CUSTOM WAXED CANVAS BICYCLE BAGS
After we decided to take bikes with us while WWOOFing through France and Ireland, we began to search for the perfect bags to take on our journey. We knew that we wanted bags of a simple, clean design, made of classic materials, and with capacity for all of our clothes and camping gear. After a few weeks of shopping around, I soon offered: "Why don't I just make our bags myself?" Hmmm. Why not, indeed?
After many weeks of research, materials experimentation, and countless lessons learned along the way, we are well-equipped with our own custom panniers and handlebar bags that fit our original criteria. This trip will serve as a testing ground for the bags' design and durability. Are there room for future design improvements? Of course. However, I hope that the following description of my design process might be helpful to anyone wanting to undertake a similar project.
DESIGN, MATERIALS + SOURCES
The design process ended up being rather colaborative, with tweaks and adjustments surfacing on a daily basis as thought about how the bags would function evolved. I was also constantly adjusting to account for my own sewing skills (intermediate at best) and the materials I had available to me.
For a first-time pattern maker, bringing sketches into dimensioned pattern pieces was a fun and rewarding process. Here are some early sketches and and a loose diagram of the materials pattern for the panniers that I cut to scale from heavy-duty tracing paper.
Above, you can see the full cut fabric pattern set for the handlebar bag. The bags also include a rigid interior structure made of corrugated plastic board (Correx) to hold the boxy shape of the bag.
Sourcing materials was by far the most challenging and time-consuming part of the design process. I decided early on to work in waxed canvas, and spent many fruitless hours trying to track down a local supplier for small quantities of high-quality canvas. I finally sourced from Fairfield Textile, the only U.S. supplier I could find for Martexin Original Wax waxed cotton. A minimum order of 5 yards came with hefty cutting fees, shipping fees, and "small order" fees. Yikes. Martexin is the good stuff though, and worth the inconvenience. I had never worked in waxed cotton before so I did a few practice pieces to get the hang of it's properties (above, a photo of a small zippered clutch I made) before delving into the yardage.
Other than the canvas, I was lucky that I was able to source most of the materials I needed in Seattle. I was able to compare color swatches and finishes as I worked through my designs. I did have to order a few pieces by mail, however, and found that sourcing high-quality brass hardware was a challenge; I needed three suppliers to get all the parts I needed. In the end, I was disappointed with the quality of the brass rivets I sourced through MacPherson Leather and I would recommend seeking out an alternative supplier. All of the sources I list below offer mail order service.
18 oz Martexin Original Wax Filter Twill
Reflective Band + Trim Ribbon + Zippers + Thread + Brass Hardware
Leather + Brass Hardware
Webbing + Brass Buckles
TIPS FOR WORKING WITH WAXED COTTON
Working with waxed canvas proved to be both challenging and extremely rewarding, with a lot learned along the way. A few tips on working in waxed canvas for anyone embarking on a similar project:
PATTERN MARKING: Regular chalk or tailor's chalk works fairly well, but rubs off very quickly on the waxed surface. You can also use a pointed instrument such as a knitting needle or blunted sewing needle to lightly scratch your pattern marks onto the fabric. The scratches disappear quickly, as waxed cotton patinas rapidly with use.
PATTERN CUTTING: A major chore in most sewing projects, cutting heavy waxed cotton is a breeze with a rotary cutter. A very sharp utility blade can work in a pinch, but can be difficult on curves. I would not recommend fabric scissors, as they gum up quickly with the wax.
SEWING MACHINE: Contrary to what many people think, you do not need a professional or heavy duty home machine to work in waxed canvas. These bags were all sewn on a very basic, plastic body and plastic gear Kenmore home sewing machine. If you are doing a lot of large projects it would be worth investing in a sturdy machine, but if you have only a small project or would simply like to experiment before investing in a better machine, give your existing model a go. I was surprised by what mine could do.
NEEDLES: Some people recommend using a leather needle on waxed cotton. The problem with leather needles is that they tear a triangular hole into the fabric that can compromise it's strength and weather-resistant properties, while also creating challenges for maintaining proper thread tension. I found a canvas needle (size 18) to work much better than various types of leather needles; canvas needles can handle the thickness of the waxed cotton and have a large, thin eye that can accommodate thick, heavy-duty thread. You will need to change the needle OFTEN as the heavy duty fabric wears out the needles after 4 to 6 hours of sewing. If you have any troubles with your thread binding or not keeping tension properly, change your needle. I learned this late in the process, and once I did it saved me a load of frustration.
THREAD: I decided to use the heaviest thread that my machine could handle without binding. I chose a V46 polyester sold by Seattle Fabrics; they stock a lovely variety of colors, and the thread worked beautifully in my wimpy machine. One tip: make sure your bobbin is threaded tightly and cleanly, and never load onto a half-empty bobbin. I had to give my machine a bit of help to get a tight enough bobbin (using my fingers to add extra pressure to the bobbin feed winder).
PINNING OR TACKING SEAMS: I read plenty of forums warning about the use of needles to hold seams in place due to the fact that any punctures in waxed canvas reduce water resistance because the wax stiffens the fabric and keeps the fibers from binding over a needle hole. So this is what I found worked for me: On straight, flat seams, I did not need anything to hold my fabric pieces together (the tackiness of the waxed surface helps the fabric grip itself). On bulky, curved seams, I would first baste in 1/4" from my seam to help get a smooth finished edge. When attaching other materials to the waxed cotton (such as nylon webbing or reflecting banding) I would hold pieces in place on the cotton using Scotch tape.
HARDWARE + LEATHER
I had not worked with leather or brass hardware much before this project, and I was a bit intimidated by the process required to set rivets, snaps, etc. Once you get the hang of it though the process is extremely simple and rewarding; I would recommend to anyone who is interested to just give it a go. There are many great online tutorials for everything from setting snaps and buckles to finishing raw leather. A good place to start is the diverse collection by Tandy Leather. Just be patient and buy extra material so that you can make a few mistakes along the way.
Leatherworking tools can be quite expensive, and I decided to invest in quality tools while limiting myself to those tools that were the most necessary for my project. I found the most essential, basic tools for leatherworking and hardware to be: a good hammer, metal carpenter's square, sturdy awl, jeweler's anvil, rotary blade, leather needle, and a 3-piece hand snap setter kit (these can be used to set both rivets and snaps). Leather punches are also extremely useful for creating holes for buckle straps.
FINAL PRODUCT: PANNIERS
The panniers are a simple, dual-sack system: they straddle the bicycle rack and thus do not rely on any clips or buckles for mounting. We use a set of webbed nylon straps to hold the bags securely onto the rack on either side.
Patrick's panniers feature a set of canvas tubes that I dimensioned to hold our tent and sleeping mats. These affix onto the rear of the panniers with brass snaps and canvas straps. The method is a little cumbersome and finicky, so we are thinking about design revisions here.
Both bags have reflective ribbon sewn onto the rear and side panels of the bag. And woah buddy, do we EVER shine in the headlights.
FINAL PRODUCT: HANDLEBAR BAGS
Our handlebar bags are dimensioned to carry what we need accessible during the day when touring (snacks, rain gear, maps, etc). They are also big enough to carry most of what we need for short day trips when we are able to unload our front and rear panniers.
A clear plastic pocket on the top of the bag keeps our maps visible and dry. The design of the pocket could be fine-tuned to improve weather resistance, but at the moment they keep out all but the heaviest rains.
I designed and dimensioned the bags to function with the Gilles Berthoud decaleur system, which is mounted onto the handlebars. This as well as three velcro straps on the bottom of the bag, securing in down to the rack, provide superior stability. The front of the bag features two reflective ribbons to help with nighttime visibility.
Internal pockets are made of a mildew-resistant, lightweight nylon, and they are handy for storing maps, phone, pens, etc. The pockets also help hold in place the corrugated plastic sheeting used to give the bag structure.
I repurposed an old leather camera strap into a webbed nylon carrying strap. I imagined taking the bag off the bag all the time and using it this way, but have found that the combination of decaleur and velcro straps makes this a bit more finicky than I would like.
Overall these little bags have been trusty companions on our ride, and are ready for many more adventures down the road.