Today I made an imperfect thing.
This seems to be a common occurrence. I rather wish it weren’t. I rather wish the hours I spent and the tools I ran up and down the stairs 30 times to fetch and the giant mess I made had produced an perfectly stitched little bag.
The little bag is a design I created a couple years ago. My sister, who is a fashionista and a physician, asked me to make her a stylish bag in which she could carry her iPhone while she does rounds at the hospital and is wearing clothes without pockets. I made the original out of pieces of an old suede skirt of hers. I made a little suede tassel, added a vintage brass button on the flap closure, and braided a strap out of leather cording I bought at Mood. She liked it so much she asked me to make her another one the next year out of an old leather purse. Last week I stopped by to visit her at her office and was delighted to see her wearing it.
It’s a handy little bag: just big enough for a phone, which sometimes is all you want to carry around. I want to make the bag part of the Sunday Shift mini-line, so this week I set about working on a reproducible version.
First task: finding sustainable materials. A while ago I decided to keep my options open and make one-of-a-kind or limited-edition bags out of mostly upcycled materials, like thrift store leather skirts. But then I also wanted a vegan alternative. If you want to be both vegan and sustainable, leather alternatives are tricky. Most faux leathers are basically plastic textiles, which means they biodegrade about as well as a plastic bottle. And even high-quality vegan leathers wear out much faster than high-quality animal leather (after using is sparsely for 8 years, my beloved vegan Matt & Nat purse started insidiously shedding black faux leather flakes everywhere.)
I hit the upcycled/vegan jackpot a couple weeks ago at The Scrap Exchange in Durham, NC: a pile of faux leather upholstery samples. A nice stack in a variety of colors set me back barely more than $5. It’s nice quality, too: a pretty realistic leather look, supple, sturdy.
With the sourcing done, the next step is constructing the thing. This seems basic. But this is tricky for a person used to sewing cotton and silk and the like, because leather and faux leather are different. For one, once a needle pierces leather, the hole is there forever. There’s no ripping out seams and doing it again, unless you have some way of hiding the old stitching line. You can’t pin it. It’s much thicker than apparel fabrics, which means dealing with multiple layers and seam allowances is tricky.
Plus, faux leather has an ugly polyester backing on one side. And somehow this ugliness must be hidden, whereas with real leather you just be all rustic-exposed-raw-edgy.
On top of all that, I’m not particularly experienced with sewing leather. The fact that the bag I’m making is very small, about 4″ x 6″, makes everything harder. All those thick layers are squished together in the same place. If I were smarter, I’d have started out with a tote bag.
But intrepid (or stupid) me, I went for it anyway. I chose a piece of material in a slightly metallic gold, because it’s fun and didn’t really match with any of the other colors. I picked a scrap piece of some Amy Butler cotton for the lining. The lining poses yet another challenge. How does it attach to the leather outside AND conceal all of the ugly polyester backing?
Without going through my entire process, let us say that the result of all of these challenges and my lack of skill is a somewhat unsatisfactory product. Wonky is a good word for it. Part of the problem is that when I’m working on a design for the first time I get impatient, and I neglect important little steps like marking the center of the bag before attaching the strap. So I’ve got a bag with unfinished seams, a crooked strap, and a snap that is too loose.
It does, however, have a nifty interior pocket just the right size for a driver’s license, credit card, or subway pass. Innovation!
Tomorrow’s task: improving.