Meet the maker behind the bag! Helen Richardson, winner of the Swoon Patterns Make of the Month for September 2020, kindly took some time out of her busy day to tell us a bit more about herself and her bagmaking journey!

The Ethel Tote made by Helen Richardson


Hi Helen! We'd love to get to know the maker behind the bag better, so could you please tell us a bit about yourself? When did you start sewing?

My mum taught me the basics on an old hand crank Singer as a child and I did the equivalent to GCSE in dressmaking at school – O Level as it was called then! As my kids got older I didn’t seem to get time to sew much, but a couple of years ago I became very aware of the nation’s fast fashion addiction and I wanted to be a bit more sustainable. I dug out my old machine, I asked for an overlocker for my birthday and started shopping in charity shops for clothes I could upcycle when possible

And, what inspired you to sew bags?

Late 2019 I was scrolling through Pinterest for clothing upcycling ideas (another addiction) and someone had transformed a dated leather coat into a lovely new hand bag. I was not a bag lover but I instantly wanted to have a go. After showing a friend the picture she gave me an old leather jacket. If it turned out okay – she would get to keep the bag; if not, I maybe wouldn’t try again. My old Jaguar machine struggled but as I birthed the bag, I loved it and knew I wanted to make more from unwanted leather clothing. Since then I’ve made about 200 bags and dream of retiring from work and sewing full-time.

What's your favourite thing about bag making?

I almost always use old garments or leather waste so I love to look for features of the garment and see then how these can be incorporated into a finished bag (such as the original pockets). I often make a pattern up to get the most use of the leather. As I cut the pieces out I get excited about how the bag is going to look when it is finished. And I never make two identical bags – so I love the buzz of seeing a new creation.

The Lucy Backpack, made by Helen Richardson

The Lucy Backpack, made by Helen Richardson


Did you have a particular creative idea or inspiration for your Ethel Tote?

I’m not a planner and just ‘go with it’ when sewing. As my Ethel Tote was coming together I could see it was going to be quite an open bag due to the sturdy nature of the leather. I'm personally not as keen on open bags so I decided I needed to improvise. I just played about with scraps of newspaper until I came up with a shape I liked for a closure.

The Ethel Tote made by Helen Richardson

The Ethel Tote, made by Helen Richardson


What will you sew next?

Maybe the oversized Lucy Backpack I've been asked to make as a memory / keepsake bag. It's for a friend from her father's jacket. I've got a little batch of orders to make up before Christmas but I really prefer to just sit in my sewing room and see what is 'calling to me' from my rail of leather clothes or industrial leather waste.

Editor's Note: Since chatting with us, Helen has sewn the Lucy Backpack! Here's her amazing make!


What kind of sewing machine (or machines!) do you use?

I have a few machines. My old Jaguar, that didn't like leather, is now my back up, emergency machine only. Early 2020 I got a vintage Singer 201k because they can handle most things. But by May I was totally addicted to bag making and got the opportunity to get a Pfaff Ambition 630. It's built for quilting so is good with layers. I love the built in walking foot. I have a simple Brother overlocker (for dressmaking). My Pfaff is used every day.


Aside from your sewing machine, what's the sewing tool you can't live without?

My green rivet press. I love it for rivets and eyelets.


What's your top tip for other bagineers?

I only started making bags about 10 months ago so still see myself as a newbie – but 2 things. 1. Check your strap isn't twisted BEFORE putting in the rivets! I've made this mistake more than once! 2. Experiment with upcycling. There is so much pre-loved stuff out there that is just longing to be made into something beautiful and unique. Friends now gift me their jeans and unwanted leather jackets. I reuse the zips from the jackets too if possible. They also pass on their old bags. Often bag hardware can be reused rather than end up in landfill.


And, if you could ask our bagineer followers anything, what would you like to know?

Two things please! My Pfaff can sometimes struggle with topstitching my leather bags and can jump stitches. I day dream lots about a more industrial, such as a Juki. So, which industrial machine would folk recommend for leather? Do you think I need to buy new? Should I miss this step and daydream about a cylinder arm instead? And, can those of you who use leather recommend where I can find more tips on how to improve my leather skills (or even enrol on a course). I am using YouTube a lot currently but am keen to learn more!


The Lola Domed Handbag, made by Helen Richardson

The Lola Domed Handbag, made by Helen Richardson


It's been fantastic learning more about your bagmaking journey, Helen. Do you have a social media page where our bagineers can follow you?

I started an Instagram this year - @sew.helen.richardson. I add before and after pics of my makes in the hope it inspires others to upcycle too. I have a Pinterest board too for those who don't use Insta


Editor's Note: Helen also has an Etsy store, so if you've no time to sew, why not take a look at some of her fab creations! Find it at: Etsy - Sew Helen Richardson


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Helen!


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Would you like the chance to win a PDF sewing pattern of your choice from the Swoon Patterns catalogue? Enter our Make of the Month photo competition by posting a photograph of your Swoon sew in our Facebook group, or tag us in your Instagram post with the hashtag #SwoonPhotoComp. We'll be choosing our favourite October make at the beginning of November!