roll top backpack

Lately I’ve been feeling like my trusty backpack of 4+ years (a cheap North Face knock off that I first met in a Hong Kong street market) is a bit bulky for the stuff I usually carry around these days. My current laptop is about half the size of the one I used in school, and I now carry around far fewer notebooks. So I figured I should try making a back pack.

Before I embarked on making my new every day carry backpack, I used the left over ripstop nylon from my homemade bike frame bags to make a little ultra-light backpack, loosely modeled after the REI Flash 18 pack.

I did a pretty lousy job documenting the construction of this one, but basically the front and the back are one continuous piece, and two side panels are sewn on. The draw string “skirt” on top is also a separate piece.

front view

front view

back view. note the small pocket between the straps

back view. note the small pocket between the straps

As an after though I added a small pocket on the back for keeping things like keys and a wallet. But it turns out this was also a great way to pack the whole thing up.

tucked away!

tucked away!

I was very pleased with how this ‘practice’ backpack turned out, so I set out designing my ‘real’ one. I definitely wanted one made of heavier material than ripstop nylon, so I bought some 1000 Denier urethan coated Cordura off ebay. Because its so abrasion resistant, waterproof, and readily available on ebay, I highly recommend it for DIY projects, although I did find that 1000D felt a little too heavy for my needs (part of the woes of online shopping I guess).

Besides making for a heavier backpack, the thicker fabric posed a manufacturing challenge: with thicker fabric, it is much harder to fold the edges under and sew over them, since the layers quickly add up to something my poor little sewing machine can’t handle. Turns out the secret weapon to making good seams with 1000D Cordura is grosgrain ribbon. Grosgrain is like really thin nylon webbing. The edges don’t have loose threads, since its all continuously woven, so you can sew it around the edges of the Cordura. I think you can also apply a seam seal tape with an iron (which has the benefit of waterproof seams), but you would probably still want to add the grosgrain to get a more finished-looking edge anyway. (If you have other tips and tricks, please share! I am eager to learn)

I started by sketching some designs and then making paper templates. The photo below shows the concept of one continuous piece for the front and back, plus two side panels. But later I did separate front and back panels, and a continuous strip for the sides and bottom.

design sketches and patterns

design sketches and patterns

The bag is sized to my work laptop. The laptop pocket is made from some thin ripstop nylon material. I reinforced the edge of the pocket with some yellow grosgrain ribbon.

tucked in

back panel with laptop tucked in

laptop pocket

laptop pocket has grosgrain lip

For comfort I added some padding (packing foam) at the bottom of the bag. The foam basically sits in a pocket where the lip is sealed with some grosgrain.

back padding

back padding

The front panel was significantly more complicated to make. I like having an easy access pocket in the front to stuff a jacket or other random things. I also like having a secure zippered pocket to keep pens, keys, and wallet.

front view

front view

The front panel consists of two pieces of Cordura, sewn onto a zippered pocket made from ripstop nylon. Elastic cord and webbing loops form the front ‘pocket’.

discreet zippered pocket

discreet zippered pocket

zippered pocket viewed from inside

zippered pocket viewed from inside

padded straps: cordura is sewn flat then flipped inside out and stuffed with padding

padded straps: cordura is sewn flat then flipped inside out and stuffed with padding

strap bottom attachment

strap bottom attachment

strap top attachment, again I use the grosgrain for reinforcement and to hide the Cordura edge - cosmetic and prevents fraying

strap top attachment, again I use the grosgrain for reinforcement and to hide the Cordura edge on the straps – cosmetic and prevents fraying

completed back panel

completed back panel!

I definitely wanted a water bottle pocket, so I tried to design one using webbing. For my first attempt, I sewed the webbing at the masking tape edge. But since the fabric deflects more than the cardboard box, I should have sewn about 1/2″ inboard of the masking tape.

sizing the water bottle pocket

sizing the water bottle pocket

The last major step is the sew the side/bottom strip to the front and back panels:

sewn together: front panel (inside-out view)

sewn together: front panel (inside-out view)

back view

back view

these edges are pretty ugly and will fray over time if they aren't covered

these edges are pretty ugly and will fray over time if they aren’t covered. Also you can see where I sewed extra to reinforce where the webbing (purple) attaches

grosgrain-sealed edges

grosgrain-sealed edges

finished! front view

finished! front view

back view

back view

I’m pretty excited to start using this and see how it holds up over time :]

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