Make, Jane, make!: Beach Towel Poncho-Pack, Revisited with a Tutorial!


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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Beach Towel Poncho-Pack, Revisited with a Tutorial!

A couple of years ago, I blogged about my first beach towel poncho-packs. Those original poncho-packs have since been to multiple swim lessons, splash pads and beaches and are still going strong. Of course there are now two additional people in our family, one of which has been requesting her own "backpack towel" since last summer. In addition to that, my older son started summer camp this year and he needs at least two sets of swim stuff so that I have time to wash the stinky, wet ones on alternate days. And as fate would have it, we were discussing the poncho-packs at the park a couple of weeks ago and one of my mommy friends asked for instructions on how to make her own. So here is a return visit to the beach towel poncho-packs, complete with photos and a tutorial.

p.s. This is a great scrap buster project. So never you mind if you notice that the pieces in my pictures are not quite the right measurements or seem a bit skewed. I am crazy about using up scraps, even if they are only barely big enough for my project.

p.p.s. In case you want to know, I used some scrap flannel pieces for this project. I think any soft and absorbent fabric would work great.


(1) The Measurements: Measure your towel width and length. Divide the towel width by 3 and add 4 inches to get the width of your backpack. Then divide the towel length by 4 and add 3 inches to get the length of your backpack. (This are the minimum length and width that your backpack should be to enable the towel to easily fold into the pocket. You could always make the backpack bigger if you wanted more room to store clothes, sunscreen, swimsuits, etc.)

Also measure your towel-wearer's head circumference and divide this number by 2. This will give you the approximate length of poncho neck-opening. Divide this by 2 again and this will be how long the slit will be.

For example, my towel measured 27 x 56 inches, so
Backpack width = 27/3 + 4 = 13 inches
Backpack length = 56/4 + 3 = 17 inches

My son's head is about 22 inches around. Making the neck-opening for his head about 11 inches long and the cut that I will make for this will be 5.5 inches.

(2) Cut your pieces: Measure and cut the backpack piece using the measurements that you've just calculated and then cut two straps that are about 4-5 inches longer than your backpack and 5 inches wide.

My straps were each: 5" x 21" (21" = 17" + 4")

(3) For the backpack piece, fold and iron the hems on the long edges first by folding and ironing the edge down by 3/8 inch then folding and ironing it again by 5/8 inch. Repeat on the short edges. (Notice how I've created the hem by rolling the fabric so that the right sides are together and the hem is "on" the front of the fabric... this is completely okay and it'll look right in the end, I promise.)

On the top edge only of your backpack piece, stitch the hem using two rows of stitching (or a double needle if you are fancy and not as lazy as I am about changing needles/thread). The other edges will be held in place by your excellent ironing job until they are sewn in place.

(4) For the straps: Next prep the straps by folding them lengthwise with the right sides facing and sew along the long edge only to create a tube. Turn/evert the tube so that the right-side of the fabric is facing out. Tuck the raw edges at each end of the tube into the tube and iron everything down to keep it nice and neat while we sew. (I like to iron my straps so that the seam ends up in the middle of the strap and would face the body when worn. It doesn't matter whether the seam is on the side, back or wiggly-waggly in terms of function, it's purely an aesthetic choice.)

(5) Assembly: Find the centre of the top of your towel (the short side) and place a pin there to mark it. Attach a strap on either side of the pin approximately one inch away from the centre pin. Keep the strap and towel edges flush. (If you've ironed your straps with the seam in the middle, like I did, then position them so that the seams face the towel.) Sew those straps in place along the towel edge using two rows of stitches (or a double needle, you Fancypants, you). 

Find the centre of the top edge (double stitched edge) of your backpack piece and line it up with the centre pin on your towel, the right side of the backpack piece should be facing the wrong side of the towel. So now you'll have a sandwich where the bottom layer is the towel, the middle is straps and the top is backpack. Pin the top edges together to hold them in place.

Pin the straps in place on each bottom corner by lining up the inside edge of the strap with the edge of the hem or approximately 5/8 inch from the bottom of the backpack piece. So one end of the strap will be at the top edge of the towel and the other end of the strap will be at each of the backpack's sides edges. Make sure there are no twists in your strap.

If you could see through the backpack piece then the strap would be place something like this:

Here's another photo of the bottom right-hand corner, where you can see I've pinned the strap to the back pack piece with a blue pin. You can just see the strap end poking out a teeny-tiny bit.

Pin everything in place, making sure that the straps are clear of all the seams (wouldn't want to find out that a strap has been sewn into a seam, right?) Here you can see I've pinned all around and the straps are pinned with blue pins.

Sew around the sides and bottom with a double row of stitches, using a 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch seam allowance. This will leave a bit of your backpack hem sticking out when you turn your towel into a backpack and it ends up looking a bit like piping. If you don't like that then you could add a third row of stitching using a zipper foot and feeling for the edge of the hem. If you have no idea what I'm talking about then just do it my way and learn to love the results, kay? ;) 

Now, if you just wanted a backpack towel then you could stop here. But if you want a poncho-pack towel then continue on.

(6) Cutting the poncho opening: Fold the towel in half (short top edge to short bottom edge). On the fold, find the centre and make your slit through both layers of fabric. My cut is marked in pink below and was 5.5 inches long (making the neck-opening 11 inches long when the towel is unfolded). If you can, test your poncho on your kid and make sure that their head fits through the hole.

(7) Finishing the neck-line/collar: Cut a piece of fabric out that fully covers your neck-opening. This piece of fabric could be cut at the beginning (step 2) when you're cutting the rest of the pieces by approximating it to be: neck-opening length + 2 inches long x 2 inches wide. This would be the minimum size, you could always make it larger to make it easier to work with.

For example, my poncho neckline collar would be: 13" (11" +2") x 2"

I like to cut my collar after I've cut the neck-opening so that I have a chance to double check that my child's head will fit through the hole first. Children are so wriggly, I never trust myself to get the right measurements the first time! Also aren't kids so fussy about necklines that are too tight? I secretly laugh every time my kids get stuck in their collars and start screaming bloody murder.

Keeping the neck-opening as closed as possible, pin the collar piece onto the neck-opening with the right-sides facing and sew around the entire neck-line using a 1/4 inch or 3/8 inch seam. You can do this by sewing with the collar down facing down and the back-side of the towel facing upwards so that you can see the slit and carefully avoiding your pins. Or you could use a fade-away marker/fabric crayon and mark where the slit is.

Once the neck-opening is all boxed in, turn the towel over to the backside and pull the collar through. It will look messy at first but after some ironing it'll look just fine.

I used an overcast stitch to sew the collar edges down and prevent fraying. You could also just use a simple zig-zag stitch. Or if you're the fancy-pants who used a double needle earlier then you could have serged the edges of the collar before we even started this whole collar assembly business.

This is a more elaborate collar than I had in my original poncho-pack; it has a smoother edge and a much more finished look to it. You can see below that in my original poncho-packs, I just put a piece of scrap fabric over the neck-opening and then zig-zag stitched all around the outside edge. For the poncho opening, I used a shortened-length zig-zag stitch to sew a box around the intended neckline and then cut the slit (much like a buttonhole).

If you wanted a less fussy collar then you could totally use my original method, those towels have stood the test of time and held up to two years of washing and playing. The original towels have only a bit of fringe/fraying around the neckline, a superficial cosmetic blemish that hasn't impacted the actual poncho-pack function at all.

[drumroll please] Here is the towel in action...

So there you have it. A towel that the kids can carry on their own backs, with their swim stuff in stow and provides a bit of modesty cover if they have to make a quick change in public. Hope this was helpful. Enjoy!

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