Many years ago, I wanted a new set of beanbags to learn to juggle five balls with. I was a poor impoverished ex-student, so I couldn't afford the set of suede beanbags I had my eye on. So I decided to have a go at making a set for myself. They turned out well. A few years later I showed a set to Ben Beever, who said 'Yeah, I'll have fifteen'. As soon as Ben got his set, 'Barnesy Bags' became famous (or at least infamous!) and demand for them went through the roof. I met that demand for a while, but have since decided that it was taking up too much of my time, so I've stopped accepting orders.
That's where this page comes in. The balls are pretty easy to make. I don't have superb sewing skills but the balls look fine and are very tough. Learning to make them takes some practice, but after making around 10 balls, you'll hopefully have learned enough skills to make good balls.
These instructions are based on my experiences of making beanbags, so you may need to experiment a bit if things are different for you, but I'm hoping this page will give you all the information you need to get started.
Sewing machine or hand stitching?
I use a sewing machine. The machine is nothing special - it's just a traditional Singer. You could easily handstitch if you wanted to, but I thoroughly recommend that you get hold of a sewing machine. Using a sewing machine is not difficult, and the quality and speed of sewing with a machine is far better than the results you are likely to get by hand. If you really can't get to grips with a sewing machine, perhaps you could find someone who can do the sewing for you?
I've experimented with lots of materials over the years. I've tried cotton, denim, various types of PVC, leather, suede, and various synthetic materials. The best material I have found is a very tightly woven synthetic (probably nylon). It's thin but extremely strong and does not stretch or fray. It's outside face feels like suede. The people in the shop where I buy it seem to think it's called suedette, but they never seem to be sure!
There are several things to look for in material. The main ones are:
Feel - It's important that the balls feel nice!
Stretch - I've never had good results with material that stretches. I recommend finding material that does not stretch.
Colour - Colour isn't the most important thing. I use my material because it feels nice, not because of the colours it comes in. But if you can get a good colour, then all the better!
Strength - Some materials look good, but are not strong enough to stand the abuse a juggling ball will have to endure. Before you get too confident, it's a good idea to give the first balls you make from a new piece of material a lot of abuse. When buying material, I always try to see if I can rip a small sample of it.
Thickness - It's better to have a thin material. You need the material to be fairly thin so that the seams curve smoothly. If the material is too thick, you will get hard edges on the seams.
You need good strong thread. I use Gutermann polyester thread and have never had any problems with it.
I have not included my patterns on this page for a few reasons. Firstly, they are not perfect! They work for me, but I can't guarantee that they will work for you without modificiation. Also, I believe that an important part of making your own beanbags is experimentation with different patterns. To get my patterns, I downloaded the four panel beanbag pattern available from this site, (Thanks to the Coulee Region Jugglers and Unicyclists) and modified it.
I sew beanbags by using the edge of the sewing machine foot as a guide. This method speeds things up because I don't have to mark out a line for the seams (like I used to). That means that all I wanted from the pattern linked to above was the dotted line showing the shape my panels should be. I loaded the image into a simple PC graphics package, and resized it until it was the size I wanted. I changed the width and height, and made test beanbags from the resulting patterns until I liked their size. The table below shows the dimensions of the patterns I ended up using for the three sizes of beanbag that I make. Don't forget that these are the dimensions of the panels I use, not of my seams. I sew the seams a constant 5mm from the edge of the material.
When I have a pattern I want to use, I print it out, glue the printed paper to a piece of cardboard, then cut it out. This gives me a template to mark the material out with.
I use millet for filling. It's available from pet shops and is cheap. Most beanbags on the market are filled with millet. Millet is a regular shaped seed, which does a lot to improve the feel of the finished beanbag. The only downside of millet is that the balls will not be washable, but I haven't found a plastic filling that's anywhere near as good. I use electronic kitchen scales to make sure that the weight of each ball is exact.
Step by step sewing procedure
The four pieces of material cut out and ready. This will be a two colour beanbag to make things a little easier to see.
The first two panels after sewing the first seam. Beanbags are made inside out, so the photo shows what will be the inside face. Note that the ends of the thread are all at one end. This is because I sew the seams twice. You don't have to do this, but it's what I have always done so I can be confident that the seams are strong. It is essential that you make sure that the two panels stay in line with each other perfectly as they go through the machine. This is the most difficult part of making beanbags, but can be mastered with a little practice.
Each time you add a panel to the ball, follow these instructions to make sure that you keep the panels in line with each other:
- Lift the sewing machine foot and needle.
To get the beanbag through the machine to sew the next seam, you need to fold the material as shown. Folding like this gives you easy access to (in this example) the darker piece of material to sew the next seam.
The ball after sewing the second seam. From here, you'll need to fold the material like before so you have one thickness of material on one side ready for the next seam. Then, repeat this step with another panel to add the third seam in a similar fashion.
The ball after sewing the third seam. It's folded so you can see all of the panels. You'll sew the last seam by folding the light panel in the picture on top of the dark panel. Don't forget that you will need to leave a hole in the last seam so you can turn the ball the right way round and fill it. I won't say how many times I've forgotten to do that bit!
The beanbag after the last two seams have been sewn. The hole needs to be big enough to turn the ball outside out and big enough to fit a funnel through to fill the ball. I always put the hole quite near the end because it seems tidier that way. Also note that the excess thread has been tidied and tied up. At this stage, it's a good idea to sew across both points of the ball a few times, using a small stitch size. This is another of those things that I've always done so do not want to change. It helps to prevent any potential weaknesses in the ball.
Turning the ball outside out. The easiest way to do this is to push the opposite point through the hole. This is where you find out if you left a big enough hole!
The filled ball ready for finishing off. I use a kitchen funnel to help fill the ball. If you want a firm fill, or if you are using material that stretches, the handle of a wooden spoon will be useful here to help you push the seed into the ball. I prefer not to do that though because I prefer a softer fill.
Ta-da! The finished ball. The final step is to finish off the sewing by hand. This part takes a little practice but is quite easy to learn. Oddly, the hand sewn part of the seam is normally the only part where you can not see the seam! I use a doubled up thread for this job to make it a little stronger. The trick to finishing off is to sew along the length of the seam when the needle is inside the ball, and to sew straight across the seam when outside the ball. By doing that, you make the stitching nearly invisible. I'll leave you to work out how to do the knots, because it's too difficult to explain how I do it!
Update: 6th September 2002 - This page has been reproduced as an article on the IJDb on this page. The IJDb version allows you to post comments on the article, so if you have different ideas that you think should be added to the article, you could post them there.
Dave Barnes, 21st July 2002.