Sewing Tips – How to Make Handmade Bags Look Professional

It never ceases to amaze me the amount of sewing projects that I come across, mainly in some craft magazines (not all I hasten to add), which fail to show how to make something which is constructed well or finished off properly.

I thought I’d do a post on some techniques which I use in my bag making, some really basic and some a little more complex but all mostly essential for achieving a great finish which you can be proud of.

Fabric Preparation:

If you intend your bag / accessory to be washable, it’s a really good idea to run the fabrics through the washing machine before use incase of shrinkage. For bags that will be spot-cleaned it’s not necessary to do this.

Whether pre-washed or not, it’s essential to press your fabric before cutting – I use cotton, either fat quarters or half metres which arrive beautifully folded but unfortunately covered in creased fold lines.  So I always give it a really good press with a steam iron, with extra sprays of water whilst ironing for the really stubborn creases. Once you have crisp, flat fabric it will be so much easier to achieve accurately cut pieces and, as it’s almost impossible to remove stubborn creases once the bag is completed, better to do it in advance.

Care of Fabric During Construction:

On the subject of ironing, it’s necessary to continue the use of your iron throughout the construction process of bags and accessories. This helps to get good, clean finishes which don’t end up being all lop-sided and poorly put together. Throughout my sewing patterns, there are clear instructions on when it is necessary to press a particular part of the fabric – to neatly fold over a certain amount of the fabric, or when adding pleats, to accurately and neatly construct handles, to make a seam allowances lay flat (either pressed to one side or pressed open, which is really important when main and lining fabric sit together otherwise the bag will not lie right and bulk up at the seams), the list goes on…

Seam allowances pressed open.

Making a bag handle, long edges pressed to meet in middle. Will then be pressed in half length-ways again to enclose raw edges.

As you read through this post, you’ll notice that using an iron as part of the bag and accessory making process is prominent throughout. Like most people, I detest ironing and as a rule I don’t iron much in my house at all. If hubby wants a shirt done he knows to do it himself, lucky for me his mum got him to do his own ironing as he grew up. Phew! But, when it comes to bag making I’ve found this to be an essential part of it and I couldn’t do my work without it. I’m sure my hubby sniggers to himself whenever I get the iron board out ”Sure you know how to use that?” he sometimes asks.

Finishing off Seam Allowances:

Probably my biggest gripe is when I read a project that mentions nothing of finishing a seam allowance off, when no lining is being used, so that it doesn’t start fraying a few weeks down the line. This could look really messy quite quickly. If no lining is used then you should either zigzag stitch near edge of fabric to prevent fraying or fold the edge over twice to give a nice finished seam (remember to press those folds!).

Interfacing / Interlining:

I find interfacing (fusible) and interlining (sew-in) an absolute must for giving my bags strength, stability and body. Not as difficult to incorporate as you’d think and really does make a difference to your finished project. See my previous posting on the benefits of using these essential fabrics.

This baby changing bag has been made with interfacing and interlining, so stands up itself and not flimsy.

Lining Fabric:

I use lining fabric in all my bags as I feel that it’s essential for a number of reasons. Interfacing and interlining go in between the main and lining fabric layers and so is hidden away, as are all pesky seam allowances. Absolutely no raw edges are allowed a look in when I’m crafting my bags! Lining offers an extra layer of stability and strength, your bag will last far longer and look so much better. Interior pockets can be stitched into the lining, making the bag more useful and no stitching will show on the main fabric side of bag. From the appealing point of view, as well as functional, I love to make the interior of my bags look just as good as the outer. I use a combination of fabrics from the same fabric collection so that it all ties in. It’s great to get a little ‘wow!’ when you open up the bag and look inside. It’s not really difficult to add lining to a project either. It’s just like making a second bag and then putting the two together in a certain way. I show how it’s done in all my sewing projects, including those suitable for beginner level sewers.

Interior of bag made to look just as good as outer, with addition of pockets. Hides all seam allowances and interfacing / interlining.

Top-stitching for Function and Appeal:

Top-stitching is a functional and decorative form of stitching (I just use a straight stitch, nothing fancy), which is seen from right side of fabric, not hidden away. It can hold pieces together as well as adding decorative detail to your project.

Finishing off parts of the bag with top-stitching not only serves a purpose (holding parts together) but also makes the overall look of the bag more appealing and professional looking. When making handles, I fold over the layers lengthways (pressing as I go) in such a way that the raw ends are hidden within and then I top-stitch down both the long sides. Thus holding the fabric in place and also looking good. I would do this even if outside stitching isn’t needed, such as when you stitch along the long open side with wrong sides together, turn through and press. Adding stitching near the edges (either in matching or contrasting thread) makes the handle look so much better.

Bag handles showing decorative and functional top-stitching.

I would also use top-stitching when adding a top band to the bag. Once the pieces are joined, press the seam allowances toward the top band on the wrong side and then stitch along the right side of the top band, near to the join and within the seam allowance. Again, it looks great (either using a matching or contrasting thread) and it strengthens the join, making the bag so much stronger.

I top-stitch the top edges of all my bags too. When you’ve added lining during construction, that then gets pushed down inside the bag, you need to first of all press the top edges so that the layers lay flat and the join sits exactly at the top edge. Then the top-stitching (3-5mm from edge) all around the top makes the lining stay put and not ride up over top of bag. It looks so much better.

Top band of bag, showing top-stitching at joining seam and at top edges of bag.

Pocket flaps and closure flaps / tabs also get the top-stitching treatment – I stitch main and lining fabric pieces wrong sides together, turn through at open side and top-stitch around the edges (after pressing) staying close to edge for a neat finish.

Pocket flap, showing top-stitching around the edges for neat finish.

Footnote:

I hope you find all these little tips to be useful. It’s so rewarding making something handmade, either for yourself or to gift to family and friends. With a little bit of attention to detail you’ll be able to make something which will last and be cherished.

If you plan to sell your handmade items, then I’d definitely advise going the extra mile to ensure all your projects are finished off as professionally as possible. Nobody expects perfection (in fact too perfect is not good, you still want to know that something has been handmade and not mass-produced in some factory) but just a little bit of extra attention to detail goes a long way. There is so much competition out there, everyone seems to be making and selling handmade goods now (which is great) but, having so much choice, buyers of handmade expect their purchases to be well made and finished off properly so that they look good and last for a decent amount of time. After all, they are paying a premium price for something and quite rightly expect the quality of workmanship to be high.

I include detailed instructions in my sewing patterns to make bags and accessories which not only look good, but stand up to everyday use and that will last. Most of my bag designs are achievable from beginner level, so even if you’ve never made a bag before (or you’d like to improve your bag making skills) the easy-to-follow instructions, photos and diagrams will help you through the process.

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14 thoughts on “Sewing Tips – How to Make Handmade Bags Look Professional

    • That’s great, pleased you found it to be of help. I was feeling more and more frustrated with the lack of info on these things, in so many projects, that I felt compelled to write about it.

  1. you’re so right about most patterns leaving out important steps like finishing edges and pressing seam allowances properly. attention to details like that really do show in the finished product 🙂

  2. I found you via ‘The Sewing Directory’.
    This is a great post – and I agree with all you say. I shall direct my sewing classes to your blog, so they know I’m not the only ‘mad woman’ who insists on press-as-you-go and making sure their bags are beautifully made, as neat inside as out.

    • Hi Deborah,

      thank you very much for your comment. Good to know so many people agree. That’s very kind of you to recommend my blog to your sewing classes. I’ll be posting more tips soon. Happy sewing!

  3. So happy to see another bag-maker is following my blog 🙂 I’ve posted some recent tutorials, please shoot a comment and let me know what you think!

  4. I was taught to sew in the sixties by my seamstress aunty who was very particular about the finish of any sewing project. It’s amazing how ‘shoddy’ sewing practices have become over the years! My auntie would never allow me to sew without all the wonderful tips you have given. Very important. Hope everyone takes note.
    Thanks.

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