“Once you start Making Your Own Gear, you learn a new way to experience and explore the outdoors. It adds a new facet to the experience. Whether you're running or hiking, you’re always thinking about improvements you can make. It’s like when backpackers get bored of backpacking but then get into biology, and it opens up a whole new world.”
- Nash Calvin, Junior in Outdoor Product Design and Development at Utah State University
In this series, we are looking at Make Your Own Gear basics. Our goal is to help you feel comfortable taking on the challenge of making the gear of your dreams. In our first article, we talked about sourcing materials for your project. In this article, we will cover how to take your ideas from 2D to 3D to wearable.
The design phase offers lots of opportunities to be creative and take risks, experimenting with what works best for you. As an individual making your own gear, you can cut ounces, add features, or use crazy color combos that a company would refrain from because it wouldn’t please the most customers. In the world of MYOG, you are the only customer, and you can have it your way.
After interviewing Wes at Hawbuck, I learned the importance of picking a good project. He talked a lot about the beauty of MYOG and how you can end up with a piece of gear that is perfect for your needs, like the bike bag he made that perfectly fits his specialized pizza basket and is exactly the carry-on limit for Spirit Airlines.
With this in mind, if you pick a project that isn’t that much different than something you could buy for the same price, including time, it might be more worth it just to have it made for you. So as we talk about design, think about how the item you want to make can better fit your needs than anything on the market. Then, in the end, you will feel even more accomplished putting the gear into action.
If you are here and the pride of using a piece of your own handmade gear is enough to fuel your desire to MYOG regardless of whether it’s a copy of your favorite backpack or a completely new design, then I’m glad you’re on this journey!
Before we get into how to make a design for your item, here are a few terms or tips that may be nice to know.
Pattern - A sewing pattern is a recipe for making a product. If you purchase a pattern, it will come with instructions and thin paper with all of the pieces required to make that item printed upon it. The drawings of each piece will also have sizing options that you can follow depending on your preference. You then cut the pattern pieces out and use them as a guide to cut your fabric to the exact size and shape.
Seam Allowance - The seam allowance is the distance between your stitch and the edge of the fabric. You need to keep this in mind when creating your own pattern because after measuring an item, you must add a seam allowance so that your project comes out the correct size.
Notching the Fabric - When you see black lines in the seam allowance of the pattern, these indicate the need for a notch, which is a small cut in the pattern that you are then to transfer onto your fabric. This helps you line up features and pieces during construction by matching up notches so that, in the end, everything is symmetrical and even.
Reinforcement - Think about high-wear areas when designing your gear, and use a more robust material, such as Cordura, to reinforce those areas. Sites such as where straps and a hip belt join a backpack’s body can benefit from this extra strength.
Materials - From prototyping to pattern making, some materials and tools that will come in handy for this section include:
Cardboard/ Posterboard: A fun game to play every time you see a cardboard box is, “How can I use this in my next design project?” Cardboard is great to use for prototyping to get the general shape and size of your item.
Flexible Measuring Tape: Using a soft cloth measuring tape, you can take measurements of your prototype and quickly transfer them to paper to make your pattern. They are great for measuring the circumference of objects for pocket sizing, such as water bottles, and they are what you need to take body measurements for clothing.
Seam Gauge: A seam gauge is used to measure the seam allowance when making your patterns. It is also a great tool to measure incremental add-ons such as buttons or velcro.
Rulers: Two rulers will make your project a little easier: a Hip Curve Ruler and a T Square Ruler. This will help make more accurate drawings when creating patterns so that every piece matches up just right.
Follow A Pattern
Suppose you have zero experience in the world of sewing and thought that a sewing pattern was what design the fabric had on it ... like I did when I first started. In that case, it’s probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with how a pattern works before trying to make one all by yourself. I would recommend buying a pattern or borrowing one from the same person you borrow your sewing machine from and following it to create your first sewn good. This will help you learn the order of operations for construction and give you an idea of how seam allowances work. This will also be a great sewing lesson.
After this crash course in patterns, you will learn that every pattern has a label, so they don’t get mixed up, and you will have a better understanding of which pieces get sewn together first. Look for patterns and guides on Reddit or on one of the websites we recommended in our first post, like Ripstop by the Roll.
Make Your Own Simple Pattern
After you feel comfortable following the pattern, it’s time to make your own. Here, simple is best.
My first homemade pattern was for a bike frame bag. To make this, I took a piece of cardboard and placed it behind the frame of my bike. I then took a pencil and ran it against the inside of my bike frame, which traced my bag’s size and shape onto the cardboard. After that, using an Exacto knife, I cut out the cardboard shape of my bag and traced it onto a sheet of packing paper (any thin roll of paper works to make your pattern out of) using a seam gauge and ruler to add a ¼” seam allowance.
The next step was to measure this pattern piece’s circumference and the width of my bike’s top post to get the dimensions for the middle piece of fabric that connected the two walls of the bag — adding the seam allowance to that middle piece as well. Then I labeled and cut out my pattern pieces.
When the pattern was cut out, I placed it onto my sheet of fabric, following proper sewing practices, which we will talk about in the next article, and cut out my pieces. I then measured and planned out the location of the velcro attachment straps using notches to indicate spacing. After sewing in a zipper to one wall of the pack, I used clamps to put everything into place and sewed up both sides of the bag. Tada, my new bike bag. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked to store a pump, snacks, and water like it was supposed to.
Another excellent beginner pattern would be to make a fanny pack!
Reverse Engineer a Product
The next step to customized perfection is to copy a more complicated product, such as a backpack. This process will help you to break down a complex item into simple pieces. Lay out a soft ruler, a pencil, a roll of packing paper, and a backpack on your kitchen table or the floor. Then take a few hours to map out every pattern piece to the bag. Use each stitch line to signify the boundaries of a different piece of the pattern, and with a soft roller, measure the dimensions and shape, tracing out each piece onto paper.
Remember to label each piece as you draw it and the number to cut out of fabric for each. For example, both side bottle pockets are the same, so you only need one pattern piece, but two fabric pieces. And don’t forget to add your seam allowance and notches.
Once you have all of the pattern pieces traced and cut out, create an order of operations for yourself. Think about how this bag was put together, where the stitches are, and if there is more than one row of them in any given spot.
You want to hide stitches in your seam allowance if you can, so one tip is to tack all pockets and accessories on first, so when you sew up the pack’s body, those extra stitches are hidden inside your pack.
These are the steps you need to think through, so your finished product looks just like the original. Every feature needs to be thought through beforehand because it all needs to be sewn flat on the sewing machine, and you don’t want to accidentally sew your bag shut when adding a pocket at the end.
Now that you have created instructions, try to follow them and replicate the same bag!
Making Your Own Unique Pattern.
Now that you have some finished projects under your belt, it is time to bring a new idea into the world. Here we are going to go over how to take your own design from concept to tangible good.
The first step is to get an idea of what you want your gear to do. Make a list of all the features you want. Using that list, draw the layout of your gear. The more detailed the planning done here, the less time you’ll spend kicking yourself later when you forget something.
Don’t get too caught up in dimensions at this stage because your hand isn’t the best at knowing what 16” looks like on paper. But, if your gear does call for more precise measurements and you are confident in your CAD skills, then using sheet metal tools to mold your project could be a good option for you. Illustrator is also an excellent tool for creating a drawing if you are looking for more detail than a hand sketch.
Time to break out all of those cardboard boxes you have been saving, or if you are like me in middle school, call your mom and tell her that you have a project due tomorrow that requires posterboard. Maybe yours will get a kick out of that one too.
Using tape, cardboard, and your design, make a 3D model of your item. Here we are looking for shape and size. If you are making a backpack, try to put on the prototype and think about how you would interact with your pack’s pocket placement. See if you can get to a water bottle in a side pocket or how far forward the hip belt pockets need to be. Take a sharpie and mark out all of the features on your prototype. This way, when you create the patterns, you have measurements and can make notches where each element belongs.
Like the reverse engineering method used earlier, take measurements from the cardboard prototype and create pattern pieces. Remember to add a seam allowance, notches, and label each pattern piece. Use the different rulers to help draw precise lines. You will again need to think about sewing order and create instructions.
Time to put it all together. Technical materials are expensive, so we recommend using a cheap fabric for your first go. Using your pattern and instructions, quickly sew together a low fidelity sample of your gear. This is just to check the size and shape of the item; there doesn’t need to be a lot of detail at this step. If something is off, edit the pattern and try again.
After the item looks good, move on to a mid-fidelity where you include all of the detail you want the final product to have but still with the cheaper fabric. This allows you a low stakes step to tweak the item and gain practice before the grand finale.
When the samples look and feel good, it is time to make the final product. After sewing the item a few times now, you should feel confident and be pleased with the outcome.
Note* Unless you are an experienced sewer or are blessed with sewing talents, your first projects will probably look ugly. That is okay! With more practice, each new piece of gear will look better and better. Don’t get discouraged!
After this crash course in product design, we hope that you feel ready to draw up some gear and start prototyping. MYOG is where you can be creative and make something that is perfect for your next adventure. Now go and make something you will feel proud of when someone asks, “Where did you get that?” and you say, “I made it.” I promise that will even surpass the pride of saying, “The thrift shop.”
Thank you to Wes at Hawbuck, Nash Calvin at Utah State University, Brandon at Superior Wilderness Designs, and Matt at Red Paw Packs for letting me interview them to pack these articles with information! Also thanks to Napacks for the sewing machine photo.
See you next time when we talk all things sewing!
Other Articles in the MYOG Series:
- How to Make Your Own Gear Part 1: Sourcing Fabric and Materials
- How to Make Your Own Gear Part 3: Sewing!
Great articles. I’ve been sewing for many years. The information contained in the articles are spot on. I’m glad you mentioned no matter who you are you will make mistakes and become frustrated. Very important for a beginner with no strong mentor to consult. And we all get better, don’t we?
This series is really important for many reasons. Hopefully folks will see that repairs can be made on well used gear instead of replacing stuff. And making your own…that’s brilliant. I remember the Frostline kits in the 1970’s. Made a 60/40 jacket, a down vest and a small day pack. Completely wore them out.
Thank you for this series!