Saturday, December 1, 2007

15. Last Diversion of 2007

Okay, ONE last miscellaneous sewing project before Christmas… This is it, I promise. ;)

Speaking of promises, the reason I’m doing this is that I promised to make chalk bags for two rock climbing friends. One friend is Michelle, who climbs up in Ohio with my parents and the other is Alfred, who climbs with his mother at our gym in Orlando. Chalk bags are drawstring pouches that rock climbers wear at their waists. They contain (wait for it….) chalk, which climbers brush on their hands to keep them from getting sweaty and slippery. (Other athletes do this too – you’ve probably seen gymnasts dip their hands in chalk before starting a routine on the uneven parallel bars, for example.)

It looks like it should be something simple to sew, and I started working on coming up with my own pattern a few years ago. After a bunch of experiments and variations, I think I’ve settled on “the one”. Interestingly (and perhaps foolishly) I never did the most obvious thing to do – I never purchased a commercial chalk bag and took it apart. I probably should have done that ages ago. At first, it seemed like it should be easy enough to figure out on my own, and now that I have a working pattern there doesn’t seem to be much point…

My chalk bags have 3 layers – an inner layer of fleece, an outer decorative layer of whatever fabric the climber chooses, and a middle layer of medium-weight canvas, to give it some structure and make it stand up on its own. All three layers are cut from the same pattern and constructed the same way.

My first pattern for the pouch was a rectangle, sewn into a column, with a circular piece stitched in one end to close up the bottom. But I HATED sewing the bottom on, and as I sewed various purses and bags from commercial patterns, I learned other ways to construct a 3-D pouch. Here is the pattern I use now and some shots of the construction:

(Sorry for the poor quality of the photos.)

While there is no single “right” set of dimensions, here are the ones that I use: Both the long side seam and the width of the body are about 8 inches long and the width of the (centered) bottom seam is about 4 inches long. The incut is approximately 2 inches by 2 inches.

And here is the final version, inside and out:

As I said, using this pattern I make 3 identical pouches, out of fleece, canvas and the “fashion” fabric (typically a cotton print).

The next step is to prepare for the drawstring, by putting metal eyelets into the middle (canvas) and outer (cotton) layers. (You can get eyelet kits at Joanns.) I usually put them about 2 inches below the upper rim, and I interface the outer layer first, because the cotton is too flimsy to hold the eyelet on its own.

Here is one I’m working on now - the three pouches and a closer view of the eyelets:

Now, I insert the loops to hold the drawstring into the inside of the middle (canvas) layer. I only use 3 loops and I make them out of 3 inch pieces of elastic. The goal is to be able to close up the inner (fleece) layer without too much distortion of the outer 2 layers, which is why I make the loop so long and stretchy. For the drawstring, I use about 30 inches of cord and I burn the ends with a match so that they don’t unravel.

Oh, I learned the hard way to stitch the drawstring (at its midpoint) to the middle loop (only). If you don’t, the people that you give these chalk bags to will, at some point in time, pull out the drawstring and then ask you to thread it back through the loops! I can tell you from experience that this is possible, but NOT fun. So, sew that puppy in permanently!

Insert inner pouch into middle pouch – wrong sides together (and toward the inside), keeping drawstring cord in a loop around the circumference of the fleece layer such that it can be used to tighten inner pouch. Baste these 2 pouches together around the top.

Now you’re probably expecting me to slide this combined piece into the outer layer, and baste all 3 layers together, before finishing the upper edge, right?

Well, this is the really cool part of my design. My design is not for just any old chalk bag. It is for a chalk bag with interchangeable covers! In other words, you can make multiple outer layers (cotton prints) for the same chalk bag, and switch between them whenever you want!

So, my next step is to add a loop to this piece, so that the chalk bag can be clipped onto a climbing harness. I use about 5 inches of strap, folded over to make a 4 inch (circumference) loop with a 1 inch tail. Both ends of the strap have to be burned with a match to prevent fraying.

I use 2.25 inch wide grosgrain ribbon to make the binding around the top edge. (As with the cord and the strap, I burn the edges to prevent fraying.) Before sewing it into the pouch, I stitch hook and loop tape (for example, Velcro ®) – the hook (stiff) side – across one length, close to the edge. Then I sew this binding inside the pouch , with the hook tape sticking up over the top. The idea is that the pouch slides into the decorative outer layer (cotton) and this binding folds over and the hook and loop tape holds the pieces together.

You'll notice that by putting the strap on first, this binding doesn't meet in the back, but rather a 1 inch gap is left. This may seem like a design flaw, but I do it deliberately, to account for the fact that my covers aren't always a 'perfect' fit. If a cover is a little bit too big, then this small gap in the binding allows room for the excess fabric, leaving the majority of the bag looking smooth and well fit.

Inside the bag, there is a perfect spot for your label - right over the strap. ;)

That finishes the main body of the chalk bag! So, the only thing left to do is to finish the outer layer. You do this by turning over the top one quarter inch and stitching in place, and then sewing a piece of hook and eye tape – the loop (soft) side this time – all around the top.

And, now, you are ready to 'dress' your chalk bag! Here is a series of 3 pictures, illustrating the process of putting a cover on:

I usually start folding over the top binding in the front center and work my way around each side to the back. If the cover isn’t a perfect fit, you can hide the excess fabric in the small open area in the back, underneath the belt loop. ;)

For the finishing touches, add a cord stop and a small carabineer…

And voila! You have a chalk bag fit for a 5.15 climber, with interchangeable covers!

If you happen to climb, or have friends who climb, you are welcome to use this design to make chalk bags. If you find ways to improve the design, please let me know! I would ask, however, that you don't use my design to produce and sell chalk bags with interchangeable covers. Thanks. :)

PS - my next post will be about shopping for the wedding dress fabric!


The Faerie♥Kat said...

Wow, Gwen, this is just so clever! I think the bottom of the bag is very clean and I love the fact that you can change the cover. If the cover gets grungy, you can wash it or just replace it with a different one. I think I'll have to take up rock climbing just so I can have one of these! I just CRACK myself up! I moved my blog to and so I could copyright protect my creative writing and get better syndication and blog stats; stop by any time. Mwah!

Anonymous said...

that is awesome! i love the replacable cover! i just started looking into making my own bags and your's is by far the best pattern i've found so far.
Thank you!

Dot said...

excellent writeup - i've just decided to attempt my own chalk bag, and this is very helpful!

Amy said...

Where would you hook a loop for a toothbrush? On the outside of the binding ribbon?

Gwen said...

Not sure if you'll check back here, but I don't know of any other way to answer your question. I've never put on a loop for a toothbrush, but yes, I'd put it on the outside of the binding ribbon, so that I only had to put it on once - not on each of the exchangeable covers - being careful to attach it when the binding ribbon was "up". You don't want to go to all that trouble to make the covers interchangeable and then sew the pieces together by accident. (I actually did that once when I put on my label - how embarrasing!) Are you going to give it a try? If so, good luck! :)

Shannon said...

Hi Gwen! I think your design is genius, and I'm really impressed. You must have all kinds of sewing experience.

I'm interested if you think there's a way to add a zipper compartment at the bottom of the bag, for things like tape, clippers, or a sending snack?

-Shannon (

Anonymous said...

I love it!!!!
I am from tarragona ( catalunya) and I love to climb I trad every weekend. I am a really bad sewer but I will atempt to make my own and my husband's chalkbag.
Can you specifie the measures of the wide lenght and so on? It will be a great help, thanks


Gwen said...

Maria - email me if you see this, and I'll send you the measurements. Good luck! :)

Anonymous said...

:) hi this is maria
my sister and i are going to mail you. where i put husband i meant father haha my englis is really poor and i mixed up the words.
you are nice to let me write you

Gwen said...

Maria - I got your email and sent you the measurements yesterday. Please let me know if you got them or not. Thanks! Good luck with your chalk bag! :)
Take care,