Saturday, November 7, 2009

Tired of the tote

I've been working with recycled sweaters for almost 10 years. When I actually say that out loud, I'm amazed. I've made keychains, coin purses, pillows, blankets, backpacks and totebags from this wonderful material. I've patchworked, appliqued, woven, and every other fiber technique. I learned how to line bags from my friend, Kathy, who's the most accomplished technician and creative force I know. But, I'm tired of the tote.

Here's a photo of my normal tote bag: I've made them in a million different colorways from all black, grey, and ivory to blues and greens to fall colors. I've probably saved over 200 sweaters from landfills. The wonderful friends in my little town in Northeast Ohio have graciously supported my thrift shop fetish and bought these bags for years. but, I'm done.

First, consider the work involved. Each tote requires 40 3-inch squares of recycled wool. Those 40 squares come from about 8-10 different sweaters. Those sweaters have to be sourced (from thrift stores), felted in the washing machine, cut apart, and cut into 3-inch squares. Thank goodness for the rotary cutter! Then, I piece the squares together and sew them with a special stitch so they are secure. Finally, after all of that, I have "fabric" from which to cut my pieces.

My new invention is the messenger bag. I cut the pieces from whole bits of sweater rather than the patchwork. I can have a curved flap on this design. With the patchwork, everything had to be relatively square so you didn't have partial bits. Now, I can use big chunks of sweater and never have to use a quilter's ruler at all. Heaven.

The messenger bag has 5 main pieces: front, back, 2 sides, and a flap. I mix and match depending on what material is available. The pink bag here used a great striped piece, a solid chartreuse, and some cotton quilting fabric that was also used to line the flap and make the straps.

After years of struggling with floppy bags, I have become one with the interfacing. Don't skip this step. Yes, it's a pain and adds cost, but it makes all the difference. I find that interfacing makes the difference between a bag that looks home made and one that looks artsy and cool. Which would you buy?

I have always struggled with straps on my bags. In the beginning (almost 10 years ago) I tried to use old sweaters for the straps but they were stretchy and looked like hell after a few wearings. I've used webbing, but found it boring. So, I sewed ribbon onto the webbing. Looked good, but added a lot in terms of cost. Fabric straps are a good alternative, but they're time consuming. Cutting, interfacing, sewing, turning, etc. But, you got to do what you've got to do. So, the messenger bags have fabric straps. I came up with the idea to use d-rings to secure the straps and still make them adjustable. I'm 5'3" but, happily, most of the world is lucky enough to be a little taller. So, the straps have buttonholes and a button to secure the strap at a "short" and "long" setting. Pretty clever, I think.

The "purple series" of these bags uses a plum/ivory houndstooth for the lining and straps and combines sweaters featuring flower embroidery, lavender ribbing, plum color, and the universal neutral: grey. Ironically, I found two sweaters with the exact pattern (embroidered flowers) but different background colors (blue and grey). Still in the same color family, I was able to make 4 bags in all from 6 different sweaters.

These bags are all available on my website: . The price is right: $45. I think they're cool enough for teenagers, but, as the mother of 3 boys, I'm just guessing about that...

For those that enjoy the thrift store hunt and the fun of creating from whatever we happen to be lucky enough to find, the messenger bag is a great new option.


  1. Love the messenger bags! Now if I could just get to Etsy I could peruse your shop!

  2.'re too busy or is there some other issue with Etsy?

    I'm now following your blog. Happy to support another Wool Girl.