Like many before us, we began our first bicycle tour fully kitted with Ortlieb panniers. These are really durable and waterproof, but they have a few downsides. They don’t scale down well for day rides and they are clumsy for off-road riding, especially tight single track. They also necessitate expensive front and rear rack systems which often require mounting adaptors for disc brakes and forks lacking braze-ons.
For quite some time now, the bikepacking crowd have been using frame bags, handlebar bags and expandable saddle bags in favour of traditional panniers. There are now plenty of high quality, custom bikepacking bags on the market from brands like Revelate Designs and Porcelain Rocket. Nick at GypsyByTrade has kindly compiled a comprehensive list of all homegrown bike bag makers. The quality of these bags is certainly well above anything I could make myself. However, after a year of touring with no income, I need to pinch my pennies. So, I decided to try to make my own frame bag on Shlukee’s sewing machine.
I’d never used a sewing machine in my life, let alone learned how to wind a bobbin, thread the machine and use a zipper foot! Consequently, making this frame bag took longer than expected, but I learned a lot along the way. I am by no means an expert on these things, so please leave a comment if you have suggestions!
Specifying The Design
I started by checking out a few other DIY frame bag posts. The most helpful example I found was this video. I measured my frame and decided on some basic features (zipper position, wide flare at front, inner pocket, materials, padding, etc). The more upfront planning, measuring and design you do, the less likely you will sew yourself into a corner. I highly recommend the ‘inside out’ technique shown in the video above. It means you can complete the entire bag on the machine without any hand sewing.
Materials & Tools
Here’s a list of materials, supplies and tools I used. This was determined largely by what I could find in Bellingham and my Mom’s attic (thanks, Mom!). I settled on some standard black Cordura because that’s what was on sale at Oyster Creek Canvas. Alternatively, you can find more selection online at Rocky Woods or Seattle Fabrics and all basics at your local Jo-Anne Fabrics. The X-Pac material at Rocky Woods comes highly recommended.
In total, I spent about $35 on materials and supplies, but I had almost all the tools at hand to begin with. If you don’t already have a sewing machine and general supplies, you’ll obviously need to spend more to get setup.
- 1 x linear yard black 1000d Cordura fabric (500d, ballistics or X-Pac would also work)
- 6 feet of velcro (1.5″ width cut into 9 pieces and trimmed later)
- 1 x YKK zipper (20″ length and cut as needed) — waterproof zippers are available, but I decided against this because I find they require too much force to open/close
- 1 x spool of black nylon upholstery thread
- Some scrap material for internal pockets and perimeter lining (OPTIONAL)
- Wide bias tape for sealing inner seams (OPTIONAL)
- Synthetic batting for inner padding (OPTIONAL)
- Small piece of elastic for the pocket (OPTIONAL)
Tools & Supplies
- Singer sewing machine
- Singer 18 gauge upholstery needles
- Rotary cutter
- Fabric scissors
- Lots of pins for fastening material before cutting and sewing
- Sewing pattern paper
- Fabric measuring tape
- Long ruler for cutting straight edges
- Mod Podge glue to prevent fraying and seal the seams
- Scotch Guard for water repellant (spray the exterior when finished)
- Tunes and caffeine!
Preparing The Materials
Once I had my sewing pattern drawn out, I ironed my linear yard of Cordura and folded it in half with the right sides together and selvages lined up in order to create mirror images (two identical triangles and one symmetrical perimeter strip). In sewing speak, they refer to this as ‘cutting on the fold line‘, though this can be misleading since you don’t actually cut on the line itself! I pinned the pattern in place with the narrow perimeter strip on the fold line and used a rotary cutter and long metal ruler to make nice straight cuts.
Constructing The Bag
After cutting out my two triangles and perimeter strip, I started preparing the zipper hole. I decided against having four separate pieces joining the zipper (like the video) and opted for a single zipper slit, folding back the material to make room for the zipper. See sketch below (not to scale) illustrating the single slit method.
Learning to use a sewing machine requires time and patience. Having never used one before, I had to learn some really basic skills before even starting on the frame bag.
- Winding the bobbin (yes, I said ‘bobbin’)
- Threading the machine
- Selecting general stitch settings (stitch width, length, etc)
- Reverse stitching (make your stitches stronger)
- Adjusting thread tension (create nicer looking, stronger stitches and prevent a tangled bobbin rats nest)
- Sewing a zipper (you need a zipper foot)
The Finished Product
The bag has done about five rides so far and no signs of failure yet… just really muddy!