Tools of the Trade:
Leather Tote Handles
Sometimes the best finishing touch on a knitted project is not knitted at all. Purse handles are a perfect example.
Your bag may be a masterpiece of stitchery, with sculptural cables, crisp colorwork, or even finely shaped felting. It could even have the most glorious fabric lining imaginable, perfectly shaped to the inner contours of the bag.
But if you seal the deal with a floppy handle made from the same yarn as your project, the effect isn't always as powerful as, say, a real purse handle like you'd see on any fine bag in a store. Some bags won't mind the knitted handle, but for anything carrying a lot of weight, a knitted handle will stretch and wear over time.
The Handle Market
If you want a bag with a bit more refinement, sophistication, and durability, you can attach more durable handles that aren't knit from yarn. We have a whole sub-market serving this need, and it generally includes U-shaped handles in plastic, wood, bamboo, leather, and even metallic chain.
For some bags, this style works. But for more everyday use, sometimes that firm U shape isn't right. The handles are always clanging against one another, and they're rarely long enough for you to be able to sling the tote over your shoulder.
Finding nicer, more elegant handles—especially for shoulder bags—can be much more difficult. The choices tend to be few and far between. I was delighted to stumble upon the Homestead Heirlooms booth at the most recent New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. (Note: Just before this review was published, the Homestead Heirlooms Web site appeared to be temporarily offline. You can also call (262-352-8738) or email them.)
Run by two best friends in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Homestead Heirlooms manufactures leather handles for the crafts market. These are simple, well-made handles available in several different styles and lengths. In some ways, their simplicity reminds me of vintage Coach leather goods. The leather itself is firm yet supple and with an ever-deepening patina.
When I was at the Homestead Heirlooms booth last month I purchased several sets of the sewn round leather handles with rings. The leather is wrapped and sewn together to form an elegant, classic, and extremely durable purse handle. I didn't realize until after I got home that the rivet holding the leather to the ring isn't always perfectly aligned in the center. On one handle, the rivet was placed off to the side, something I'll try not to let bother me.
The metal rings let you attach the bag to a wider base of stitches (concealing the ring with yarn as you go). If you fill the bag with heavy things and pick it up, the weight is distributed across a wider area, putting less stress on the fabric around the handles—which means less puckering and stretching. But if you don't like the metal loop, you can also get a lighter-weight sew-on handle in smooth and braided leathers.
The Fine Print
I won't even try to sugar-coat the truth here: The sewn round handles are expensive. The 20-inch handles run $38 per pair, while the 30-inch handles (perfectly suited for a shoulder tote) cost $48. On a budget? You could try the much more basic plain handles (starting at $10.50 and going up to $21.50 depending on length) or the flat braided handles ($14.25 to $25). But it's true that, in many cases, the handles will have cost far more than the yarn you used to knit the bag. If bags are your thing, this may not matter. If bags are just a casual side gig, you may not feel comfortable investing that much in handles. It's a tough call.
But chances are the handle will last you far longer than the rest of the knitted bag. And when the fabric does wear through, you can simply snip the handles out of the fabric and reuse them in your next bag.
Ordering from Homestead Heirlooms isn't simple point and click. After you've perused the site and figured out what you want, you'll need to call (262-352-8738) or email them to place your order. This is a small, two-person business, so you'll need to be patient. The rewards, in all their leathery glory, will be worth it.