Carpet Bags 101

I was reading 1886 Scientific American (rooting around on archive. org is something I do to relax) and I found Humphrey’s instructions on how to make a Carpet Bag and as far as I can make out, these are the ONLY period step by step instructions on the internet. I have transcribed the article Click Here for PDF

Reading this article made it quite clear that ANYONE with good grip strength can make one, and these were the logical way to recycle worn out carpets. (Yes I know you can buy new carpet bags for a few hundred dollars, but I think we all live in the ‘handmade’ is best world.) I have only gotten to the mock up stage so far, but now I have a vintage carpet bought for the project.

I compared all the images of antique carpet bag and these are some of the issues I had to consider:

Carpet. The carpets used were not oriental fuzzy sort, they were the hooked rug sort, (the bumpy side not the shaggy side.) Machine made hooked rugs were common in the 19th century, making them an ideal source of attractive tough cheap fabric for ottoman/foot rest upholstery, lounge chair seating and carpet bags. Alas sacrificial vintage carpets are hard to come by. (I started looking at NEW cheap carpets but I found them way too thick and fuzzy to work with)

Presently we have an unlimited range of delicious upholstery fabric at our disposal, HOWEVER it is all too soft. Fibers like rayon are meant to contain stuffing, without body of its own, I don’t mind a bit of a slouch in my empty carpet bag, but I draw the line at having it shrink into a puddle!
My mock up was made from a thrifted pillow case, made of floppy rayon fabric. I spent a LOT of money experimenting with various fusible interfacing and liquid stiffening products with various amounts of failure. In the end I just threw up my hands and rolled out a lining of canvas buckram and stitched it on by hand. I found it a very satisfying solution as it had the same texture as the inside of hooked rug and gave the fabric just enough body not to collapse in a heap.

Frames. The hinged frames used would have been similar to the ones used presently on Klein’s gatemouth tool bags. Klein’s are riveted and have no hinge spring, so they must have straps to close them securely. (I found the work of recovering a used hinge wasn’t appealing, as old Klein bags are vastly overpriced, near death and rusty.)

Vintage bags rarely had straps and buckles and were kept closed by locks and gravity. These frames can be found but not easily nor cheaply. What we can easily find are the aluminum tube frames with a snap closed spring, which is easier to work with on one hand, but don’t seem to exist larger than 16″. I used this sort of 12″ frame in my mock up, but I am going to run an experiment using larger unhinged metal frame ‘brackets’ cannibalized from a nylon tool bag, and hinge them with a fabric sleeve. That may get me the width I want.

Lining. The linings like the carpet, were always scraps of unmatched printed or unprinted fabrics, so any muslin or ticking weight will work, inside pockets were uncommon, as the carpet bag was a container for all your other travel bags. The Humphrey article doesn’t mention the common divided lining, which is easy to create by adding a bent wire frame and using twice as much lining material.

Handles. Very few of images show unreplaced handles. And when the handles were replaced they were sewn right over the lining, avoiding the complete disassembly of the bag. For my mockup I bought a purse at goodwill and took its handles. Needless to say, bonded leather and vinyl do not like to be reused, leather is much more forgiving.

Bottom. Cardboard is appropriate. Early cardboard was closer to chipboard, thicker and less bendy. Needless to say does not enjoy getting wet. Leather bottoms were common but not mandatory, they would have been sewn onto the bag and secured with the feet. For my mockup, I thrifted a photo album and used the cover.

Feet. Luggage feet are mandatory on flat bottom carpet bags, to keep the bottom of the bag from getting wet. Although smaller envelope bottom travel bags are meant to lay flat on the lap and don’t have feet. Luggage feet can be cannibalized from any thrift shop bag, and new ones bought on etsy. There are two types, the vintage ones are those with a long spike meant to go through the board bottom and bent over, and those with tiny little prongs which only go through the fabric. I used the pronged sort to go through the fabric and then stitched the cardboard bottom to the fabric. The sort with long prongs which go through the entire bottom last longer and will take more abuse.

Clams. The only thing in the Humphrey article that threw me were the ‘CLAMS’ which are even depicted but I had never seen them. Stitching clams are used in leatherwork and saddler, which are basically a clamp for your work using pressure from your knees. Youtube has demonstrations look for Stitching or Saddlers Clams. The clams are useful if you are trying to get a big needle through two layers of carpet, but with upholstery fabric, it’s a lot easier.

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