The internet has really helped to open up the availability of suitable fabrics for bag making such that your only limitations might be what your sewing machine can actually handle. The following are fabrics that are often used, along with some notes of their use and how to work with them.
Quilting Weight Fabrics
Cottons Or Cotton/Linen Blends
Quilting cottons and cotton/linen belnds are popular for bags because there is such a wide variety of colours, prints and patterns, however they’re not really designed for sustained hard use as bag exteriors because they’re light weight, and even if you bolster them up with suitable interfacings to get them to feel more substantial, they’re still prone to wearing through after a while. Now that’s not to say you should never use quilting cottons, just that you should be aware that if you use your favourite, hoarded print for a bag you’re going to use daily where it will get dumped on the floor, in the footwell of the car, on the floor of public transport etc, or that might find itself going on a long journey through trains, planes and automobiles, it probably won’t make it beyond a year without looking distinctly sorry for itself.
PVC Coated Quilting Cotton
As the name suggests, this is quilting weight cotton with a thin layer of PVC on the printed side. Like their uncoated counterparts, they’re not particularly sturdy on their own, and because of the PVC, can only be used safely with sew-in interfacings/interlinings, otherwise it will melt under the heat used to set the glue on fusible versions. If you need to press it, do so from the back with a fairly cool iron. They can be useful to line toiletry bags and the like, and given how sticky the PVC coating can be, are best sewn with a Teflon and/or rolling foot. Avoid using pins with it since they will leave holes that won’t close in the PVC, instead use clips to hold pieces together
Canvas comes in a few different weights, from fairly thin to rougher, heavier weaves, and are a bit more hard wearing than quilting cottons. A number of quilting cotton manufacturers such as Art Gallery Fabrics, Windham and Cotton + Steel may sometimes offer one or two prints from a line in different substrates, including canvas, which means you can use your favourite prints in a more suitable fabric for your bag. Depending on the complexity of your bag, you could use the canvas without interfacings, or at the very least just use the structural foam and fleece style interlinings with it.
Home Decor Weight Fabrics
Home decor weight fabric is a broad term to encompass the many fabrics used in home furnishings. They are generally hard wearing because they are designed for people to sit on (and when I say sit on, I imagine the test is more like what happens when a child/teen/large dog hurls itself onto it!), but can tend to be a bit more prone to unravelling at raw edges because of their thicker weaves so I wouldn’t use these with less than a 1/2″ seam allowance. Because they are heavier weight fabrics I use a size 14 or 16 needle when sewing with them, and at least a 40 wt thread. Subcategories of home decor fabrics that are generally used in bag making are:
Woven in the same way as quilting cottons, home decor cottons and linens have thicker warp and weft threads, leaving a thicker, stiffer fabric. They can be found in both bright prints and more subtle, subdued tones, although the print options tend to be far more limited than for quilting cotton. On the plus side, there does not seem to be the same limited printing run for home decor fabrics as for quilting cottons.
PVC Coated Home Decor Fabric/Oilcloth
These are some of my favourite fabrics to use in bag making because they’re waterproof, and I live in a country where it rains. A lot. I love that I can drop one of these bags on the ground and find that the contents have survived without water and mud coming in (not that I’m that clumsy, but sometimes you need to put things down to open car doors etc!) These are woven fabrics that have then been treated to make them waterproof – in the case of PVC coated it’s coated with a clear PVC on the pattern side, while for oilcloth it’s coated in boiled linseed oil, although confusingly you often see the PVC coated stuff sold as oilcloth. They can be treated like regular woven fabric, except that you can only iron the PVC coated fabric on the back (and not for very long or it melts!) and you might find it useful to use a Teflon and/or rolling foot as regular metal feet can stick to the fabric. Avoid using pins with it since they will leave holes that won’t close in the PVC, instead use clips to hold pieces together (although I also find that if I’m stitching 2 layers of PVC rights sides together, it actually sticks itself in place quite nicely)
It’s also possible to get PVC with a synthetic backing or even without any kind of backing attached to it. Often sold as a table covering, the clear and glittery versions are very handy for see-through pockets, while the solid versions are good for pouches and bigger projects. Clear PVC is sold in gauges, and if you can, try and avoid the finest gauge as it’s more prone to tearing, especially along stitching lines. You should also lengthen your stitch more than you would with regular fabric – I usually go up to 3.5 or 4 from the standard 2.5 depending on how thick the whole seam is. As with PVC coated fabrics, use a Teflon and/or rolling foot to sew this and avoid using pins.
Wool and tweed fabrics are another set of woven fabrics, with tweed being a traditional speciality of a few small areas in Scotland and Ireland that have enjoyed a resurgence as a bit of a luxury brand in recent years since they started making it in colours other than the traditional browns/tans/khakis/green (its original use was in clothing for harsh winters and as it was often woven from wool from the weaver’s own sheep, dyeing it pink probably didn’t cross their minds!) Wool and tweed fabrics are often in a a solid or plaid pattern, and are beautiful but definitely at the pricier end of the fabric market. On the plus side, it lasts a long time – you get what you pay for!
For these, there are a couple of options, the first being synthetic/natural blend versions of heavy weight wool fabrics (which are great for those of us that are allergic to wool), and the other being more of the textured home decor fabrics, where, for example, patterns may be picked out by fabric piles of different lengths or nubbly textures created that feel a bit like a mix of rough and fuzzy (that’s a totally technical description BTW!) They can make stunning bags (think weekend getaway or carpet bags for example), although they tend to be on the heavier side.
These can be cotton, synthetic or a mixture of the two, with a soft, fairly short pile. They can come with patterns printed on them or in solid colours, and feel very luxurious. From the perspective of durability these fabrics are usually sturdy enough to make a big bag, but cleaning difficulties tend to make me lean more towards evening bags with them, as they’re less likely to find themselves in close proximity to mud, rain or other grubby things (at least in my world!)
In home decor terms, faux leathers are generally textured or smooth PVC on a synthetic woven backing. The backing is meant to stop it from stretching out of shape, but beware you don’t pick up the stretchy versions more suited to dressmaking otherwise you could end up with a bag of a very odd shape! I’ve been known to stand in a shop and tug faux leathers in different directions to ensure that my shoulder bag doesn’t become a knee bag. They offer a cheaper alternative to a true leather bag, but try and avoid the cheapest options as they don’t tend to have the longevity of the slightly more expensive varieties. Like the PVC/oilcloth fabrics you might find it useful to use a Teflon and/or rolling foot and avoid using pins.
Waxed cotton is probably more familiar to those that spend a lot of time in the outdoors, as it’s frequently used for hats and jackets due to its waterproof nature. Unlike PVC coatings/oilcloth, wax does need to be reapplied periodically to maintain its waterproofing, but as it’s applied to heavier weight cottons, it works well for bags, especially the likes of rucksacks/backpacks and weekend bags. As a tip, don’t fold it like this fabric is below unless you want to spend ages trying to get the fold lines out – I bought this as a stack of 1/2m remnants online and it came folded, it was only when I started trying to use it that I discovered the problem.
As a general rule I wouldn’t recommend sewing anything above the finest of leathers on a domestic sewing machine – whilst your machine might manage thicker ones once or twice, domestic machines are not designed with motors for that level of hard work and you could burn out the motor in fairly short order. Beware of sellers on the likes of eBay who sell vintage machines as suitable for leather – most are still just domestic machines and really are not any more suitable than a newer machine, albeit they are heavier so might be less prone to walking about the table when overworked! If you want a thicker leather bag you can either invest in a truly appropriate industrial machine, or you can hand sew them. There are a number of companies that sell kits for hand sewing where the pieces are precut and holes punched for the needle (I’ve made several from Simple Way) but if you invest in the appropriate tools you can easily create your own patterns. Finer leathers that would work with a domestic sewing machine are ones such as lightweight pig suede, and can be used in things such as wallets and purses – avoid using pins as they will leave indelible holes in the leather, use clips instead to hold pieces together. The selection below, including patent and metallic pig skin leathers all come from the Identity Leathercraft Store in Matlock:
Cork fabric is relatively new to the market and is made of a combination of cork on the top and a woven backing which the cork is laminated to. It’s a lot more flexible than you might imagine, and the great news is that you can leave the edges raw if you want as it doesn’t unravel. Like PVC and leather fabrics, avoid using pins with it otherwise it will leave holes and I use a size 14 or 16 needle when sewing with it.
Other Synthetic Fabrics
As well as all of the above, I’ve also found myself using:
This is a woven fabric that has regularly spaced heavier threads amongst the finer base threads to reinforce it against tearing, and is often waterproof. I have used this in the likes of toiletry bags and lining things that might contain wet items, such as swimming bags. It’s become more common in recent years to see patterned versions, where traditionally it had been a solid colour.
This is heavy duty fabric like the stuff they use to make banners and signs. It’s hard wearing and waterproof, but rather like leather, it’s not something I would sew a huge deal on a domestic sewing machine.
I hope this has helped, but if you have any questions, please let me know.