Custom Cross-body Mini Purse

Background – Last week I decided I had to take matters into my own hands.

I had spent the prior month or more searching high and low for a purse to replace the one that was on its last leg. Some folks call this a mini-bag, mini messenger bag, cross-body bag, passport bag, or any number of other names. I got my first one in Toronto in 2009. It was made it Nepal and the material was hemp.  Eventually the strap broke and I repaired it twice by just tying it to itself. Didn’t I look grand wearing a purse with big knots holding the strap together?

Chuck had patiently tagged along as I poked my head into every shop and tent at the Kalamazoo Art on the Mall festival, and every similar event or location ever since. I’d shopped online for hours at a time, always finding that my ideal bag just wasn’t available. I finally decided to just make my own.

I went online looked at a few free patterns and tutorials before I felt confident that I could create a good bag without a pattern, having gotten a good grasp of the principles to follow. I will share those principles here so you can make your own perfect bag.

Fabric – I started by getting a small length of each of two materials, a thinner, smoother one for the lining. This drapery material was on the “upholstery ends” sale table and resembles hemp or flax in its nubbiness. The cotton batik I got just because it was on sale for $3 per yard. I got 1/2 yard of the 60″ wide loosely woven cotton material and a yard of the 45″ wide batik. I bought more than I thought I would need, planning on making a second purse for my mom if the first one turned out nice.

I found this drapery fabric to be very difficult to work with and would not choose it again. It frayed (shed entire threads from top to bottom) constantly–every time I looked at it sideways, much less touched, folded or carried it over to the sewing machine. Since I don’t have a serger or overlock machine, I had to use a zig-zag stitch on all edges before further handling.

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Measuring – Next I got a measuring tape and gathered the things I want to be able to carry around. I wanted this purse to be wide and deep enough for my wallet and iPhone.  Really tired of having to scrounge around at the bottom of my old purse for my lip products or pen, I wanted this purse to have some little patch pockets on the lining for my Burt’s Bees lip balm and one lipstick, plus a pocket for a pen.

With the wallet and phone placed on the fabric, I took measurements of how wide and deep I wanted to make the purse, adding 1/2″ on each side and at each end for seam allowance.

I like for a purse to have a flap that falls over the top, so my measurements ended up being: an 8″ long body plus a 5.5″ flap. The purse was to be 6.75″ wide, plus half inch seam allowances on each side. So from my main fabric and lining I needed to cut a piece that was 23.5″ long and 7.75″ wide.  I also needed to make a shoulder strap. I just eye-balled this one. I don’t like super narrow straps because they hurt your shoulder when you’re carrying a wallet full of toonies and loonies all day long.  I ended up using a 4″ wide strip cut the length of the fabric (I would later cut it down in length after trying the purse on), which is a 1.5″ wide strap (3″ doubled over) plus half-inch seam allowances.

Pockets – I decided to place a little pocket on the front of the purse for all those frequent shopper cards I’ve accumulated. They make my wallet too bulky. You of course want to sew on any pockets before assembling the purse.

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patch pocket shown after assembly of whole purse

On the liner I created a pocket for two lip product tubes. I did this by laying out my chapstick tubes on the fabric, then cutting my pocket around that, leaving room for folds and seams.

To allow for the fact that lipsticks are not flat but cylindrical, I put a little fan fold in the middle of the pocket. That is to say, the fabric had two valley folds and two mountain folds in the middle…like pleats on a pleated skirt. I sewed these in place along the bottom of the pocket and put a seam up between them to separate the two lip balm compartments. This turned out just great.

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lip balm / lipstick pockets

The strap – I made my strap by folding the 4″ wide strip of fabric in half, right sides together, then using a loop turner tool to turn it right side out, after which I pressed it and top-stitched it.

Sewing the purse – The next thing I did was lay out the rectangle of cloth, folding it over right sides together so that I had an 8″ deep purse interior and 6″ flap at the top. I sewed the sides together with a half inch seam allowance on each side. I repeated this step with the lining rectangle.

Here is where things got tricky. I had never made a purse with such a wide strap before and wasn’t sure how to attach it. Because of the thickness of the material, I found the strap to be too bulky to attach the simpler way…by just sewing it onto the sides of the purse on the inside. So I decided to make two small loops of fabric from tubes similar to the strap, only narrower. These I was easily able to attach to the body of the purse–one end to the left back of the purse, one end to the left front. The other loop attached to the right back and right front of the purse body.

Attaching the lining – The next step was to turn the purse so that the right side (with pocket) faced inward. I turned the lining so that the right side (with pockets) faced outward. Then I nested the lining down into the purse and used pins to keep the edges aligned with one another in preparation for sewing.

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You have to take the strap, if you’ve attached one, or those loops for the strap to hook onto later, and push them through to what will be the outside of the purse. I decided I would not sew across this yet, but would sew the lining to the purse and stop just shy of where the loops protruded, waiting until the purse was turned right side out to complete that part.

Also when you sew the lining to the purse, you can’t continue all the way around (flap to flap, mouth to mouth) because you need a gap through which to turn the purse right side out when you’re done. I left a four inch gap on the flap of the purse for this purpose.  I would recommend just basting this step and coming back with a regular stitch if all goes well.

I sewed the lining to the purse then reached through the gap, grabbed the bottom of the purse and pulled it through the opening. I used the plastic end of my seam ripper to push out the corners of the bottom of the purse and corners of the flap.

Next I pinned the fabric in place that was sandwiching the loops on either side and went over that with the machine. Finally, I closed and pinned that four inch gap, tucking the seam allowance inside. I went over the entire purse flap with a top stitch about 1/8″ from the edge.

Attaching the strap I went back to the fabric store and bought two metal hooks to attach the strap to those little loops I’d made. They were about $3.50 each. Next time I will plan better and not have to use them. My next purse will have a strap that is one continuous piece of fabric forming the bottom, sides and strap of the purse. I will also reinforce the bottom of that future purse with a piece of plastic to make it last longer.

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The end product – Here is the finished purse.  I really like the lip balm pockets. I took the purse with me to Chicago this weekend and loved being able to reach right down without looking or fumbling and find my Burt’s Bees lip balm straight away.

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