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Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost
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Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/27/2006 23:57:35 MDT Print View

So I'm a 20-year-old college student in the middle of my undergrad years, and I've had the good fortune to get bitten by the backpacking bug early in life. I've barely had any actual field experience at this point, but I feel like I've been able to absorb quite a lot of knowledge by hungrily poking around BPL forums and articles for a few months.

UL philosophy is instinctively appealing to me, and MYOG even more so. Commercial gear is expensive and I'm too small for most manufacturers' clothing anyway, not to mention that there's something sacred about creating the gear that will keep you alive in the backcountry, all by yourself. Not to mention, I've got a few ideas for multi-use gear that I think might really be worth pursuing. In short: I'm sold on MYOG.

Now, some obstacles lay in my path:
1) I have no experience with gear or clothing construction. At all.

2) My understanding of sewing machines consists of this link, referenced in an earlier post.

Therefore, I'm in need of advice regarding the practicality of my starting from scratch. I'm aware of the many resources available online for learning these things (thru-hiker, jardine's stuff, this forum, etc.), but I'm suspicious that the process may be more labor-intensive and frustration-intensive than some voices make it out to be. In the end I aim to be able to construct essentially any UL soft item that I might need, which is a whole host of items. I'm imagining that I might start with Thru-Hiker's stuff sack kit as my first project, but I'm in need of some lightweight shelter so I'd like to try a Tyvek solo tarp. Anyway, my questions:

1) Is it practical for me to undertake this learning project in the middle of college, on a limited budget, without prior experience, and without any local, physical support?*

2) How long did it take you all to get started?

3) How long did it take you to gain some skill?

4) Is this a decent machine to start with? The price is right, that's for sure.

In summary, please educate me. If there are pertinent questions that I should have asked, but didn't, feel free to answer them anyway. Thanks much everyone.

* first, college is easy, so academic interference is of minimal concern; second, my budget isn't THAT limited--if I can afford a few things from STP and Mountain Gear, I assume I can probably afford to go MYOG

Edited by freeradical on 05/28/2006 00:05:13 MDT.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/28/2006 07:21:25 MDT Print View


Welcome to the slippery slope called MYOG. Life is more interesting here ... but "other folks" don't seem to understand.

I think the following is a pretty complete summary of the "to MYOG or not MYOG?" question. The answer is yes if one or more of the following is true:

1) You very much want to do this activity but MYOG is the only way I can swing the cost

2) You enjoy using gear you made and get satisfaction being able to say "yes to the "You made that?" question

3) You are curious and inventive and want to try out your own ideas.

4) What you want just isn't available to buy.

I don't know about that particular machine but google finds a couple reviews and they're positive. All you really need for sewing camping gear is forward, reverse and zig-zag. Button hole is nice but thru-hiker has instructions for doing that manually.

Jeff Jackson
(Just_Jeff) - F

Locale: Colorado's Front Range
Re: Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/28/2006 08:55:31 MDT Print View

Regarding frustration, it can easily do that! But there's usually a specific problem that's frustrating you, and it's usually something that some else already knows the answer to. So don't get too mad, come back to one of the many forums and describe your problem, and you'll soon get an answer - then you can go back when you've calmed down and finish your project the right way.

Two easy things to reduce the frustration:
- Use quality thread. Don't get the cheap Walmart'll break easily and it gums up the machine. I use 100% polyester Guterman's. It's expensive, but I noticed a difference the first time I used it.
- Read this link on sewing ripstop:

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: Re: Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/28/2006 14:50:37 MDT Print View

Thanks for the replies guys, I'm encouraged, but still curious about practicality questions. How long do different kinds of projects actually take? A tarp? A bivy? A windshirt? These are important questions for me to consider. Is there significant other hardware I'll need besides a sewing machine?

And how many projects has it taken you to get comfortable and competent? When I read posts on the MYOG forum it appears to me that some people can just whip up projects out of thin air in a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. I would really like to reach that level of skill one day. But is that level of competence born of growing up with a seamstress mother or can it be attained by enthusiasm and the experience of experimentation over several months/years? I really just have a poor conception of how long and how hard these things are to do--that's what I'm most interested in.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/28/2006 14:54:09 MDT Print View

Jim and Jeff have provided sage advice. Let me add a couple of things from my experience as a student/MYOG nut.

1) A good used sewing machine is probably a superior investment provided that is is an "all metal" machine. An older Singer portable, for example. They will sew anything but are limited by their small size - you can't stuff big items under the arm. The Brother is not a top quality machine, but, hey, you will be sewing lingere-weight fabric, and the Brother will probably do that just fine. As a student, you will be moving a lot and a portable machine will travel easier.

2) A big workman's tool box (not a wimp sewing box) will improve your organization of tools, thread, bobbins, fasteners, hole punches, etc. Again, this is especially important for a student or young person right out of college. It will let you put things away to keep your limited space organized.

3) Concentrate on design first. You mentioned a stuff sack kit. Design your own. Sure, a stuff sack sounds way too simple to waste design time on, but you are talking about buying a kit for Pete's sake. For a stuff sack. Way too simple. Get a square-ruled planning pad and go to work. Then do a mock-up with newspaper and scotch tape. Use that for your pattern. It's good practice. After the first one, you will be turning them out without any pattern. The stuff sack is good practice. There are 8 or 10 different ways to design stuff sacks and a good exercise is to try to come up with that many on your own. This is foundation stuff. Get it right and you will be designing as well as making your own gear in short order.

You are obviously a smart guy, so you don't need more support than you can find at Thru-hiker's, Penney's, Just Jeff's and other MYOG workshops and maybe searching forum archives.

How long does it take? It is always a learning experience. I learn and figure out new stuff all the time and I've been doing this for damnear 50 yrs. Maybe I'm just slow. How long does it take to be able to make a stuff sack? No time. A cape/tarp? No time at all. A UL backpack? Not much longer. A catenary cut tarp tent? With good plans, maybe you could start tomorrow. A poly-insulated quilt? Start tomorrow.

Designing your own is an order of magnitude more difficult than working from someone else's plans. Presumably, they have worked out the kinks in construction and have tested the design in the field. You may not know enough yet to be able to anticipate problems before they bring you to a screeching halt.

The best friend of a MYOG sewer is the seam ripper. It's like the claw on a hammer. Make a mistake? No problem. Just rip that sucker out.

You can start MYOG tomorrow using designs that are free on the Web or by buying plans and patterns. Almost all plans and kits give the time needed and level of difficulty. Start simple and work up. Shop for projects that are within your skill range as you estimate it after getting a little practice.

One MYOG area you won't hear much about in these forums is modifying gear. There is a lot of almost OK, cheap gear out there. Sometimes all it needs is a little modification such as judicious reinforcement, a bar-tack here and there, removal and replacement of components, etc. Wallmart has a lot of that kind of stuff. A big, inexpensive daypack can be a practical UL pack. (And Wallyworld insulation in Wallmart $1/yard polyester lining makes a decent quilt/top bag - for less than $20.)

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/28/2006 19:01:40 MDT Print View

As always Vick, you provide the answers I'm looking for. I'm sure I'll be bugging you quite often in the next few months (and the rest of you), but for now, thanks a lot. I think that's the assurance that I needed that I'm not on a path to failure and waste effort.

Jeff Jackson
(Just_Jeff) - F

Locale: Colorado's Front Range
Re: Re: Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/29/2006 00:51:42 MDT Print View

One warning, though, and this is serious...

After your first project, you won't get any sleep. You'll dream about new designs for every piece of gear you have and your SO/friends will get tired of hearing you talk about it. It's an addiction. We should start a Make/Modify Your Own Gear Anonymous (MYOGA) chapter.

Hehe - I was just driving back from Paramount Great America amusement park in San Jose...11pm and I had to pee, but I knew I'd pass a Walmart in Gilroy, so I waited for 20 miles just so I could pee in Walmart and check for $1/yd silnylon or DWR. No dice this time, but that just feeds the addiction...

My name's Jeff, and I'm an addict.

One more thing - you'll be surprised at how easy most of this stuff is. A synthetic quilt is barely more than 4 seams in a rectangle and some yarn loops. A stuff sack is as easy as 2 seams if you don't get fancy...probably only 6 for the fancy ones. A square or rectangle tarp is one ridgeline and a few hems, with some ribbon sewn on...until you get fancy with shapes or catenary curves.

So just pick up whatever gear you're using now, check out your friends' gear, go to the store and examine all the gear, and look for construction techniques - how they make the seams, what bells and whistles they put where and why, check out Walmart's running pants for ideas on some wind pants, etc.

But most of all, just experiment. Get some $1/yd material from the wallyworld bargain bin and build some prototypes...then get the expensive stuff for the real project.

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
How About This One? on 05/29/2006 21:42:58 MDT Print View

Hmm, in considering the advice to find an old used bombproof machine . . . I found this one. Any thoughts, anybody? I've already emailed the owner to ask whether she thinks it's a good fit for a beginner, but I'd love to hear anyone else's best guess.

Shelly Skye
(shelly) - F
sewing machine on 05/30/2006 14:56:51 MDT Print View

I bought my sewing machine at a garage sale for $10. Included were all attachments and a book on how to use the machine to sew. It's a 1948 Singer and portable. Most important, I asked the owner to show me how to use it and actually ran some old material through it before I purchased it. It only has forward and back stitches with no zigzag. I haven't found it lacking for anything much, though the zig zag would be helpful with stretchy materials.

The most important thing is to get started and not to worry about making mistakes. No matter what I am trying to sew, I seem to make at least one mistake per item. That seam ripper is my best friend!

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: sewing machine on 05/30/2006 17:02:16 MDT Print View

One of my co-workers needed an industrial-strength machine and was able to rent one. If you had just one project or wanted to try things out, it seemed to be a reasonable way to go. I imagine most large cities have a source for renting machines.

Dane Fliedner
(dfliedner) - F

Locale: North Texas
Re: Beginner DIY-er: Considerations of Feasability, Cost on 05/31/2006 16:57:52 MDT Print View

I somewhat take the opposite approach to MYOG-- I think (as a relative newbie to the sewing and MYOG "thing") that it is a comforting to have directions and patterns to follow, early on. For example, the Ray-way kits are great in that they have very clear, step-by-step directions, come with all the materials ready, etc. That can be helpful, especially the first go around. As experience comes, then of course there is no need for a pattern to make stuff, and can become more creative, etc, like Vick, Bill etc are... clearly skilled and innovating, but, as Vick put it, he's been at it for many years, so of course he doesn't need any help anymore doing basics like a stuff sack. My 2 cents, for what they're worth...(probably about 2 cents :))

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: Starting with Patterns and Kits on 06/01/2006 19:36:42 MDT Print View

Thanks, that's much appreciated. Actually I've reconsidered my initial drive to jump head first into this. In the past couple of weeks I've managed to find decent deals on clothing items that fit better than other stuff I've found, which is heartening and relieves my frustration a bit. But I am going to start immediately with making my own trekking poles from graphite golf shafts. I'm pretty excited about that, as it's something that seems to be really cheap, really easy, and provides a product that's actually better (for UL purposes) than the commercial version (discounting Lighttreks and Stix). I'll probably make an alcohol stove sometime this summer as well, which seems to be another beginner-level project. In time I'm sure I'll progress to clothing and such, but right now I think simpler items like these are a good place to start.

In the meantime, would someone enlighten me about tarp construction? I'm confused about one thing really: what more is there to a (flat) tarp than just a rectangle with some tie-out points? What's the purpose of a ridgeline? Is there anything else that makes a tarp a tarp?

Joe D'Paz
(wolfythelobo) - F

Locale: Hawaii
beginner on 06/02/2006 00:57:17 MDT Print View

My name is Joe and I'm a MYOG addict....
Just finished a couple a projects without any previous sewing experience and a barrowed machine from my friend and(yes....I can't sleep very well lately) thinking too much on how to improve things and come out with new designs, heck...I,m even thinking about launching a business
but first, I need to buy and old, cheap machine.

Kevin Saitta
(kjsphotography) - F
DIY on 06/02/2006 04:35:10 MDT Print View

This is all true and excellent advice. A year ago I starting making my own bags and now I cant stop as I am always coming up with new design and concepts. I have gotten so far into it that I have created a company making custom gear. I even took it one step further and picked up a CAD software so I can see my design / concept before even making patterns to get a 3D feel of how it will look. MYOG is just amazing and it is so worth all the trial and error to learn it. I think the fun part is taking a concept to design to final product then taking that product into the field and using it! Total satisfaction!

I have leaned by reading a ton of book, buying cheap bags and tearing them apart and asking a ton of questions.

Oh that brother sewing machine is a waste of money. What you need really is just a straight stitch machine that is all metal and gears. I user a really simple machine that has forward and reverse and I can change the length of the stitch. As mentioned above look for an old singer on ebay as those machines are just excellent.

Good luck and you wont regret it.

Edited by kjsphotography on 06/02/2006 04:37:19 MDT.

Jimmy M. Harris
(jimh) - F
Re: Re: Starting with Patterns and Kits on 06/02/2006 22:09:49 MDT Print View


I just finished a 10'x 12' tarp w/ a cantenary curve. It's about my 4th sewing project. I've done a couple shirts, a quilt, pack cover and the above tarp. I'm pretty much operating on my own.

The seam you need in a tarp is due to the width of the fabric. Rip-stop ships (at least in my limited experience) in 65" widths, so if you want something more than that width, you'll have a seam.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: Starting with Patterns and Kits on 06/02/2006 22:51:19 MDT Print View

>I'll probably make an alcohol stove

These are dead easy and lots of fun. Look at the Zen stoves site for a complete overview <>; there are many designs there and pointers to most of the other good designs.

First, make a SuperCat stove <>. Use a single-hole punch to make the holes and you're done in one minute. Then make a classic Pepsi Can stove <>. This will introduce you to most of the techniques needed for making most stove designs. Try the original Cat stove <> (still one of the best performers) and a Cobra stove <> (a simple pressurized stove). I've made several dozen stoves and I still keep bringing a Pepsi can stove (about the sixth I made, though; performance varies).

Most of these can be made with a $1 awl, scissors, utility knife blade, a thick junk book, a C clamp, and a push-pin. I haven't ever bothered with glue, and I put some bits of pink insulation in my Pepsi Can stoves. Anyway, it's easy, fun and addictive.

>what more is there to a (flat) tarp than just a rectangle with some tie-out points?

Yeah, that's about it. Get a piece of 3mil plastic (8x10 is a good starting size), tie guylines on the corners with sheet bends (venetian blind cord is sturdy and lightweight), and run a ridgeline cord along the top either from trees or two sticks or trekking poles (the ridgeline holds the middle up). Done. Then, when you don't quite like this design, start tweaking. Use packing tape to stick some guylines to the side centers; do the same to make side lifters. Pitch the tarp in lots of different configurations (try the A-frame, too). If you tear off a corner, just trim the tarp smaller. Keep trimming until the tarp is 'too small', then you'll know what size tarp you like. Read some articles about making a cat tarp, cut the top just about right, and tape it back together. See how you like it. Don't? Use a bit more tape and turn it into a big garbage bag :) Total cost is about $20 for several tarps and a lot of useful experience. No sewing (or sewing machine) required. A plastic tarp will hold up better than you think. (Cut some 3mil plastic for your ground sheet, too.)

Then get a $20 Byer of Maine Moskito Traveller hammock or make your own (they're supposed to be easy but I haven't tried) and give up on ground sleeping for good :-) You'll still want a tarp for the hammock, though.

Edited by Otter on 06/02/2006 23:09:28 MDT.

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
Another reason to do it on 06/06/2006 09:46:20 MDT Print View

I too started in college, and after over 30 years I still have bouts of sleeplessness as my mind concocts new designs.

One day you will have kids, and with luck you will take them and your spouse on backpacking trips. The amount of money you can save making equipment for the kids, as compared to purchasing it, is tremendous.

When they are young you can perhaps buy used stuff cheap. But as teenagers and older they need (and demand) about the same as you use. And as the trips become longer you need lighter equipment, and the purchase cost skyrockets.

I am outfitting a trip for five on the Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainier this coming summer. I'm making tarps, bug tents, wind suits, gaiters, stuff sacks, head nets, sleeping quilts, etc. No way I could afford to purchase all this stuff.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
MYOG Sewing Primer on 06/06/2006 18:03:24 MDT Print View

Hi Ian,
We'll be publishing basic sewing instructions by Jam Ham before the end of June. Topics: sewing machine set up, top stitch, felled seams, reinforcing seams.

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: MYOG Sewing Primer on 06/06/2006 21:12:42 MDT Print View

Awesome! I eagerly await the article.