Byzantine Linen Bag

The Byzantine Bag

These bags had a very humble inspiration – the desire to upcycle a linen bag that was originally the packaging for some linen sheets. I loved the simplicity of the bag and created some slender Forager handles for it a number of years ago from the half-inch stock I usually use for closures and shawl cuffs.

Here is the contact sheets of some film Bruce shot of me with this bag on the beach at the Outer Banks a few years ago. My intention in this series was to show the bag handles, as well as the Women’s Wealth shawl cuff, hence the appearance of a piece of knitwear in the last three frames of the roll.

Here are a couple of color images from the same photoshoot on the beach after I put the shawl on. You can see the Women’s Wealth cuff on the shawl and another one on my wrist.

Not everyone has a linen bag in which linen sheets were sold, however, and as much as I like the linen sheet bag, it is very deep and long. I wanted something a bit smaller in scale and with some ornamentation. I made two bags over several years and this blog post offers a description of how I made them. A downloadable pdf of the pattern for the Byzantium motif – in a full-size version that requires some taping and a scaled-down version that can be printed on a single sheet of paper – is available for purchase (only $2) on my website. Once you print it and cut it out, you can then trace it onto your fabric to inform a range of surface embellishment techniques, such as applique, chain stitch embroidery, kantha stitching, painting, batik, or something else.

Backstitched Natural Linen – 12 inches wide by 18 inches tall with a curved bag-bottom profile.

To create the basic bag body for the backstitched natural linen bag, I plotted my dimensions on the fabric and established the curve in the bag bottom by cutting a piece of paper on the fold until I got the shape right. Then I used the piece of paper as a pattern to transfer the curve to my fabric.

I hand-sewed the front and back faces together using a double-strand of cotton/poly craft sewing thread (Dual Duty Plus Button & Craft by Coats and Clarks is what I used but I’m looking for something that comes in larger quantities on a paper or wooden spool instead of plastic). Because this seam creates the bag bottom, it has to be robust so I made a French seam that I then stitched down flat, meaning the seam has been sewn three times. I did a wide hem at the bag opening. I stabilized the holes I made for the screws, that secured the handle, with a buttonhole stitch but you could also set a metal eyelet if you wanted to reduce the amount of handwork.

Once I completed the bag, I used a cutout of the Byzantium motif to trace the design onto the bag body, tracing three shapes total in such a way that they wrap around the side seams for a more dynamic look. For the natural linen, I chose just to embroider the outline of the motif using a backstitch in a fingering weight superwash yarn (Meridian) from Seven Sisters Arts. The color is a fascinating yellow-grey called Vireo. I could also have chosen to fill in the Byzantium motif with chain stitch, for example, or even fully cover the bag body with embroidery for a carpet bag vibe and an incredibly strong fabric. In the past, I have embroidered bags after sewing them up, covering the seams completely with embroidery and creating a continuous, seamless fabric. It takes a long time. But it also lasts for a long time. I chose not to line my linen bag because I wanted an incredibly lightweight tote. To create more body, you could easily line this bag with unbleached muslin or even the same fabric. This would give you an opportunity to introduce a pocket to the interior.

Kantha Embroidered Black Linen – 14 inches wide by 17 inches tall with a squared-off bag-bottom

Like the Backstitched bag, the Kantha bag was constructed first, before I did any embroidery. For this bag, I created a flat bag bottom in the style of a grocery bag to give the bag a boxier shape. Once I sewed it up, I traced my Byzantium motif and then began my Kantha stitching, stitching over the side seams, using a long darner needle and fingering-weight (Meridian) yarn dyed by Seven Sisters Arts using a light and a dark grey and an indigo. Though the Kantha stitching does not add much weight or bulk, by stitching over the seams it increases the strength of the fabric quite a bit.

At its simplest, Kantha stitching represents a series of parallel lines of running stitch, used historically in Bangladesh and the eastern part of India to marry layers of fabric together in order to extend the useful life of textiles. These lines of running stitch were functional more than ornamental and the technique creates interesting effects on printed fabrics in particular as the color of the thread can appear iridescent in relation to the colors in the fabric itself. That is not how I used running stitch in this instance.

My first lines of stitching established the outlines of the Byzantium motif. My subsequent lines of stitching followed the same contours. As in traditional Kantha, I used parallel lines of stitches. But my lines were curved rather than straight. I worked on all the shapes at once, building up layers of stitching lines around each motif at roughly the same rate. As you can see, I changed thread color in different parts of the interior of the shape and outside the shape.

As I built up parallel lines of stitches around my Byzantium motifs, my stitching lines started to bump up against each other. Once that happened, the negative space around the motifs began to be my focus rather than the positive contours of the shape. In general, my stitching was responsive and improvisational. I wanted to have a sense of flow in the direction of the stitching lines but not give myself any rigid requirements. The Byzantium motifs’ edges and the bag opening were my constraints. If I were to stitch another Kantha bag, even with the shapes traced in the same locations, the stitching would be different insofar as my way of responding to the lines of stitching bumping up against each other and the contours of the bag opening would be different and situational. Though I could plan my response ahead of time, I find it more interesting to make decisions as I go along. No patience is required while making it up because it never gets boring.

Like the Backstitched Bag, this bag could easily be lined with the same or another lightweight fabric. So far I have not lined mine.

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist, Writer

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