If you’re going to go to the effort of making a backpack, you’re going to want to make sure it lasts. And if you want it to last, you’re going to need to make sure it’s made from a fabric that’s practical, sturdy and tough enough to take some hard knocks.
Here are a few of the most popular fabrics that go into backpacks.
Rewind a few decades, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any backpack that wasn’t made from cotton canvas. Today, it’s fallen somewhat out of favor due to its habit of rotting when damp and its inability to stand up to abrasion. You can still find cotton canvas fashion backpacks, totes, and handbags, but most manufacturers have made the switch to synthetics for any bags designed to be anything more than fashion accessories.
With the days of cotton backpacks behind us, nylon has come into its own. Strong, durable, and far superior to cotton at keeping your perishables dry, nylon has some great things going for it. It’s one true downfall is its tendency to tear if it gets punctured... although with the right weave, even this can be easily avoided. Just be conscious that not all nylon fabrics are waterproof – if you get a straight-up, non-coated version, it’s not going to be the best for rainy days.
If you’re in the market for a store-bought camping or hiking backpack, there’s a very good chance it’s going to made from Rip-Stop Nylon. Because of the particular weave used in its construction, it’s resistant to tearing, making it a good, solid choice for backpackers looking for a long-lasting, durable pack.
Polyester, like nylon, has surged in popularity since people started looking for an alternative to cotton. Cheap, readily available, and resistant to fading, it’s got a score of great qualities. On the flip side, it’s not quite as durable as nylon…hence, no doubt, why store-bought polyester backpacks tend to be cheaper than their nylon equivalents.
Thanks to its durable nature, PVC makes a popular option for backpacks. Waterproof and tear-resistant, it’s widely accessible, relatively cheap, and available in a great range of colors.
If you come across a fabric titled ballistic nylon, you’re on to something special. Originally designed to protect soldiers from bullets or shell impact, these days it’s enjoying a new lease of life as a backpack fabric. Incredibly durable and with exceptional tear resistance, it makes an excellent choice for backpacks that are likely to see a lot of hardcore action. On the flip side, it’s not the easiest of fabrics to dye – if you’re hoping for a backpack in fluorescent pink, you might need to look elsewhere.
Polypropylene (often referred to simply as PP) is basically a type of malleable plastic that’s used for 101 purposes. Waterproof, quick to dry, and an excellent insulator, it’s a popular choice for bags. It doesn’t, however, take too kindly to the sun, and may start to break down or fade with prolonged exposure.
Renowned for its durability and resistance to abrasion, Kodra is a premium product that makes a sound option for backpacks.
If you want a fabric that can stand up to just about any challenge you throw its way, Cordura should be top of your wish list. Heavier and more resilient than nylon, it’s fully waterproof, superbly resistant to abrasion, and durable to the point of being almost indestructible.
If you want to get the benefits of nylon (durability, easy availability, and strength) with the added benefit of waterproofing, coated nylon is the way to go. With a PVC or polyurethane coating, nylon will protect a backpack’s contents from even the heaviest of showers. On the downside, the coating stops the fabric from breathing, making any wet items in the pack vulnerable to mildew.
If you want a backpack that isn’t going to rot, smell, or disintegrate, you’re going to want to make sure it's waterproof.
Some fabrics are naturally waterproof, or at least more so than others (polyester will keep the rain out better than cotton, for instance) but in most cases, a fabric earns the title of waterproof not from its basic nature, but from the coating that’s applied to its surface.
When it comes to waterproof coatings, we’re mostly looking at….
PU/TPU (polyurethane/thermoplastic polyurethane)
PU coatings/laminates add a waterproof layer to any fabric it’s applied to. The coatings don’t last forever, and will eventually begin to lose their water-repelling qualities after prolonged or frequent exposure to water, chemicals (including salt, bleach, and chlorine), and heat. That said, store your waterproof backpack in a dry, well-ventilated spot and you can expect a good 15 years out of it.
When it comes to backpack linings, there’s one fabric in particular that ticks all the boxes. And that fabric is….
Ripstop Nylon. Possessing excellent strength but adding barely any extra weight to your bag, ripstop lining offers a breathable, lightweight solution to your lining needs. As an added advantage, it’s tear and abrasion-resistant.
Backstrap straps tend to get the most wear of any part of the bag– use an inappropriate fabric, and you’ll soon pay the cost with a torn and ripped strap. Providing you use a good quality, durable fabric for the bag body, there’s no reason you shouldn’t use the same fabric for the straps.
That said, the most popular options for straps are webbing (which is commonly made from cotton, nylon, polyester, or polypropylene) or ripstop nylon, both of which are durable enough to stand up to the pressures of frequent handling.
When it comes to stylish backpacks built to last, it’s hard to beat a Jansport.
Known for its iconic designs and durable finishes, Jansport is a name that enjoys a first-class reputation among every school and college student in the country, not to mention those with a passion for adventure.
Jansport utilizes a range of fabrics in its products, all designed to match the type of use the bag in question can expect to enjoy. Campus bags are available in several “fashion” fabrics such as suede, leather, and even denim, while those intended for the great outdoors tend to be made from hardier combinations of ripstop poly, Cordura, coated nylon, and TPU.
When it comes to durability, it’s hard to beat ballistic nylon and Cordura. For the best part of half a century, these two fabrics have been utilized in some of the toughest, most heavy-duty military and outdoor products on the market.
For many backpack enthusiasts, seeing a mention of either fabric on a label is enough to get them reaching for their wallet… but which, in a straight-out battle, comes out top?
Of the two, ballistic has the greatest tear resistance. Codruta, on the other hand, comes out best for abrasion resistance. Appearance-wise… well, it really depends on your personal preference. Codruta has a casual, canvas-type look (making it the most popular choice in school packs and hiking gear) while the smooth, glossy look and feel of ballistic makes it the preferred option in the business arena.
Arguably (and a lot of Codruta lovers will be more than happy to argue the point), ballistic has the tiniest amount of edge when it comes to durability. That said, both fabrics are pretty much bomb-proof – buy a backpack made from one of these fabrics, and it’s unlikely to wear out in either this lifetime or the next.
The best fabric for backpacks? Well, that really depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a backpack that’s going to be waterproof, durable, tear-resistant, and suitable for most activities, ripstop nylon should do the job. If you want a backpack capable of withstanding the highest degree of stress any backpack is likely to encounter, Cordura or ballistic nylon are both fine choices.
But… unless you have armor-piercing needles (and no, we’re not exaggerating), neither Cordura nor ballistic nylon is going to be much fun to work with. Their heavy-duty nature turns sewing into the kind of workout that leaves even the most experienced crafter quaking in their boots. In comparison, sewing with ripstop nylon is relatively easy - just make sure you keep the fabric taught as you sew and use super sharp needles (Universal 70/10 needle are the best).
If you live near a good fabric store, you shouldn’t have too many problems finding backpack fabric. If you don’t, or if you want to take advantage of the big discounts that online stores often offer, you’ll find plenty of excellent options via a quick google search.
If you do decide to buy online, it’s helpful to know a few tricks of the trade before you commit to a purchase.
1. Work Out How Much You Need - Before you make any costly mistakes, work out exactly how much fabric you need. Don’t buy the fabric before you have a pattern, otherwise, you risk over-buying and blowing all those lovely cost-savings that go hand in hand with online shopping. If you’re using a combination of fabrics for the pack, you’ll probably need less than the minimum yardage that most shops offer – in which case, check out the options available at other stores before buying (and spending) more than you need.
2. Ask for Samples - Granted, this might not always be required – after all, if you’re ordering a plain black nylon fabric, you’re unlikely to be surprised by what comes in the mail. If, on the other hand, you’re making a backpack in some jazzy color or bold pattern, getting a sample of the material beforehand is a wise decision. What looks enticing on your computer screen might be an altogether different proposition in reality. A sample lets you see exactly what you’ll be getting before you commit to any costly purchases. Most stores are happy enough to send a sample, and many won’t even charge you a cent for the privilege.
3. Take Advantage of the Scale Guide - If you’re buying fabric with a funky pattern, be sure to make use of the scale guide before adding the fabric to your shopping cart. What looks a small, delicate pattern can in reality be an eye-wateringly huge one (and vice-versa). Using the scale guide (if the site has one, of course) gives you a more accurate idea of exactly what the fabric will look like once it’s off the screen and on your backpack.
4. Buy Just a Little More Than You Need - While over-buying fabric is a big no-no, you’ll probably want to buy just a little more than the pattern dictates. Mistakes happen, no matter how carefully you wield your scissors or check your measurements. It’s also always a good idea to test different stitches and tensions on a spare piece of fabric before starting on the final project, particularly if you’ve not used that fabric before.
How much will backpack fabric cost you? How long is a piece of string? Backpacks can be made in any number of different fabrics, all of which come with their own price point.
But let’s leave the more expensive materials like Cordura and Kodra (both of which can cost upwards of $13 per yard, depending on the quality and denier) to one side for the moment.
Looking at the most common types of backpack material, you can expect to pay around $7 per yard (less if you’re willing to compromise on quality).
To a large extent, the amount of fabric needed to make a backpack will depend on the backpack design and size. If you’re making a simple school backpack, you can expect to use less fabric than if you were making a backpack designed for travel or the outdoors. That being said, 2 yards of fabric should cover most needs.