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Home Backpacking Can a Total Novice Sew a Trail-Worthy Ultralight Hiking Pack?

Can a Total Novice Sew a Trail-Worthy Ultralight Hiking Pack?

by Staff

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As Backpacker’s ultralight columnist, I’ve spent hours talking to gear-makers at brands both big and small. After countless conversations, I couldn’t help but feel the drive to make my own high-end lightweight gear. The thought of creating my own pack, custom-sized to my torso length, with all the features I want and none that I don’t, has been a dream of mine since I got into backpacking. But do I have the skills? Most gear makers are industrial designers by trade, or at least engineers. I’m just a writer with an underdeveloped crafting gene.

It wasn’t until I sat down to talk to Tim Martino, the founder of LearnMYOG, that I started to think about it seriously. Tim makes gear that looks REI-ready, just for fun. More importantly, he seems to have a vested interest in convincing other people that they can do it, too. With his encouragement, I decided to take the leap into the world of DIY gear.

First, a confession: I’m not a complete newbie. I’ve had a sewing machine for a few years, and my mom taught me to use it at the ripe age of 10, when I decided to sew Hacky Sacks to sell at a local arts fair (I was an interesting child). Still, I knew that making a real backpack would test my skills—and the integrity of my domestic sewing machine—more than any of my past projects. A good pack needs durable fabrics and thick webbing tough enough to survive the rigors of backpacking. For the uninitiated, there’s a seemingly-complicated pattern to decipher, and a strict order of operations to follow. Winging it, which is my usual approach to life, wouldn’t cut it.

Since this would be my first-ever pack, I decided not to get too fancy. As tempting as it was to buy a few yards of a super fabric like X-Pac or Ultra, I opted instead for a repurposed vinyl tarp (the one I found was stuck to a billboard in a past life). It was cheap, waterproof, and destined for a landfill otherwise. For a first project, it seemed like a great choice.

A homemade fanny pack (Photo: Courtesy Nathan Pipenberg)

For my first project, Martino suggested starting with a simpler project to hone my skills, which seemed wise. I downloaded his free Everyday Fanny Pack pattern, and got started. It quickly turned into a crash-course in sewing zippers (Martino’s pattern has two, which is one more than I had ever sewn before), but was otherwise straightforward. The small size and simple pattern let me focus on what really mattered—trying to sew in a straight line and making sure the hipbelt wouldn’t end up on the inside of the bag. The entire project took a few hours, and I considered it a smashing success.

With the fanny pack complete, I turned my attention to the pack. Instead of using Martino’s LearnMYOG backpack pattern, which is in the midst of an update, I landed on the Mountain Flyer, a 40-liter frameless option available from Bag Buff that’s popular in the MYOG space.

I was quickly overwhelmed by how much more complicated a backpack is compared to a fanny pack. Cutting the fabric alone took the better part of an hour. There was a lot more webbing and hardware to keep track of, all of which had to be attached in the proper place at the right time. My biggest mistake was closing a seam without attaching the top of the shoulder straps, which meant painstakingly ripping out hundreds of stitches. Worst of all, the vinyl fabric I chose proved to be a menace. It was stiff and thick, which made any curved seams a nightmare.

Eventually I reached the final seam, which would affix the front and back halves of the pack: I felt like I was wrestling a bear as I tried to maneuver the pack under the machine while keeping everything aligned. At the butt end of the pack, where the hipbelt, side pockets, and three layers of fabric all join, my humble sewing machine met its match. The motor began to whine. The needle kept bobbing up and down, but wouldn’t move forward. I resorted to turning the needle by hand. When I finally closed the bag, I was surprised to realize I had broken a sweat.

Since a backpack is constructed inside-out, the final step of my project was to flip the entire thing over on itself. As I pulled and prodded a vaguely backpack-shaped object into existence, I was overcome by a sense of satisfaction that bordered on glee. I had spent the better part of three evenings attaching panels of fabric to each other with little idea of how it would all work out in the end. Now flipped right-side-out, all of my work started to make sense, and—miraculously—turned into a functioning backpack. I’m already planning to make another, this time with my own pattern and the fanciest ultralight fabric I can find.

MYOG sewing
Our ultralight columnist tries his hand at sewing (Photo: Courtesy Nathan Pipenberg)

Nate’s Takeaways for First-Time Gear-Makers

  • Stay organized. For my project, cutting and arranging the panels, webbing, and hardware was more than half of the battle—the sewing itself was pretty quick and easy in comparison. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also be tempted to dive into your project before actually getting everything set up and organized. Resist this urge if you can. Clean up your work space so you can lay out your supplies in an orderly fashion. Double-check that you have everything you need, down to the smallest buckles and the thread you’ll be using. Once you get going, leaving your project half-finished to find a misplaced pattern piece will take you out of the flow.
  • Start small. Tackling the LearnMYOG fanny pack before moving on to the full-size backpack was a great idea. It gave me the confidence to make some changes on the backpack that I really appreciate, like altering the layout of webbing and pockets on the shoulder straps.
  • Use your hand wheel. Most first-time MYOGers will be using some sort of home sewing machine (in my case it’s a Janome HD3000) that isn’t really designed for the thick webbing and multiple layers of fabric that bag-making requires. If your sewing machine gets stuck, forget the foot pedal and crank the needle by hand (using the wheel that’s most likely located on the right side of your machine). You’ll actually have more power than the motor does, and you’ll be way less likely to break your machine in the process. Turning the needle by hand also lets you slow down when you’re tackling tricky seams or sharp corners. Often, my best method on thick seams was to get the needle started by using the foot pedal and hand wheel at the same time.
  • Seek out help. When you’re sitting alone at your desk with a half-finished backpack before you, it can feel like you have to figure out everything by yourself. But with the explosion of the MYOG community, that’s really not true. Every time I came to a part of the project that seemed particularly daunting (and there were many), help was only a Youtube search or Instagram DM away. If you’ve bought a pattern from someone, chances are they’ll be willing to give you some advice. The whole MYOG community, mostly found on Reddit, Youtube, and Instagram, is supportive and ready to help out a new crafter.

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