Making a Leather Tote Bag
Back in October 2017, I set out on a new adventure with my life and blog to explore the world of leatherworking. Looking back at the original blog post where I shared some photographs of the steps that I took to make the tote bag, I realized how far my leatherworking abilities have come and decided it was time to update this blog post. Here’s a short guide to how I make leather tote bags for Mars Leather Company using photographs from the original post from October 2017 (brown leather) and a tote bag that I made in February 2019 (sky blue leather). Throughout the post, I’ll include links from Amazon to the tools that I use for creating this leather tote bag.
Start with a Simple Sketch
Even after designing and making several types of tote bags, I continue to start every new project with a simple sketch. This helps me envision the final shape of the bag and think through other aspects like lengths, widths, depths, strap lengths, and other critical dimensions for making the bag. This simple sketch eventually gets translated into a simple template to use as a guide for cutting the leather. As an example, I’ll share a photograph of the sketch and template that I used for the original blog post from October 2017. For the sky blue leather bag, I angled the sides so that the top of the bag would be wider than the bottom, which gives the tote bag a trapezoid shape.
Cut a Template for the Bag
Once the design, shape, and dimensions of the tote bag are refined and ready to be made, I sketch the design onto a piece of 2 ply chipboard or any other material to use as a template. For tote bags, I usually add at least 2 inches to the sides and bottom edge which will create the depth of the bag. This might be hard to understand through writing, but the photograph below shows the bag from the original blog post that I cut out of white 2 ply chipboard. You’ll see the sides and bottom edges have a 2 inch offset and later you’ll see why this is important for creating the depth of the leather tote bag.
Cut the Leather Using the Template
After cutting the tote bag template, the next step is to use it to cut the leather which is a little different than you might expect. To use the template, I unroll the leather, which is at least 3.5oz thick, and lay it completely flat on a cutting surface. Then, I place the template on an area of the leather with the best aesthetics such as textures, markings, etc. and position it until I’m satisfied. It’s important to know that the template will be reflected over the 2 inch offset bottom edge and cut out as one full piece.
Using a scratch awl, I hold the template down firmly and trace around all the edges excluding the bottom edge. Then, I flip the template over the bottom edge that wasn’t traced and use the scratch awl to finish tracing the template.
This will eventually become the tote bag after stitching. In the next few steps, you’ll notice the setting, color of the leather, and setting change to a more recent tote bag that I made in February 2019.
Cutting & Applying Shoulder Straps to the Bag
Now that the leather for the tote bag is cut, we’ll need to cut shoulder straps using either the same leather as the bag or a thicker and firmer leather which is my preference. For the bag that I designed, I decided to use a 5oz black full grain leather that is firm and smooth on both sides. This leather was cut down to 1 inch in width and 34 inches in length.
After cutting the leather straps, I used a round edge chisel and mallet to round off the ends of the straps. In my opinion this adds a better finish to the straps. Using a leather hole puncher, either a punching tool or a hand held punch, I cut out 2 holes at both ends of the strap and the body of the bag where it was located in my original design. I find it helpful to have these holes in the tote bag template and also a shoulder strap end template to help locate the holes.
Once the holes were cut out of the leather, I used nickel plated rivets and a rivet setter to hold the shoulder straps firmly against the tote bag. This is the last step for the shoulder straps.
For all of my leather projects, this is one of the most enjoyable parts, but also the most time consuming – hand tooling and stitching the leather. If you’re just getting started with leatherworking, you’ll want to get a slab of quartz, granite, or marble that’s at least 1.5 inches thick, set it above the support leg of your work table, place a HDPE cutting board on top of it, and a thick piece of scrap leather on top of the cutting board. The thick granite/marble provides a stable surface so when you hit one of your tools with the mallet, it doesn’t bounce or move around. The cutting board adds a layer of protection for your tool and the scrap leather further protects your tool from breaking.
Using a wing divider, I set the ends to about 3/16 inch using a ruler. Holding one point of the wing divider against the edge of the leather where I’ll be punching some stitching holes, I drag the wing divider against the edge to create a 3/16 inch offset line on the surface of the leather. This line is my guide for punching holes using a diamond chisel and the mallet.
For this blue tote bag, I have an exterior and interior pocket for storing items. With the diamond chisel in hand, I align the teeth on the line that I created with the wing divider and start with the teeth overlapping the top edge of the pocket to create an extra hole outside of the perimeter. Although this isn’t truly necessary, I find it to be helpful in securing the pocket against the finished surface of the tote bag.
Holding the diamond chisel firmly in my hand and on the line created by the wing divider, I set it at the start of the line, scoot back in my chair, level my eye with the diamond chisel, ensure it’s as completely vertical as possible, and tap the top with my mallet. This sets the diamond chisel slightly into the leather and allows me to steady the tool. Then, I give the top of the diamond chisel a good hit with the mallet until I feel feedback from the underlayment surface which means it’s gone all the way through.
After placing the mallet down, I hold the leather around the chisel down with one hand and pull the tool out as vertically as possible. If I need to wiggle the tool a bit, I wiggle it in the direction of the line while pulling vertically.
Hand Stitching Pockets
Once I’m done tooling the leather, the next step is to prop it up using a stitching pony. On my stitching pony, I take scrap pieces of leather, cut them down to fit onto the surfaces that clamp onto the leather project, and glue them in place to protect my projects. I try my best to get the tooled area of the leather closer to the stitching pony to provide some support for hand stitching. I’ll start with how I stitch the pockets onto my leather tote bag and then transition to stitching the actual bag.
Using leather stitching needles and waxed thread, in this case it’s .035mm waxed cord from Maine Thread Company, and proceed to saddle stitching. This is a skill that takes a very long time to learn and get good at, so if you’re just starting out, don’t feel discouraged if your stitching doesn’t look like a perfect machine stitch. It took me about a year and a half to get to where I am now and I still have lots to learn! I highly recommend watching YouTube videos like this one from Ian Atkinson and reading Al Stohlman’s “The Art of Hand Sewing Leather” book.
The tote bag that I’m making in these photographs include an exterior and interior pocket that are the same size and located in the same spot. To stitch these pockets, I place the bag on the stitching pony so that the clamp is slightly below the start of the pocket. I take the spool of wax thread, unspool a length of the thread, and pull 4 lengths of it for each line that I’ll be stitching. For this pocket, I’m stitching 3 edges. So I pull the thread 4 times the length of edge #1, #2, and #3 which will allow me to stitch the entire pocket.
I start my saddle stitching about 3 holes in, stitch back to the first hole which is outside of the pocket, reverse, stitch the entire pocket, reverse, and stitch 3 holes back from the end. You’ll see what I mean in the photograph where the beginning stitches have 2 threads going through the holes. Once I finish the stitches, I put the needle through and either melt the end using a lighter or pull it between two pieces of leather on the backside, tie a really tight knot, and cut off the threads so that they’re hidden.
Hand Stitching the Tote Bag
With the pockets stitched, I moved onto the last part of this project which is stitching the edges of the tote bag. To do this, I turn the bag inside out, align the edges of the sides of the leather bag, and use paper clips to hold them together. Using the wing divider, I draw a line to use as a guide for tooling like the previous steps in this post. Then, I tool and stitch the leather while the bag is inverted.
Once the sides of the bag are stitched, it’s time to tool and stitch the bottom corners of the tote bag. While the bag is still inverted, I pinch the bottom of the side that I just stitched and bring it towards the center of the bottom edge of the bag. This basically creates the depth of the bag on the bottom and you’ll start to see the shape of the bag come together. I use the diamond chisel to get stitching holes starting as close to the center as possible and working away towards the edge. Then, I saddle stitch from one end to the other. When I reach the middle where the sides of the bag are stitched together, I push the stitching needle through the last hole of the side and continue saddle stitching the bottom corners of the bag.
Turning the Bag Inside Out
When the bottom corners are stitched together, the last and most exciting part of hand making a leather tote bag is here! Since the bag is stitched inside out, we have to invert the bag to complete it. To do this, I start from the top at one side of the bag and peel the top portions outward. While pressing my fingers to push the inside of the bag outward, I work my way around until the bag is about 1/3 inverted at the top. Then, I pinch the bag from the inside and pull it up and outward to continue inverting the bag.
Depending on the type and weight of leather the project is made from, this step can be much harder or easier. If the leather is thicker and firmer, I’ll pinch and pull from the inside out with one hand while pushing from the bottom with my other hand. Eventually, the bag will be inverted enough to slide my hand inside and push the bottom corners out. I work my way around the entire bag until all the corners are pressed out as much as possible.
Once the bag is inverted, I stand back and admire the finished piece!
As I continue leatherworking, I’m quickly finding the craft to be more of an art and a hobby for me. I enjoy the process of making leather products from finding the beautiful leather to cutting, tooling, stitching, and finishing my pieces all by hand. There’s a wonderful feeling that comes from putting your time, energy, and resources towards making pieces that you can share with your family, friends, and the world. Little did I know that this simple hobby would eventually turn into a small online shop on Etsy where I sell some of my leather goods.
Like every hobby, the first project is the one that you remember. The excitement of learning the process of making something and the happiness that comes with seeing the final piece. In the 21st century, there’s also the sadness that comes from caring too much about getting to a certain level of craftsmanship due to the overwhelming amount of information from the internet. Luckily, I find myself focusing on enjoying the process more than comparing my work to the work of others. I compliment and ask other leatherworkers questions and I’m grateful that I’m now being asked the same questions from others who are just starting leatherworking.
Although this isn’t exactly related to my journey as an architect, it’s definitely something that has become a part of my life. I hope you can find a hobby and passion that you enjoy as well either within or outside of architecture!