DIY Backpack: A Lesson in Upcycled and Reclaimed Materials

I decided I “needed” a retro style, drawstring backpack. I’m 38 weeks pregnant and I felt that it was the only kind of bag that was going to be useful for quick trips out and about. I love my over the should bags and larger totes, but the straps tend to get in the way when you are babywearing.

I have seen more and more of the retro style backpack bags with modern updates lately. Some are beautifully crafted from leather and others from fabric. I thought I could scour the thrift shops to see what I could find, but that was quickly ruled out when I realized how much walking could be involved (although I will still keep my eyes open for one every time I go to the thrift store).


I began to research what I knew I could do…sew.  I searched for different DIY backpack sewing patterns to see if there was anything that would work. I came across many different patterns (I really liked this one  and this one) and I decided I could use the concepts from a variety of styles to come up with a simple pattern for myself.

The next part was more exciting and eye opening. Materials! What did I have on hand to make this bag. Could I make it completely from materials I had in my stash? I’m not talking about pretty fabric I have collected over the years with the intent of someday making something out of it; I’m talking about scraps that I have laying around from previous projects. I also have a stash of old clothes that could have gone to the thrift store, but I kept because I either liked the fabric or some component of the item seemed like it could be useful in the future.  These reclaimed materials would be the base of my DIY backpack.


I know this sounds like I’ve got this huge hoarding problem, but really all this fits in one big plastic tub so its not that bad! I love that I can go to this stash and find bits and pieces that can be used to create something new, useful and beautiful.

With my backpack ideas swirling through my head, I went to my stash to see what I had. I knew I had some thicker fabric that I could use for the outer shell and I had a lots of pretty bits that I could create a lining. I was surprised when I found a pair of my husband’s cargo shorts. One of the pockets had a zipper pouch and a snapped pocket. Perfect for the front pocket of the backpack. (Although, now I owe my husband another pair of cargo shorts because apparently they were only in my stash pile because they needed a new button…oops!!)

Once I sorted out which materials could be used, I began to take measurements and think about construction. Once I figured out what needed to be sewn together when, the process went pretty quickly. The one thing that I still need to figure out is how to make the straps adjustable. I could buy a backpack hardware kit or the likes or I could see what I have laying around that might work. Currently a safety pin is doing the job.

What really inspires me about this project are the endless possibilities of upcycled and reclaimed materials. Giving new life to something that people don’t want anymore. Going to the thrift store and looking at clothes, not just for what they are, but what they can become is a very exciting. It really keeps your creative juices flowing.

Time and Comparison

Time is an interesting thing when you are working in a product based business. People want things now. Instant gratification! I understand; you see something beautiful and the desire to hold it, touch it, use it is immediate. But, how does it look from the makers perspective? Coming up with original, creative ideas takes time. Making the first, second and maybe third prototype takes time. Once you are happy with the final product you need to photograph it and market it…more time.

It’s hard to be on the maker end. The one man factory as such.  People are starting to see the value of handmade goods, but you can still feel like you need to be working faster to keep up with all the beautiful things you see on Instagram or Etsy. How is it that everyone else’s hands seem to work so much faster than yours?

(The start of a little something using upcycled cotton yarn that will be naturally dyed once finished)

How do you keep your focus and not compare yourself to others? This is not a new dilemma. It’s something that others have talked about at length. It comes back to the idea that I want to look at others work and feel inspired, not the overwhelmed. The maker community is so supportive, but sometimes the first thought is to compare yourself. It’s hard to remember that through the lens of a camera people can make their lives seem completely different.  You don’t know what’s going on in the background, just as they don’t know what’s going on in the background of yours.

As more and more people begin to talk about this balance of work and home life, it becomes a little easier to give yourself the time and space to figure out how it works in your own individual life. Giving yourself grace. What gets done, gets done. Being able to focus on the “why” and not the “should” or the “have to”. So, I’m going to make myself some more tea and a few lists of all the ideas in my brain and attempt to give myself some space to focus. And remember, one step at a time!

How do you manage balancing work, time and comparison?


Finished Quilt

Over the weekend, I finished up a naturally dyed and hand stitched baby quilt. Some projects seem to drag at the end and you just want to finish the piece, but it’s hard to get there. I have had a few of those projects lately, so it was a pleasure to work on something that I was not only excited to see completed, but that I really wanted to do the work to get there.

I don’t feel the photos that I have taken thus far do the quilt justice. I want to take it around to everyone and show them so they can see it with their own eyes. I guess you could say that I’m just little proud of my work. Granted, it is not perfect by any means and I wish some of the mistakes were not there, but proud none the less because my two hands made it and it will bring comfort and joy to someone.

Next up, I have plans for a whole cloth quilt, using the fabric that I dyed with black beans and some thrifted wool. I’m currently working on a few sketches to plan out how I would like to do the hand stitching. I’m also considering adding a simple crocheted edge instead of the typical bias binding. These projects are ever evolving and it’s always fun to see where they end up.

Surface Design: Trial and Error

While reading of a variety of natural dyeing books, I have come across an aspect to the process that adds another level of beauty to the project. Surface design is the art of making  patterns on the fabric or yarn. A concentrate of natural dye or a modifier can be painted on the fabric. Shibori techniques can be used to create a variety of patterns. Resist dyeing, dip dyeing, layering the colors, knots in the fabric are also different ways to explore surface design.

I have been experimenting with many of these techniques to see what I can create. It has definitely been a lesson in trial and error.  Going into the process, I thought that the hardest part would be coming up with an idea of how I wanted the fabric to look after I applied the surface design. So far, I have been very wrong. The ideas are in my head, but getting them to translate to the fabric has been very difficult. Definitely trial and error. Learning from mistakes and trying again.

If you are interested in learning more about natural dyeing and surface dyeing techniques, The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar is an excellent resource to begin with.