Woven handbag designs offer a sophisticated palette of colour, texture, pattern and scale for a truly unique fashion look. A wide variety of patterns can be made by changing the size, colour, or by placement of a certain style of weave. Many fashion designers feature woven styles of handbags in their Spring/Summer collections, with warm-weather favourites in neutral-coloured plaited straws and sisals, while supple tanned leather is a popular fashion choice for year-round use. Woven leathers are sold by the yard and are available in ten-yard rolls of various pattern styles, in 27-inch or 54-inch widths. Straw and raffia plaiting is sold by the linear foot and are available in 100-foot coils, in widths from 10 mm to 24 mm widths. Flat braids and ribbons, silk rouleau and cordings, and upholstery webbing are excellent materials to weave your own, as well.
You can make your own woven designs, using any non-fraying flat medium, employing the techniques described here. A rotary cutter and cutting mat will make easy work of it to create even-width uniform strips for weaving.
Another option is pre-cut garment-grade leather (3-4 oz. weight) strapping. It is commonly sold in 36 to 45 inch lengths and available in 20mm widths and 2 mm thicknesses. For a sturdier weave, try Latigo leather strips. They are made of oil-treated, tanned 8-9 oz. cowhide for belting and is available in lengths from 54 to 72 inches and range in widths from 12 mm to 50 mm.
Think basketry when thinking of bag construction. Rather than drafting a pattern and sewing it up, you are molding the bag like you would a sculpture. The parts of a bag cavity are the base, the side walls, and the rim. A bag may also have a flap, handle, or other embellishments. Like making baskets, most bag designs begin with a base. The base can either be woven or a static solid piece. A bag base can come in many shapes to make a wide variety of shapes of handbags. The ‘static’ pieces of the work are laid down first. In a round silhouette, they are referred to as ‘spokes’; in other shapes they are called ‘ribs’ or ‘slats’. Then the ‘weavers’ are used to fill in the sides of the body portion to create the shape desired.
Weaving techniques include virtually every possible way there is to attach one piece of material to another without using stitching, glue, or pins, although resins may be used to coat a bag’s surface to make it waterproof, or it may be cloth-lined to make it impervious.
Four basic weaving techniques are used in bag construction. Weaving, plaiting, and twining all interlace horizontal elements (wefts) and vertical elements (warps), but each technique brings to bag designing subtleties of design, colour, and form. On the other hand, coiling, used in making spiral-bound totes, is more like sewing, as the designer uses an awl to punch holes in the foundation through which sewing strands are drawn.
Each of the basic methods has numerous variations, and designers sometimes use several variations on a technique in a single bag style, or combine two or more techniques. Ultimately, the beauty of a handbag weave reveals the designer’s creative vision and technical adeptness at both preparing the materials and manipulating them into a ‘basket’ shape for the body portion of the design.
In looking at the common styles of weaving techniques around the world, I like to break them first into two categories – intertwined and spiral-bounded, and then further divide the lists into woven, plaiting, twining, and coiling (note: this is my own analysis for beginners, not a standardized ideal used by weavers).
I. Intertwined: using over-under techniques.
A. Woven: involves narrow strips overlapping one another, similar to the warp and weft on a loom.
1. Single/parallel strand woven: a single weaver goes behind one or more slats (ribs), then in front of one or more slats in an over-under pattern. The strands fill the space solidly.
a) Single strand/single spiral: a single strand goes around the whole circumference of the bag shape (or front to back) until it ends, then is joined or replaced. This is the technique used to create a seamless 3D-weave. It only requires that you use an uneven number of slats, so that each succeeding row of weaving goes over where the one before went under, so that the rows lock each other in place. Adding slats must be done two at a time to maintain the pattern. Often, the rib count will double at intervals, creating a design element as well as allowing the bag body to grow in size. The spacing between the slats is made as tight as possible to prevent large gaps in the weave, which small objects may fall through.
b) Multi-strand/multi-spiral: a separate strand starts behind each slat and spirals steeply upward paralleling its neighbour. Changing the slat count requires ending the weaving with a single solid row and beginning again. This technique has limited potential for use in bowl-shaped bucket styles, and is best suited to fill large straight-sided purse styles or basket-shaped panniers where the slat count is constant. A pannier shape can be achieved by using tapered weavers with the smallest end down. As the weavers get wider, they force the diameter of the “basket” outward. This same concept can be used in many of the woven techniques as an alternative to adding or subtracting ribs.
Twined work begins with a foundation of rigid elements, or warp rods—very often whole plant shoots—around which two, and sometimes three or four, weft elements are woven. The wefts are separated, brought around a stationary warp rod, brought together again, and twisted. The action is repeated again and again, building the cavity shape. Subtle and elegant patterns are made by changing the number of wefts (as in braiding and overlay), or the number of warps the wefts pass over (as in diagonal weaves). A weaver may use any number of twining variations in a single style. False embroidery, a technique in which a decorative element is wrapped around the wefts, on the outside face of the weave, is often seen on plain twining.
a) Single twined: two weavers alternate behind one rib at a time to create a basket-weave. Ribs can be added in at any time necessary to achieve the desired shape. Can be used to create open work patterns for lined bags and totes.
b) Double, or Diagonal Twined: two weavers alternate behind two ribs at a time, with succeeding rows offset like brickwork. To maintain the pattern, two ribs are added in on successive ‘stitches’. Patterning can also be achieved using a clockwise twist and giving an up-to-the-right pattern, or counter-clockwise twist to give a down-to-the-right pattern. Diagonal stripes are created when the two weavers are of different colours.
c) Three (or more) Strand Twining: three or more weavers alternate in a pattern such as over two, under one, giving a slightly raised texture and steeper slant to the weaving.
d) Overlay Twining: coloured strands are wrapped around the weavers to embellish the principle surface of the bag. Materials can be used that are too weak to use on their own, such as soutache braid and novelty yarns.
In plaiting, or checkerwork, two elements are woven over and under each other at right angles, resembling a checkerboard pattern. Twilled weave is much the same, except that the horizontal materials (weft) are woven over two or more verticals (warps). Plaiting works best with flat, ribbon-like materials. A common feature of plaited handbag projects is the formation of an edge by folding a strip at a 45-degree angle and sending it back in the opposite direction, forming a neat second layer for the bag opening. Plaiting also refers to flat braided strips (very long and narrow) used to make straw handbags and brimmed hats.
1) Simple Plaited: woven in ‘over one-under one’ pattern.
2) Pattern Plaited: woven in specific patterns such as ‘over one – under two’, which create various twill patterns, especially when different colours of weavers are used.
II Spiral-bound: working technique in the round.
a) Coiled/Spiral: a cordlike core is stitched in a spiral to the row below, creating a round or oval pattern that grows along its edge. Coiling begins at the center of a bag and grows upon itself in spiral rounds, each attached to the round before. Weaving coiled totebags is a sewing technique, as the bag-maker uses an awl to punch holes in the foundation through which sewing strands are drawn. These strands are single pieces of plant fibre, such as jute, hemp, or flax for example, that have been twisted to a uniform size. The foundation is made up of one, two, three, or sometimes more slender plant shoots such a bamboo, bundles of grass or shredded plant fibres, or a combination of grasses and sisals. In coiling, designs are not made by changing the weave, but rather by using a different colour sewing thread. Think of a braided rag rug configuration.
The shape and size of a woven handbag will depend on the scale of the slats you use. For the weaving, the wider you can cut the strips, the wider the size of the bag; and the longer you can make each strip, the more height (length) you with achieve to the bag shape.
Here is a simple tutorial designed to show the how-to’s for weaving a handbag, yet the style of weaving is up to you, as a wide variety of patterns can be made by changing the size, colour, or by placement of a certain style of weave.