Staying Creative Off the Bike – Yeah Nah Threadworks
Build Your Own Threadworks
Something bright that came out of COVID lockdown was my new passion for sewing. It’s a long story, but before April 2020 I had never touched a sewing machine, fast forward 8 months and I seem to be capable of designing and home sewing tough outdoor/bikepacking gear, clothes (overalls anyone?) and even pretty intricate hats. As well as tailoring existing clothes to make them more bike friendly and repairing clothes rather than replacing them.
Sharing my creations on social media inevitably leads to my inbox filling with the question: How do you start making your own bikepacking gear?
See below for a rough guide of what worked for me.
So you need a machine
I started with a cheap second hand domestic machine and it was fine for a few layers of technical fabrics but the stitches were not very consistent and I spent A LOT of time rethreading the machine and breaking needles. It just wasn’t designed for what I was doing with it. So I bought a heavy duty domestic machine made by Singer for around $300 (similar ‘Heavy Duty’ machines come from Brother). Don’t be fooled, while some people claim that these heavy duty machines are ‘semi-industrial’ they simply are not; although, they will do almost everything you want of them with respect to home builds. I was still breaking needles and making a lot of noise while sewing, as the machine often struggled to pierce through my projects and intricate corner work or multiple layers were a fine art to accomplish (or just pure luck!).
Then my cheapest and oldest machine arrived on the scene, a $100 Singer 201P from 1956, it looked destined for the dump but a couple of hours of TLC and a good oiling of the all metal gears had it working as good as new. It was silent and I haven’t yet found its limit in layers; my hoard of denim strength needles remains virtually untouched.
*A modern domestic machine will be more of an all-rounder with respect to also allowing you to get into garment construction, with zig zag, button hole and stretch thread settings. A budget vintage machine of the calibre of the Singer 201 will likely be straight stitch only, although there are exceptions.
Tools To Make Your Own Gear
These are the things I keep at arm’s reach, by no means an exhaustive list as I have a couple of drawers full of more specialised gear too, but that’s getting extra nerdy.
- Dressmaking Scissors – big and sharp
- Thread Scissors – You can spend anywhere from $2 to $50
- Permanent Marker and Chalk – self-explanatory depending on material, usually coupled with a ruler and/or right angle
- Rotary Cutter – huge time saver for cutting light to medium weight materials (Accompanied by the cutting mat)
- Point Turner – when turning things outside-in it helps you push the corners through as well as moving things around the foot when sewing
- Clips and Pins – because you don’t have three arms
- Seam Ripper – the ‘undo’ button of the sewing world.
- Zipper Foot – not only for sewing zippers but as a smaller foot for intricate sewing
- Lighter – for cleaning up and/or sealing synthetic edges, webbing, threads etc. Be careful when using 100% cotton material
Thread & Materials
‘Tex’ is a thread rating system. A common Tex number for general sewing thread is Tex 25 or Tex 30, while a heavy duty thread for use on an industrial machine for bags, shoes and coats might be Tex 100. Generally, for home machine work with technical ‘light/medium-weight’ fabrics like X-Pac, I stick with Tex 40 and am yet to have a seam fail (sometimes I go more heavy duty on a top stitch purely for aesthetics). My all-time all-round favourite is Resant 75, Guttermann is more common and you might want their ‘Mara 70’.
Sometimes the internet is a curse, but when it comes to DIY and MYOG it really is a blessing with numerous forums (remember those!) and free reference guides from experienced people and even small commercial makers and material suppliers. A good starting point to get your head around tech fabrics and their applications is to do some research into Cordura, X-Pac and Dyneema (of course not discounting plain old canvas, like the Aussie made Supaproof, which is much more fun to work with!).
Unfortunately our options for material supply are slim in Australia, but simple internet searches will provide options and postage isn’t always as bad as it seems when you take into account what you can achieve for what you are paying.
My no. 1 piece of advice on getting sewing is to get your hands on some cheap materials and just start sewing simple projects because when you are starting out you don’t know what you don’t know! You will have failures, you will have successes, but there is no quick route to creating bags, strapping them to your bike and heading off for the weekend. Experiment and find out what you need to work on to achieve your aims.
Cheap polyester ripstop is a good place to start, even better is recycled canvas and material salvaged from old damaged bags. I may be an exception, but I didn’t start watching MYOG specific ‘how-to’ videos online until a month or two into sewing, I mostly reverse engineered outdoor gear I already owned and tried to emulate the technique, learning from mistakes and importantly learning how to manage material intuitively rather than systematically.Once you have a good base I’d recommend the following techniques to enable you to make your own gear.
- Learn how to sew a zip into fabric
- Learn how to bartack (that’s how you stitch webbing/straps to a bag or strengthen high stress areas)
- Learn how to sew square corners
- Learn a few seams and understand how you might make stronger seams and waterproof seams if required (ie. tape, glue/paste, flat-felled-seam)
- Learn how to apply binding to edges (a lot easier with a suitable attachment for your machine)
Less Can Be More
Remember that it may be a false economy to try to recreate commercial gear.
One of the best things about DIY is that you know exactly what you will be doing with your own gear and as such have no need to warranty, over-engineer, internally line or internally bind seams on everything you make if it isn’t required.
I call everything I make minimalist!