherworking and to keep working at it every day. There were moments where I was exhausted from a day of working on projects at the firm, but I forced myself to keep making the bag. Now that it’s done, I know I can make the next one even better! I can’t wait to make more leather products and start gifting them to my friends and family.
Now, onto the next 30x30 project!