A 1940’s Faux-Alligator Leather Purse

I have now made a few hats (see here , here, and here), and found them so much easier than expected, so next I’ve experimented making a purse. My vintage purses do get used but are too old and nice for daily wear and tear, so my natural recourse was to make my own. This purse was easy to make on little fabric and therefore easily replaceable…I’ll just make another! Yet, because I made it myself, I know it’s sturdy and should last through more wear than I would want a vintage purse to endure – an authentic vintage accessory with newly made, personalized benefits!


You can see my purse being used and co-ordinated with an outfit in this post of my entry for Emily’s Vintage Visions “Fall Color Photo Contest”.


FABRIC:  It is a fake-leather with an “alligator skin” finish. The lining fabric is a basic black cotton broadcloth. The bottom panel circle is supported by tarlatan.

NOTIONS:  None were needed to buy…this purse was made from what was on hand.

PATTERN:  The pattern is a free download which can be found at “Sew Vera Venus” on her “Free Patterns and Tutorials” page.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My purse took a handful of hours spent on two afternoons for a total of about 6 hours. It was finished on October 7, 2015.

THE INSIDES:  What insides? The lining covers all.

TOTAL COST:  Well, I bought the fake-leather from Wal-mart. It was 60 inch width, for a price of $8 a yard. I only bought ¾ of a yard (about $6), and I used only half of a half of what I had to make my purse. The lining came from scraps on hand, and tarlatan is something I always have on hand now, too, so my total cost was insanely cheap – about $1.50.


Everything about my new purse just tickles me…I’m so pleased with everything about how it turned out. The finished size proportions are perfect for me – it’s large enough to hold my wallet and favorite basic items but still small enough to not be an awkward bulky box, overwhelming my outfit. The handle is convenient, easy-to-hold, and just long looped enough to sit on my shoulder (not preferred, but thankfully an option if I really need it). Best of all, this purse is an extremely economical fabric needy pattern, in other words you don’t need much at all to make it – two small trapezoid squares, two small long rectangles, and a tiny circle. It’s so basic, simple, and absolutely amazing.

When enlarging the pattern on the photocopy machine, I actually enlarged the pattern an extra 10% more than directed just for good measure. It seems that many vintage purses are generally too small for my taste, but until I made this purse, I sort of resigned myself to that fact. Unless you want a pouch, satchel, or cross-body style, which does keep items as compartmentalized to my taste, that’s how handbag styles were during the 1940’s…on the small side. I don’t think women carried as much as women do nowadays and it wasn’t the same things that were in purses 70 years ago, anyway. This purse that I made is my perfectly pleasing in between size.


I did find the instructions for assembly a bit too crafty oriented. I practically disregarded instructions and made my purse by true sewing construction methods. For example, the ties are instructed to be made by turning cutting one tie from the fashion material with the other “raw” side as a grosgrain ribbon. They say to turn the edges of the fashion material in and basically cover those raw edges with the ribbon by gluing the two together. Now, I cut two of each tie from the fashion material (my faux leather) and sewed the two together, right sides in, just like regular ties for belts or garment sewing. Then the ties I made were turned inside out (this was hard considering the thickness and stiffness of my material), with the edges rolled out and top-stitched down. My Hubby thinks that constructing the purse using sewing methods makes this purse look much more finished and professional. Gluing the straps together makes it obvious to the sight of others how it was put together, whereas making them like ties, with the raw edges inside, is mysteriously and smoothly put together. Besides these reasons, constructing from a crafty approach provides a finished purse that will not hold up as well for as long as a time – gluing edges cannot be stable as covered, stitched edges.100_6251a-comp

I also have a beef about how the circular bottom is gets constructed according to the instructions. They tell you to make this sort of pocket inside the bottom where you can slide in your chosen means of stability, such as a round of plastic or cardboard, before adding in the lining to close it all up. Really? After making my 1940 velvet hat, and after looking at other authentic purse patterns, adding tarlatan (or some sort of horsehair interfacing/stiff muslin) to the bottom circle is the best and clearly more authentically 40’s option. Tarlatan is easy to sew and work with, doesn’t add much extra thickness, is washable, but keeps a crisp, flexible stiffness perfect for the purse bottom. Tarlatan is mostly to be found in art supply stores nowadays.


My purse is actually the first of my projects where people who compliment me on it do not believe me when I say that I made it. I have to explain myself a few different ways (such as “Yes, I started with fabric and a pattern”), or I get looked at like I’m crazy, or I’m just disregarded, but nobody yet has easily accepted the fact I made my purse. This says something that I like about the right way to make this purse pattern.

100_6389-compSewing with this fake-leather was wonderful and so much easier than expected. I am impressed my 1980’s Brother machine handled it like cutting through butter (it’s those all metal parts and the “thick fabric” setting). I did use pins to help keep the pieces together, I just kept the pins in the seam allowance area (which was ½ inch, for your F.Y.I.). My purse was entirely sewn by machine, excepting the little decorative tab which goes across the front crisscrossed ties. The tab was sewn down by hand.

Custom sized pockets are sewn onto the lining inside at the back panel (the one with the fold over top and longer strap). I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a one month newbie to an android smartphone (not exactly my decision), but this large and skinny brick doesn’t fit well now in smaller purses. Thus, I made sure to have a pocket which would fit my two high-priority modern “needs” – my phone and my lipstick. I took an extra button placket piece from another project and applied it to my purse lining before sewing it, making sure to leave enough room along the edges and bottom for the seam allowance. Oh, the irony of a pocket for a smartphone going into a vintage purse…I love it!


Adding in the lining was the most complicated part, but it was fun. You place the finished lining back to back with the finished bag, mirror image style, and sew along the arched box top flap and partly into the front straight edge. Make sure to get a sharp edge where the flap edge and the front straight edge meets – this is where the top folds over and without a nice corner you might end up with too much of a gap. I snipped the curves, trimmed the seam down, and turned the lining inside the purse to top stitch the edges down. This step is like magic…I said to myself, “Cool! One step and where did the seams go?!” The front straight edge seam allowances where tuned in and double top-stitched down for stability.

100_6288-compStaggering the lining at the bottom helped the lining hang like a second skin, with no major difference between the two layers. On the side seams of the main body towards the top edge I made the seam allowance the same as the faux-leather (in order to sew them together) but down towards the bottom I went up a ¼ inch. On the bottom of the lining, the circle had a ¾ inch seam allowance while the joining main body had a seam allowance of 5/8 inch. Sounds weird, probably, but it really works well, and I must have some super technical spot in my head for it to make me so pleased.

Besides my changes in construction and personalization touches, this really is a great pattern, so deceptively perfect for beginners to purse-making like myself. Purses and hats might feel intimidating (they do for me), but I find approaching them from a sewing perspective helps. After all, they get sewn together just the same as garments…they just turn out really special and you end up “wearing” on yourself them differently than clothes 🙂pin combo pic-comp

To instantly glam up this purse, it’s as easy as adding on a pin or a shoe clip to the front tab, like the pattern shows. Here I tried a shoe clip and a vintage pin. I can also see a flower corsage going on the front, too, maybe with a purse made from another material other than faux leather.

Now, I love perusing through pictures of patterns…hey, what vintage sewer doesn’t?! Most especially I love the ingenuity of World War II era 1940’s purse designs, whether made already (vintage originals) or at the simple pattern stage. I notice that many of the ways the purses are shaped and close on themselves are strikingly similar to oriental designs and origami folds. Seeing their creative methods of closing sends fireworks of ideas and inspiration ideas in my head.

40s purses combo #1262mcall & 1945 Vogue #3029Granted there isn’t enough time in anyone’s life for them to make everything for themselves, just know that if you can sew, you can make a purse too! Purses are pricey nowadays, and rarely have everything I like (size, pockets, color, and material) in one item. No more – there isn’t any reason to feel compelled to drop a whole lotta dough on a purse if you can make your own just how you like it! My next goal is to make a green faux alligator skin purse to replace one that fell apart on me. Keep watching my blog for more unusual sewn accessories.

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