Making canvas sling bags

I did not learn to use a sewing machine as a kid. I did not have sewing as a hobby. I did not even have a proper sewing machine until earlier this year. what is it about making canvas sling bags, (now on the sixth version) that I have been sewing late into the night?

Well, here it goes! Earlier this year, the awning covering on my boat was giving way. The synthetic fabric (by the tradename of WeatherMax) was tearing as a result of the wind and the sun. The sun has made the fabric brittle while the wind was propagating tears along the fiber weave inch by inch. Mending the tear(s) was pointless as the fabric has gone brittle and lacking most of the original strength the material had when new. It will just tear somewhere else when tightening the awning or when the next blow comes along.

The tired old awning, having seen better days.

Awnings, should be tightened snugly and taut to prevent flapping and flexing. The movement of bending the fabric from one side to another will weaken the fabric over time, destroying the physical strength of the fabric. Much akin to bending a piece of cardboard back and forth over the same spot. Bend it enough times, it will weaken and eventually break off. Just about every boat out there has a different size and layout. A one size fits all awning solution does not exist without a lot of compromises. Either too short, too long, too narrow, too much overhang, wrong colour….. The list goes on. Remember too it should be tensioned tautly. Custom made awning is the answer. That phrase there, “custom made” means big bucks! Here in Singapore, an awning to cover my boat from the bow to the bimini over the helm would mean something in the close proximity of S$ 10,000 or about USD 7,000. That’s too much money for a semi-retired guy!

Why does a boat need an awning? Firstly, if you are in the tropics, the relentless sun on the boat would bring the internal temperature up to unbearable levels. You will literally cook inside the boat. An awning, can bring the temperature down by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. A difference that can overwhelm the air conditioner or fridge, in the boat. The intense UV light in the tropics will also harden and destroy the window seals, fiberglass gelcoat, teak decks (if your boat has them) and just about everything. If you live on your boat or spend enough time on it, it is not an option. It is a necessity!

A quick tallying on a paper napkin indicated that a new awning is affordable if I were to make it myself. Do I know how to make one? No, but I can learn along the way! Did I even have a sewing machine up to the task? No, but I could buy one if it makes economic sense.

So that was how it all got started. Once decided, I bought a Singer heavy duty domestic sewing machine. That is contradictory! Domestic means it is light duty. So what is a heavy duty domestic sewing machine. Well, it simply means it can handle heavier material “some of the time”. Fingers crossed that the “some of the time” can be extended to completing a whole awning measuring approximately 5 meters across and 10 meters long, shaped to a yet to be erected structure on the deck of the boat.

The Singer heavy duty domestic sewing machine at the cockpit table.

A structure to raise the height of the awning so that one can go to the fore section of the deck without having to crawl on all four. The additional height will also keep the heat further off the deck and allow for better airflow to ventilate and cool the air beneath the awning.

Erecting the frame structure over the boat was the first task and the material of choice for this was 20mm (3/4 inch) PVC pipes. Flexible to work with, strong enough and cost effective. They do deteriorate under strong UV light but being underneath the awning fabric material, they should last a good many years. This entire structure is meant to be removable (when I go sailing), so no permanent fixing. The PVC pipes were joined using screws rather than glue at the connectors. The base was simply tied with strings to the stanchion posts. What keeps the whole thing from being blown away by winds up to 40 knots (nearly 80 kph) which occasionally blows through the marina, will be the awning itself, tied snugly to the toe rails at the rim of the hull. Visualizing the whole process through, it seemed to work, theoritically.

The PVC pipe structure for the new awning.

Once the entire structure was up, it was time to take measurements to know how much Sunbrella Plus fabric ( a synthetic fabric meant for outdoor marine use) to buy. It required almost an entire roll of this material (just 5m short of a 60m roll) and the decision was made to get the whole roll instead. This will provide some buffer for measurement errors. The sewing machine (Singer 4223) as mentioned earlier, some webbings for enforcement, UV resistant threads (Tex 80 size) were on the same shopping list.

Mr Google, was my number one advisor. Next were other sailors and neighbours at the marina, some of whom had actually made their own covers. I had initially started the sewing in the cockpit of my boat. Not a vast area by any measure. I progressed with making the awning starting from the pointed bow end (front of boat) backwards. As the pieces gets bigger the cockpit became more and more confining. To go under the arm of the sewing machine (when the direction of sewing meant that some bulk of the material had to pass under the arm) the heavy fabric material had to be rolled up tightly to fit within the arm of the smallish domestic sewing machine. As the dimensions of the material was starting to approach 5m in length, it started feeling like I was wrestling a phyton in the small confine of my cockpit. Hot, sweaty and bothered, while wrestling that big python of a rolled up fabric in the cockpit. I was starting to ask myself if there was an easier way, when a neighbour walking by and having observed the struggle, suggested that I do this work in the marina (on shore and in an air conditioned environment)! Wow, that sounded like a revelation, like a life buoy to a drowning man. I must try that out.

Lo and behold, such a paradise did exist with vast uncluttered floor space, air conditioned and even carpeted floor to sit on. Seated at the other end of the marina’s members hall, was a neighbour, home schooling his kids, on this first morning of sewing on shore. I asked his permission to sew at the other end and to let me know if I was making too much noises. Permission granted!

Trouble in paradise started a couple of hours into the sewing. Not what you may think, but it had to do with paradise itself. The carpeted floor was producing too much drag on the fabric to move around easily and soon I was huffing and puffing having to fight this python all over again despite of this luxury of vast unimpeded space. Mr home teacher suggested that I should find a place with smooth laminated flooring to sew on. Another kind soul threw me a life buoy! Again, I did find paradise version 2, in a parqueted varnished floor of an unused room next to the gymnasium. A few conversations with the Dockmaster’s office and the Security Department later, I was granted permission by the staff of the marina to use the room the following day. My gratitude to the management of Raffles Marina. Paradise version 2 worked out much better than version 1 and there I was, till the completion of the awning.

The entire awning was made in 2 pieces. There were a few fittings in between to get a better fit on the structure. In total, the two pieces weighed almost as much as I did and even more so towards the end of this project. I had lost a few kilograms in weight from all that exertion of phyton wrestling, the few fittings and in general, manoeuvring the big pieces of heavy fabric material during the process of sewing them.

Standing back for a perspective view of the entire boat after it was finally installed for the last time I couldn’t help but felt reasonably happy with the result. It wasn’t bad for a first attempt. In many ways the perfectionist in me took those extra measures and did a couple more amendments then was absolutely necessary and I was glad he did. It did looked (dare I say) “professional”, and it was all done at a fraction of the cost of the going rate for such an awning, even with the cost of the sewing machine thrown in.

The completed new awning.

Over the next few weeks, friends and neighbours did drop by for closer looks and complimented on it and a few weeks after the final installation, it was tested to the mettle when a furious storm blew through the marina ripping many a boat’s canvas, but my awning and structure held steadfast. I was awoken in the early hours of that morning by the storm and I was on deck to see how the awning was holding up against that storm. It was tied down snugly, quivering in the strong gusts but no flapping at any point. Following that storm I had a request from a neighbour for some canvas repair and some additional canvas work on his boat. Despite being a novice at canvas sewing, I took up the job with an “old salt” (a seasoned sailor) acting as an advisor on canvas sewing. He did tell me that if I do not mind this kind of work, I can forget about trying to find a job (desk bound type) as there is enough of such work around to keep me going. In his own words “he has sewn his way around the world”, back in his days.

In my past articles I have touched on my role now as a canvas maker (so far only within my marina). This work is diametrically opposite to my previous job in the corporate world. After a slow tentative start, I began to accept this as my job and was finding myself committing more and more fully into this role as a canvas maker. On that first canvas job on a neighbour’s boat I had to wrap some wooden structure in Sunbrella fabric. I had to start thinking 3 dimensionally and this was a few rungs higher up that ladder of difficulty. Someone did mention to me that I should make bags out of the off-cuts from the canvas project. On that first project I did run out of fasteners and had to wait for a few days for more to be brought in. During that idle time I had dicided to try to get my mind around coverings for 3 dimensional objects. That was when I decided to make sling bags. I do use one myself, which has a single sling carrying the bag on my back. Not too large and ideal for carrying smaller items like wallets, a small water bottle, a Swiss army knife, a torch or head lamp, doggy poo bags for sailor dog, and some other handy stuffs. It is of a more complex shape than a Tote bag and would definitely help me to understand a little better on working canvas material around 3 dimensionally shaped objects. Right off the drawing board of the first sling bag I found it to be immensely helpful to make a 3D model of the bag to take templates off. Now a good half year down the road from that Mark One sling bag (I am onto the sixth iteration now) I have yet to satisfy the perfectionist in me with the first attempt on each of these iterations. I have yet to master it, but I dare say that they are now of much better quality with a minimal amount of waviness around curved 3 dimensional joins and each taking a slightly shorter amount of time to complete. I was using a Mark Two version myself for a while. The Mark One wasn’t allowed to see the light of day and was salvaged for parts (such as the size 10 bimini zippers).

My Mark Two Bimini bag.

While carrying Mark Two, a neighbour requested for one to be made for him and this started to make Sling Bag sewing, not an entirely futile waste of time. A few have been sold to date and the last one sold was a special request to put on size 20 monster zippers (20mm wide). This sized zippers are normally used for mainsail sailbags on the boom. I had to start a bimini project on a boat and was not able to wait for my size 10 zippers on order to arrive. I used these monster zippers I had on hand for the bimini instead. This led to that special request to have them on a sling bag after seeing them on the bimini. I called my sling bags “bimini bags”, as they use the marine fabric material (Sunbrella) as used on a boat’s bimini and just as importantly, they use the type of zippers normally used on a bimini. Way oversized for a little sling bag. To sailors used to seeing bimini on their boat, this bag shouts “boat”! It is like carrying a part of their beloved boat with them when they are not on their boat. Right from the first version onwards, I realised that special considerations need to be given to those chunky oversized zippers to enable them to work smoothly. They do not like tight radiuses (corners). The radius has to be as smooth and as large as possible. Quite a big ask when dealing with a smallish sized sling bag!

The version 5 Bimini bag with normal size 10 zippers.
Version 5 with monster #20 zippers -still in WIP.

Version 5, has a slightly larger top than bottom, as a result of those size 20 zippers which were twice as chunky as the already oversized size 10 zippers. Still one of the most challenging aspects of making a small sling bag are how each of the panels are sewn together. Unlike a Tote rectangular bag, a sling bag has curved and semi conical shape panels on the upper portion. These still required special care and attention to reduce the amount of waviness or puckering of the heavy Sunbrella fabric at these junctions. Some minor degree of waviness of the fabric is desirable, as these will lend that soft look of fabric to the bag, else it could look and feel like a hard plastic moulded sling bag, totally lacking that softer sensual look of fabric materials. This softness of fabric provides an essential soft look to a boat. It is for this reason that boats with hardtop made of fiberglass or other hard materials have a clinical hard edge look to them. On my own boat Micasa, my bimini top uses a flexible poly-carbonate twin wall roofing material, mainly to provide support for my semi flexible solar panels. While it is strong, light weight and durable, I had to wrap the surrounding edges with a thick foam rubber edge, to bring back some of those soft looks.

I was once talking to a man who designs and builds his own boats (entire boats not just parts of it). He was there to look at my hardtop to try to make better looking hardtops. I didn’t know as much details of designs as he did on hardtop designs. To me it was simply the “feel” of it. It just had to feel right. I had made no lesser than 3 templates on how to cut the side edges of the hardtop before deciding on the final template. He explained later to me how the angles and curvatures of the side edges are crucial to a nice looking hardtop and how certain yachts (which he pointed to a couple of large luxury yachts) have tried to mimick the look of soft-tops for better looking hardtops. He explained to me, “the angles of your hardtop edges are just right… perfect!”. Soft tops made of fabric are crucial for that softer look, in a boat. Likewise, if the bimini bags are to shout biminis, they have to have that fabric look of a boat’s bimini. It still eludes me what that fabric element is as I am no Leonardo, but I do know enough to let fabric looks like fabric. Perfection should not be perfect in this case, if that makes any sense at all. Maybe just the waffling of a canvas sling bag maker having gone to the dogs! Should I ever reach the stage that my canvas sling bags started looking like moulded hard plastic sling bags, I just may have to take a couple of steps backwards and intentionally put some wrinkles back into them. A bit like the story and history of Reebok shoes. The little known brand of Reebok back then, made leather sports shoes, with some imperfections in the leather around the toe caps, creating some wrinkles. It sold extremely well, as the wrinkles around the front gave the look and feel of real leather. When later they perfected the process of making perfect sports shoes, the sales dropped and Reebok had to find a way to put wrinkles back into the toe caps of their shoes! It is strange how we view things and how such seemingly trivial characteristics of a product can have such an impact on the “feel” of it. That should not be a big concern for my bimini sling bags however, as I am no way near making that perfect canvas sling bag with no wrinkles or puckering!

Cheers to my readers. Take heart and pride in whatever we do. Give that painting the “feel” it deserves, or that dress the “hang” of a glamorous one, for example. It is after all the toil of our very own labour and it should speak volumes of the desire of its creator to convey that very image or impression, right off the drawing board itself.

Have a great day ahead and remember to celebrate life.

Published by Ben

Semi retired ex-corporate executive. Now a liveaboard on a sailboat with the Admiral and my sailor dog.

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