Oh, handbags. Next to underwear, shoes, and swimsuits, it's hard to think of a fashion item with a less attractive cost-per-square-inch. But if you have a few hours, a few beers, some leather and a needle and thread, you too can make a gorgeous, top-quality bag of your own. No sewing machine required.
You'll need everything you see here; click this or any photo to enlarge. Clockwise, from left: A cutting mat and ruler; Wood glue or PVA glue; A magnetic purse clasp; A hammer; A measuring tape; A flat chisel; Linen thread, such as that suitable for bookbinding; Sewing scissors; A rotary cutter; An awl; A lump of beeswax; And four strong, long needles, such as those used for bookbinding. Technically, you don't necessarily need the cutting mat, the ruler, or the rotary cutter — you could do all your measuring and cutting out with a tape measure and your sewing scissors. But with leather, I personally find it a lot easier and more precise to use the rotary cutter.
Last but in no way least, you'll need some leather. If you live in a city where you can obtain leather at a good fabric or specialty store, you're in luck! I found this most excellent goat skin at a spot in New York's Garment District last Friday. But if you don't, you can also buy leather online from a number of retailers — call and ask questions, to check you're getting what you think you're getting — and there's plenty of leather and bag findings available on eBay. The obvious drawback with buying leather sight unseen is that you can't touch it until it arrives, but I've had wonderful results from eBay leather finds. When I decided to teach myself how to work in leather, I made my first three bags from a giant half cowhide I got on eBay for like $40.
If you've never worked with leather before, you should know that it's sold priced per square foot, and, like denim, its heavy-dutiness is measured in weight per square foot — the higher the number of ounces, the thicker the hide. Many leather retailers will only sell whole hides, but you can find partial hides readily on eBay. For this bag, you'll need a small hide or a part of a hide, totalling about 5-6 square feet. And you'll want to use at least 6oz. leather. Leather needn't be expensive — my goat hide was $44.37, a fraction of the cost of a new handbag, let alone a nice leather one, and I have enough left over to make a wallet or a coin purse — but it's worth paying for quality: you want full-grain leather (that's leather that hasn't been cut laterally, or "split," in order to double or triple the area of the hide), not a resurfaced ("corrected-grain") split. Leather is skin; it has a kind of integrity that you don't want to interrupt, if at all possible. Compared with corrected-grain splits or top-grain leather (which is the uppermost part of a split hide), full-grain leather is stronger, develops a nicer patina, and performs better over time.
If you don't want to make a leather bag, you can still use this tutorial — just cut the pattern in a different fabric, and sew it up. (I would, however, use a sewing machine.) I would also strongly recommend using a really heavy-duty interfacing if you're going the fabric route, and therefore a lining.
Now it's time to thread the needle. About 1" from each end of your thread, poke the point of a needle through the thread (like the photo on the left). Push the needle most of the way through, and then work the 1" tail through the eye (center photo). Pull the needle through the rest of the way (right photo). This is called locking the thread, and it makes sewing leather so much easier.
If there's something you'd like to see as a DIY project, just email me me your suggestions (or tell me on Facebook). In the meantime, to check out past DIYs — including how to do a '30s-style moon manicure, how to make a fascinator, how to alter a thrift-store dress, and how to dye in the comfort of your own home — click here.