Monday, April 1, 2013

In Progress: Canvas Pilgrim Bag

When I first started in the SCA, I did the same thing most newbies do- I tried cramming everything I needed for the day into a dinky leather pouch that originated from a Renaissance Faire. It sufficed, but it did kind of suck as a catch all for a day at an event. When I got to be a little more active, I traded my pouch for a basket, which I liked so much better.

I've had many baskets since then, some I liked better than others, but they all have the same flaws. The first is their fragility (and awkward handle). I did have one sturdy basket with a hinged handle, but even that beauty was no match for the crushing effects of event gear shoved haphazardly into a car at the end of a long day. Once a basket starts to go, it's pretty much over. 

I have gotten lucky with the basket I currently use. I think it's lasted this long because it got misplaced for a long time. It's the one in the photo above, which was taken back in the spring of 2008. It's not a period basket, though, and has a very Easter basket feel to it. Which brings me to the second flaw of baskets.

Small, toting-around baskets don't really take the place of a bag. For starters, they usually don't have lids. I do have a tall, narrow basket with a lid and hinged handle, but it's kind of a weird shape, and feels kind of weird to carry around. It makes me think of my great-aunt Eupha, who was a pretty odd cookie.

Most baskets that are small enough to carry around at an event are typically not also ideally sized to carry an embroidery frame, a sewing box, a camera, etc. without something inevitably falling out. With no lid, the basket contents are kind of on display as well. It's not that I'm not usually afraid someone will swipe my keys, it's that shopper cards and key chains aren't particularly period. And the embroidery frame isn't really designed to be a lid.

I had thought for a long time that I may want a pilgrim bag- the medieval equivalent of a cross-body messenger bag. I'm a bag person in the mundane world, and I enjoy making them, so it kind of makes sense that a pilgrim bag would be on my wish list. I just never really stopped to think about actually making one, until my awkward basket actually made me feel awkward at a recent event. My embroidery frame fell out and clattered on the floor in front of a large crowd of people, simply because I had stepped forward and the frame (which was just sittng on the top of the basket) was interested in following Newton's laws.

At that moment, I decided it was time to retire the baskets. A shoulder bag, which would leave my arms and hands both free, actually just makes more sense for me, especially when I'm trying to wrangle my kids.
In the process of figuring out what I wanted the bag to look like, my husband expressed his interest in also having a pilgrim bag. I ordered some 12.5oz hemp sheeting from Wm. Booth Draper for mine, and some 16oz Russia drab for my husband's. The 12oz is a bit too soft and light on its own, so I also pulled out a piece of off-white linen (probably linen/cotton) with a stripe design in the weave to use as a lining.

Sorry for how dark this is. 16 oz. drab on the bottom, hemp sheeting in the middle, off-white linen on the top.
I started with my husband's bag, since it would involve fewer steps. It would also give me the chance to work out any kinks in technique before doing mine (since he's not a picky about those sorts of things- as long as it works as intended.)

The main bag piece is 30" by 18" (plus .75" seam allowance), folded in half, so that the main bag is 18" wide by 15" tall with no bottom seam. This is pretty big, but it's mostly proportional to my husband's size, and he requested something large.

I also cut the flap piece at 10" by 12" (plus allowance), and a piece to sew in as an interior pocket (sorry- didn't measure it). 

I'm using a hand-spun white linen thread to hand sew the whole bag (manually waxed with beeswax). First, I finished three edges of the flap, leaving one of the long edges raw. Then I sewed the seam allowance on both long edges of the main bag so that I could do the Elizabethan Seam technique that Wenny introduced me to.

Next, I whip stitched the finished edges on the main bag together, to get the main "sack" shape.

I really like the look and strength of the finished seam. I let my husband tug at it, and it held very well.

I wanted the bag to have a more defined shape, so I employed a bag-making technique that I love- boxy corners. I have no idea if this is a period method, but it is an effective method of giving a bag shape without having to add pieces.

It's a pretty easy method to do, but not that easy to describe. The seam in the photo above is a side seam. My thumb is holding the bottom of the seam at the fold. The fold line is centered on the seam (underneath what you can see). The two layers are pinned together. A seam cuts across perpendicular to the seam, defining a triangle at the corner. Here's the fold side after the back stitch is complete:

If this was a modern bag, I would cut that triangle off, leaving enough to finish the seam. In this case, though, I want there to be as much strength in the bag as possible to stand up to my husband's roughness, so I folded the triangles down on the inside, and tacked them to the bottom, giving the bottom corners some reinforcement.

Turned right side out, the bottom corner looks like this:

Since the flap was already finished, I just needed to slip the raw edge into the hem around the top. That wasn't the way I originally thought I would do it, but I was concerned about the flap being long enough, and this insertion didn't take too much away.

With the top hemmed, the bag is looking really good:

I still have that piece that I want to put in as a pocket, as well as the strap to attach. I've prepared the pocket by finishing all four edges. After piecing the strap together, I had a piece roughly 6" wide by 60" long. I folded it in half, sewed it into a tube, inverted it, flattened it so that the seam was centered along the underside, then did running stitches along both edges to keep everything in place.

That's my progress so far. Next, I'll get the pocket and strap in place, then do a reinforcement piece on the center portion of the strap (like a shoulder pad).

I'm really enjoying the variety of hand-stitches this is using, but hand sewing the heavy canvas is pretty tough on the hands. The results are worth it, though, since the white stitches are visible.

For now, though, my hands need a break.


  1. My re-enacting basket has the opposite problem to your ones. It is very sturdy (has survived much abuse) but is too large - it is far too tempting to fill it to the top, and then it is too heavy to carry comfortably.

    I generally get over the problem of having inauthentic stuff in it by draping an old headdress over the contents and letting select things sit on the top of the headdress.

    I like your pilgrim bags, particularly the incredibly dainty handsewing. Lovely.

  2. You are incredible! I have spent the last hour reading your blog; I haven't visited in a while and there is soooo much I need to catch up on. I loved this post! So instructive and practically helpful.

    I too have been a basket-carrier. I made a wool pouch for our first Faire but it hung off my belt and twirled on its strings and was hard to get in to without spilling the contents everywhere and was just awkward.

    A basket IS so much nicer but then, you have to carry it. And when you have kids, and some that need carrying, it's very cumbersome.

    I love the idea of a pilgrim bag. Now I really want to make one before the Faire tomorrow. I won't have time to do it by tomorrow but perhaps by Sunday, as tomorrow is just a kids day at the Faire and our whole family will attend for the day on Sunday. Your workmanship is really incredible.

    And now after reading your post about your linen gown made in just a few hours I feel that I MIGHT be able to get my sons tunics at least into wearable condition before tomorrow morning!

    Thanks for the huge dose of inspiration!