Lost Project: Travel backpacks for children who fly

We took our first really serious trip as a family back in 2016: my husband volunteered to walk across the breadth of England as part of Dads4Kesem, a charity walk to raise funds to launch a chapter of Camp Kesem at the alma mater of a dear friend who lost his life to lung cancer.

Our youngest was six years old, and it seemed like our kids might be easier to corral manage now that they were a little more self-sufficient.

So we (meaning I) made a unilateral rule: we would take an epic family trip to England, arriving a week prior to my husband’s walk, but I was not going to be the pack mule for all our children’s things. Mommy tends to bear the brunt of that in most families, I’ve observed, from the diaper bag and on up. I had zero interest in lugging around gear for everyone, but I also felt like maybe that wasn’t the message I wanted to send? That my role in the family was to be support staff for everyone else, who traveled hands-free because I carried the weight? So I wanted them to be in charge of their own gear on this trip, from their clothing to their teddy bears.

They’d need to carry their own snacks and water and activities, from the airport to the tourist sites and back to the AirBNB. Which meant they’d need a way to haul that gear around, with minimal complaining.

They each got their own small suitcase with wheels from Target, and I made them small backpacks with lots of dividers inside. The idea was they could carry their Kindles, their snacks, a water bottle, even a luvvie with them anywhere and everywhere we went on our trip, but if they left it behind they’d have to go without. #personalresponsibility

Since that trip, the kids have worn these backpacks literally all over the globe: England, Paris, Japan, Italy, the US National Parks, the neighborhood park, everywhere everywhere. Few projects I’ve sewn have given me the same level of satisfaction and pure joy as this one, simply because they CHOOSE these backpacks over and over again, and because they’ve worked so well doing exactly what they were designed to do.

I used the Toddler Backpack pattern from Made By Rae, and sized it up to the “school” measurements (included in the pattern).

The size has been ideal and grown with them even better than I could have predicted. We needed something at the beginning, in 2016, that would fit a six-year-old as well as a ten-year-old. Now in 2020 they’re ten, twelve, and fourteen but the packs fit just as well. The straps are adjustable, which has been a huge benefit, and the sizing was a little big on the six-year-old at the beginning and a little “tiny backpack” on the fourteen-year-old now, but absolutely perfect for the amount of stuff any human at any age might have any interest in dragging around while touristing.

For the interior, I wanted not just a lining, but a means of keeping items from turning into a giant gooey lump, as kids’ things have a tendency to do. I had recently made Elizabeth Hartman’s Sewing Circle Tote, and the pockets in that bag are THE BEST. I love the way they have a larger pocket behind a shorter one, and that the edges of the shorter pockets gather up with elastic to keep small items from jumping ship. I mimicked that style on my Betsy Travel Bag which I sewed to match the Sewing Circle Tote, both with leather accents:

That same idea seemed like the perfect way to build out the lining of these backpacks and make them practical. The tall pockets are lined and interfaced to give them some rigidity, and the shorter pockets are elasticated to hold in chapsticks and boxes of crayons:

The linen blend I used for the exterior of each of these has a real softness to it, so adding a lot of lining and pockets gave it an appealing structure (unlike the Junior Ranger backpacks I made later, where the denim was SO stiff that too much lining would have made them bulky and unwieldy).

There’s something deeply magical about renting a bike on the grounds of Versailles and pedaling behind your children as they scoot along wearing backpacks you made a year before, knowing that they’re keeping their souvenirs and treasures on their backs.

These are memories we’ll all treasure. Playing golf at St Andrews? She did that at six–and every photo shows her wearing the backpack made from fabric she picked out, the one she carried today when she went down to the creek to search for frogs in the rain.

These packs have made it possible not just for us to clamber all over castles and the Eiffel Tower and down narrow streets in Kyoto, they’ve made it possible for me & my husband to ENJOY those journeys more, to relax into seeing the beauty of the places we’re visiting rather than groaning under the weight of the supplies necessary to make a trip like that happen for a family of five with three kids under the age of ten.

I’m also convinced that it made the trip more joyful for our kids, because carrying their own weight–literally and figuratively–asked them to be present and engaged in a different way than a kid on a trip with mom + dad who’s just a passenger. They CHOSE the items they put in their packs, and they went without if they forgot the stuff they wanted to carry. They learned the effort it takes to carry one’s belongings around the walls of York, and how being selective and planning ahead can relieve some of that weight.

Not to beat a dead horse or nothing, but: sewing is about the act of creation, but it’s also about So Much More. Our feelings, our relationships, our memories, and our hearts. We make, from fabric and thread, a tangible memory that moves with us through time and space.

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