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Saturday, 10 October 2015

Sew Better With The Library

My library card...
It's Thanksgiving weekend for us Canadians and where I am, the weather is actually surprisingly mild. A far cry from what we had a little over a month ago...

Labour Day weekend this year was atrocious. It stayed as low as 7℃ for the better part of the day on Sunday, accompanied by incessant rain and wind. (For the benefit of my American readers, that's less than 45℉!) After doing some chores around the house, I thought, hmmm.... how about a library visit?

My relationships with the public library and with sewing have tracked a similar timeline, oddly enough. I stopped using the library's services in the mid-1980s, probably around the same time that I stopped sewing.

Then on November 3, 2013, I applied for a new library card. Later, November 2, 2013 turned out to be the date of my first blog post. Sound confusing? I actually wrote my first five blog posts all at once in December 2013 and posted them in one shot, but I backdated the first four. (The motivation for getting the library card, however, was a comment from my mom about wishing she could see the Vivien Leigh movie, Waterloo Bridge, again. Libraries are now the best places to find obscure DVDs.)

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In terms of physical product, I've probably borrowed about six books and three DVDs. Over the past year, however, I've borrowed many electronic products, which brings me back to the top of this post and that cold, rainy Labour Day Sunday.

The idea of visiting the library is now done from the cozy comfort of my office. While there is something almost unsettling about the ease with which we can instantaneously borrow "books" from the library while sitting (or standing) in front of a computer, I know technology cannot go backwards and I may as well embrace the advances. Anyway, on this day, I searched for titles on sewing... bags in particular.

It's become trendy for sewing bloggers to publish books these days, so I thought it would be interesting to see if any of them provided anything of value above and beyond what has already been shared via their online efforts. In a way, I find it strange — with the success of PDF tutorials and patterns — that anyone would be interested in going with the dead tree format.

Not that I'm knowledgeable about the publishing biz, but it appears to be a somewhat risky venture with considerable upfront costs. On the other hand, given that most of us pay about ten bucks per pattern, if a book by a recognized authority features at least two projects that interest us, maybe it's deemed to be worthy of the cost.

With that being said, I took advantage of two titles that were available for immediate download as ebooks: Sew Serendipity Bags by Kay Whitt and The Better Bag Maker by Nicole Mallalieu.

EPL eBooks
Electronic "instant download books" from the library...

Both of these are comprehensive books meant to take you from beginner to "beyond" in one volume. Notions, hardware and basic bag making techniques are covered at the beginning, before veering off into a selection of projects that run the gamut from simple to advanced.

In The Better Bag Maker, all of the projects are curiously based on a box construction (sort of like Brett Bara's Craftsy class)... although she does show you how to make a gusseted patch pocket. They range from a typical tote to a bucket bag to handbags to overnighter/travel bags to a convertible backpack; a total of eleven projects. A combination of photos and digital drawings are used to illustrate the step-by-step instructions; this part is well done and everything appears to be clearly explained. All pattern pieces are available for downloading, which is a pleasant surprise.

Click here to see images from The Better Bag Maker by Nicole Mallalieu...

In Sew Serendipity Bags, the pages of introductory skills stuff are illustrated with a good selection of photos. Once the projects are introduced, however, the photos are replaced by hand drawings. I'm not sure whether they were done by the author as she does provide initial concept sketches of all of her bags.

The beginner to advanced projects in this volume range from a t-shirt style shopping tote to a bucket bag to a box constructed tote to cross body purses and handbags to — surprise! — another convertible backpack. Construction of the bags in this book include designs with gussets, by the way. There are a total of twelve projects. However, I could not find any of the pattern sheets (there are supposed to be six of them) mentioned in the text; I'm guessing that they are included as an insert only in the print version of the book; too bad.

Click here to see images from Sew Serendipity Bags by Kay Whitt...

Let me say that from the standpoint of being the one and only book that you buy, you probably can't go wrong with either of these. (Although I personally prefer The Better Bag Maker for the range of techniques that the author covers, despite the lack of purse gussets!)

The main problem with both is that there are not enough photographs. In some cases, the steps and outcome of basic techniques are not illustrated (e.g., the whole concept of understitching in the The Better Bag Maker) and in most cases, the finished projects are shown just once and are not shown in the best way to highlight the bags' manifold attractions (e.g., the "ruched" pockets on the backside of an elegant looking handbag in Sew Serendipity Bags are shown in extreme closeup... weird).

On occasion, an unfortunate choice of fabric pattern and/or colour obscures a bag's features, or, worse yet, the fabric is just not striking enough to call attention to the bag. Obviously, fabric choice is a very personal matter and should not be the determining factor for how good any particular project is. But the end result was that I did not go away thinking, "Oh, I have to make that!"

I came close to feeling that way with two projects. The Galapagus Boho (from Better Bag Maker) caught my eye with its shape. Unfortunately, it's one of the bags where the fabric choice (a very "busy" predominantly blue floral print) makes it hard to appreciate the bag's features. The second project was the Laptop Messenger Bag (from Sew Serendipity); it's the black and white one with the red rose pinned to it. It has a matching protective insert for the laptop that fits inside and a variety of pockets for various electronic "doodads".

Overall, my rainy day "trip" to the library turned out to be quite worthwhile. The library is a great starting place if you're interested in buying a book about bag making. You can take it home (or just download it), make some projects and then decide how you want to spend your dollars. Oh, and yes, I did find some interesting concepts in both books that — while they may also be available online or found in a specific pattern for sale somewhere — provided a good learning experience for me.

I also put holds on three physical books, which were being routed to my local branch when I originally wrote this.

EPL Books
Physical books I borrowed from the library...

The titles are, from left to right: The Bag Making Bible by Lisa Lam, The Perfect Handmade Bag by Clare Youngs, and Sewing Stylish Handbags and Totes by Choly Knight. If I find anything noteworthy in them (and I'm particularly curious about the second one, whose subtitle is Recycle and Reuse to Make 35 Beautiful Totes, Purses and More), I'll return to this subject another day.

In the meantime, if you're a bag making freak (ha, ha), have you ever bought or considered buying a book on the subject? If so, which one was it and how did you find the book format?


  1. Rochelle I borrowed those first 2 books from the library. I want to make the ruffled hobo (Sew Serendipity), but without the ruffles one day. I also borrowed the Bag Making Bible quite a while ago and while there is a lot of good info in that book, there were mistakes in the bag I was making. You were told to cut 2 of a certain pattern piece and yet only one was used. So I wasted fabric as well as interfacing. Plus the handle design after making the bag didn't seem very well thought out for a large bag that could hold heavy items. The handles should have been sewn from the bottom of the bag to provide more support and not sewn to the upper part of the bag because it caused a lot of stress there and eventually would tear the fabric. I felt that either no one tested those bags or she threw the book together quickly without really going over it well. Those are things a proof reader wouldn't catch unless they make bags themselves.

    As someone who worked for the public library for several years, I love and support my local libraries a lot.

  2. This was a very interesting post--I liked hearing your perspective on it. I haven't used the library in a long time, and I was aware that e-books were an option but had not considered those in reference to sewing books. The other thing that probably steered me in different directions is the wealth of information on bag designers' blogs and the opportunity to make and acquire different bag patterns over the last couple of years. There's still something about a hardcover pattern book though. I own the Sew Serendipity and the Bag Making Bible and I love them both, and I'd love to own Lisa Lam's second bag book, A Bag For All Reasons.

    A little anecdote about Sew Serendipity--it was my first foray into bag making. It was a birthday gift (I know I asked for it, but I don't remember what made me want it-it may have been the ruffled hobo on the cover). I had never made any bags, didn't know anything about Peltex or hardware, but the bag I decided to make first was the last one in the book--the Laptop Messenger. My daughter had her first laptop, and I wanted to make her a nice bag. Well, long story short, I got it made (with some modifications), and she's still using it 3 years later. It's funny when I think I picked the hardest project in the book to do, but I picked the one I WANTED most to do, so I knew that I'd be motivated. I also combined elements on that bag with a bag from Lisa Lam's Bag Making Bible book, so I complicated it even further! :) I thought then, and I still do now, how amazing it is the number of pieces that go into a modest, medium-sized bag. There might be 70 pieces when all the cutting is said and done--but that makes it all the more satisfying when attaching the very last piece.

    I think that now with the experience I've had with bag sewing I would still use the books, and I might consult some of my other patterns to help with techniques if I got into a bind and needed some extra photos or help. In my opinion, sewing books still have their place and make a great addition to a sewing repertoire.



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