19 June 2014

Mass Production Madness

We are getting closer to the end of the school year, and our move from London to Singapore, so we decided to have a farewell party for the girls and their friends.  I spotted this absolutely adorable tutorial on making a travelling pencil case on Ikatbag, and thought it would make a lovely party gift.

Image Source - Ikatbag ©

I liked the way the pencil case could be unzipped, folded down, and would then stand on a table with the pencils or markers ready to grab.  So much better than digging around in a standard pencil case, trying to find the right colour, or having them roll out of the case, and fall down the sides of car seats and aeroplane seats.

As always, LiEr has provided brilliant step-by-step instructions, with loads of photographs, and was kind enough to answer my questions so I could draft a template.  These are the measurements I used (my PowerPoint skills aren't fabulous, so you'll have to imagine a gentle curve on the top of the lining fabric and template plastic pieces).

These measurements include a 1.5cm (half-inch) seam allowance.  I dug through my supplies at home and found everything I needed to make a sample pouch.  I spent the better part of a day slowly making a case, using the instructions provided.  It was much harder than I expected, and sewing in the base panel was a complete cow.  I couldn't get the edge to align nicely along the sharply curved base, the fabric of the base panel that I had already sewed together kept pulling the base away from main section as I was trying to sew it, and I nearly broke my machine when it got thoroughly jammed.

After making the sample case, I decided it would be crazy to try and make a bulk batch.  Unfortunately the girls had other ideas, and begged me to have a go.  I relented, and started making a list of everything I needed.  I made a trip to Walthamstow on Monday to pick up supplies as cheaply as possible.  I found these items there:

  • 28 separating zips (slightly chunkier zips, that you'd use in a zippered sweatshirt)
  • 2m of batting/wadding
  • 2m of polycotton fabric
  • 1 roll of invisible thread
  • 15m of 1" grosgrain tape (I got black and purple, because they ran out of black)
  • 2m of 1" webbing
I also made a trip to Ikea and bought a couple of metres of Akerkulla fabric.  It's a medium weight furnishing fabric and is an ideal weight for pencil cases.  It also has the advantage that it can be coloured in with fabric pens if you want to brighten it up.

Image Source - Ikea ©

I also needed enough template plastic to create the stiff section in the bottom of the standing pencil case.  Unfortunately, template plastic sells for about £3.50 for two A4 sheets, which is only enough to cut four panels.  After a trip to my local craft store, I found some clear acetate sheets, at less than half the price. 

I had to make 28 pencil cases, and I had five days to get them done.  I sewed until midnight two nights, and through a large part of the days.  It was completely mad, and I was exhausted by the end.  I've included a couple of pictures of my work in progress.

I worked by cutting all my pieces out at once.  I even measured and cut my grosgrain tape and webbing pieces, and used a burning candle to melt/seal the cut ends.  I then sewed the same section on every piece, just like a production line.  These were the steps:

  1. Sew the main panel to the batting.
  2. Sew the small plastic pouch section on top.
  3. Sew the plastic inside the pouch.
  4. Baste the zip in place.
  5. Pin the zip ends.
  6. Sew the outside fabric on top.
  7. Trim the corners and turn inside out.
  8. Top stitch the outside.
  9. Cut the zip and add the webbing.  

It was a tiny bit fiddly as I had a rainbow of colours and had to keep changing thread.  Fortunately my new machine has one of those nifty needle threaders, that makes up for my terrible eyesight!

Along the way I figured out a few tricks to make the job easier.

Tip 1 - Sew an extra line of stitching just above the basting stitch on the bottom of the main panel.  This will stop the plastic, from sitting too close to the bottom seam, and making it really hard to turn the section inside out and top stitch it.  I've included a photo, which might make this a bit clearer.

Tip 2 - Once you have cut your excess zip off, pin the two sides of the zip underneath so that the section you have to sew inside the webbing is a bit smaller than 1" wide.  Again, I've included a photograph.

Tip 3 - Don't use a zipper foot for basting the zip, or for sewing the main fabric onto the liner fabric/batting/zip section.  You want that stitching to be far away from the zipper coil as possible, so you have lots of exposed tape on either side of the zip.  This will make it much easier to unzip the finished pencil case.  I just used my regular presser foot, and pushed it close to the zipper coils, and sewed around the zip for the  basting.  When I sewed the main fabric to the liner section, I just moved my needle slightly closer to the zipper coils, so that the final stitching line was inside the basting line.

Tip 4 - You can't iron acetate!  It just goes all bumpy and strange.  Don't even put an iron near it, or you'll ruin all your hard work.

Tip 5 - Use your edge stitching foot to do the top stitching.  I tried to go slowly and push my fabric up closer to the guide.  It resulted in much neater top stitching.

Tip 6 - When you are sewing in that base panel sew the base panel in along the bottom and left edge of the main panel, then go back and sew the right edge of the panel.  I've made a diagram that hopefully shows what I mean.  You align and sew edges A (red) together, then you align and sew edges B (blue) together.  By leaving that right edge when you sew in the base panel, you can manoeuvre the stiff plastic and fabric section through the machine nicely, without the base panel constantly pulling the two sections apart.  I also took LiEr's advice, and used invisible thread in the bobbin, so that the second stitching line was not as noticeable.  I also only used a pin to secure the start point of each stitching section, and carefully pulled the fabric into place as it rolled through the foot.

Tip 7 -  When you are aligning the grosgrain tape edge of that base panel with the main panel, hold the tape edge slightly inside the edge of the main panel.  This will ensure your stitching is very close to the edge of the grosgrain tape, which will help to keep it away from the zip.

I hope those tips are useful for anyone else making this pencil case - or some totally demented, mass produced number of them.

Here are a few pictures of the finished pencil cases in all their rainbow coloured glory.

We popped a thank you note, balloon and a couple of packets of sweets inside the pencil cases.  They were a huge hit with all our guests.  I believe almost everyone turned up at school on Monday with their brand new pencil cases.  I'm really glad I made them, even though it was jolly hard work to get them done in such a short space of time.  I've also got my technique worked out, and I think I could make one from beginning to end in a couple of hours.  

If you're thinking about having a go yourself, I would say go for it.  But make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get them done.  


  1. Yay, both for your success in making them, AND for succumbing to mass-production mania!

  2. Thanks LiEr. Half-way through I was cursing, but I was really pleased when I got it all done.

  3. Hi Katie M, I found you through the comments of you to the tutorial from LiEr. I thank you so much for asking LiEr your questions (and LiEr to answer them ;)) and I am so thankful for your description of the way through the making itself. I wanted for a long time to make one of my own (since the prototype of LiEr I think...) but I'm not really good in visualizing templates or the way of making of ready made and finished items... Now I will give it a try... so thanks again for LiEr for her tutorial and thanks for your descriptions. Best wishes from Germany!

    1. Thanks Tina. When I started making the pencil cases, I had no idea how I would ever manage to sew in that bottom panel. In the end, it wasn't so hard. I hope the tips are useful and that your pencil case make goes well.

  4. I also arrived here from LiEr's link. Thanks for posting the additional tips - this will help a lot!

  5. Hi Katie, I too found your blog via the comments on the end of the post by LiEr. Many thanks for the extra tips and all the hard work that you put into refining the process for those of us who aren't quite at LiEr's standard. I now have a shopping list in preparation for making my own version. I can see a bit of mass production on the way... though I don't think I will be making more than about 4-5.

  6. Hi Katie, thank you for sharing. But I have some questions if it is possible.

    1. Can you tell us the sizes? I try to do it but I have some problems about the base size

    2. I'm from Italy, and it's very hard find the right stuff here. So could please go to this link and tell me what template plastic should I take? : http://www.joann.com/quilter-s-plastic-template-12inx18in/2183317.html#q=templat+plastic&start=3

    3. And how about the ripstop nylon? this could be ok? http://www.onlinefabricstore.net/red-70-denier-nylon-ripstop-fabric-.htm

    Thank you so much!!!!!


    1. Hi Carla. Sorry to take so long to reply. Things have been a bit crazy in our house. To answer your questions:

      1. The measurements I used for the main panel were 10" wide x 9" tall (which includes 1/4" seam allowances), and the base panel measured 7" tall x 3" wide (which includes no seam allowances as the whole base panel was bound in grosgrain tape).
      2. The template plastic at Joann's looks like the right thing.
      3. The ripstop nylon you have found at Onlinefabricstore looks good too. I used a basic polycotton fabric because ripstop nylon is too difficult to source in London.

    2. Hi! I'm from Italy too . A lot of time passed but maybe this could be helpful for someone:
      since I didn't find the right plastic stuff and had no time to look for it in craft stores, I used an old IKEA placemat I already had. It was one of the thin plastic placemats, not the the almost square ones which are way too thick.
      It bends nicely and I had no problem (asides from my self-drafted not well proportioned templates).
      Katie, thank you for the measurements!

    3. That's a great idea Chiara. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Hello, I know it's been a long while since you posted your marathon story, but I'm trying to figure out this cute little pattern, too. Can you tell me the length of zipper you ended up using? Much appreciated! My email is desherwood00@gmail.com