I’ve had a few folks ask me how I’ve been putting together the carriers I’ve been making, so I thought I might do a little tutorial. So follow along as we dive into the fun world of DIYing a mei tai!
DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert seamstress so I can’t offer tips on the beautiful finishing techniques you’ll see the pros do. But if you are, you’ll probably figure that part out on your own. I can show you how I assemble a carrier safely. As I noted in my DIY guide, my knowledge of carrier construction comes from the other great tutorials I’ve studied (primarily on The Babywearer) and from studying the construction of those I own. My knowledge of the finer aspects of sewing is a work in progress 😉 This tutorial is intended for personal use only. And most importantly, YOU are ultimately responsible for the safe construction of and use of your carrier!
I’m actually going to cheat a bit and make an Onbuhimo for many of these pictures. An Onbu is similar to a mei tai but has rings on the sides where the waist straps would attach to the body – much of the construction is the same (I’ll note where a mei tai would differ). It’s also worth noting that there’s more than one way to make a mei tai. I’ll try to note some different options along the way (and maybe do some more sew alongs down the road).
Finally, pretend that my sewing area is not a disaster and that my photography rocks 😉
Ok, let’s get started!!
Materials: For this mei tai, I’m using a 100% cotton woven table cloth (60 inches x 80 inches). Tablecloths are a pretty cheap way to get a “wrap like” carrier. I think I paid $12 for this one at TJ Maxx. If you want to use a tablecloth, it helps to have a sense of what a commercial woven wrap feels like – in general, you’ll want either 100% cotton or a linen blend and a fabric that doesn’t have a “wrong side” (in the sense that both sides could be used as the “right” side although they may look a bit different). You want the fabric to be stretch free along the warp and weft with a bit of stretch on the bias (when you pull corner to corner).
If we were using a commercial woven to make a wrap conversion, we’d want to avoid thin wraps or at least reinforce them – remember that the stitching on a mei tai stresses the fabric in ways that using it as a wrap does not. So if your tablecloth is on the thinner side (as mine is), you’ll want to reinforce appropriately. There are tablecloths out there that are more like a medium weight or thick wrap.
You could also use linen (stick with a heavier weight, 8oz or so;Fabrics-store.comis a nice source), cotton duck, cotton canvas, denim, home decor fabrics, osnaburg (be aware that there are different weights)…basically anything that is a bottom weight fabric. Some of these options are going to be “less moldable” than others – just depends on what you are going for. If you are using something heavy like cotton duck, that one layer is sturdy enough on it’s own (but you’d probably want to pretty it up with some decorative fabrics). If you are working with a thinner fabric, you’ll either need to attach the straps to a heavier internal layer or use multiple layers to anchor the straps.
To break that down a bit, here are some combinations you could use to make your mei tai (by “anchored” I mean attached with x-boxes or bartacks; you’ll also be top-stitching through all layers by the end)…
- Inner layer of cotton duck or similar with one or two decorative layers of quilters cotton. Straps are anchored to either the cotton duck layer or two all 3 layers (but the cotton duck is the weight bearing layer).
- Two layers of a medium to thick weight wrap (or tablecloth). Straps are anchored to both layers.
- Two layers of a thinner wrap (or tablecloth or linen) with an inner layer of the same. Straps are anchored to all three layers.
- Two layers of a wrap (or tablecloth or linen) with an inner layer of cotton duck or similar. Straps are anchored either to the inner layer or two all three layers.
There are other combinations too but that should give you an idea – you either need to anchor your straps to a heavy duty fabric or to multiple layers of a medium weight fabric. Never construct a mei tai out of lightweight fabrics only – 3 layers of quilters cotton or 3 layers of a lightweight linen or any other lightweight fabric won’t cut it.
It’s also worth stressing at this point that whatever materials you use, you should check your stress points on the carrier regularly (just as you should with any carrier you purchase) – yank as hard as you can on the straps while pulling the body in the opposite direction. If that makes your strap stitching rip out or your fabric tear, you have a carrier that’s no longer safe.
Pattern: As you might guess, a mei tai involves a several long pieces of fabric. I do make a pattern for the body but the straps are just long rectangles. I’m describing here how I get all the pieces out of a 60×80 in tablecloth. If you are using other material, plan accordingly.
- Body: There are lots of different ways to shape the body of your carrier. The simplest is just a rectangle that’s the right height and width to fit your child. Many people like a contoured body for a mei tai – that is one that dips in a bit on the sides. I would suggest using a carrier that you like and that fits your child well to make your pattern. To make my patterns I just took a piece of butcher paper (you can also tape together smaller pieces of paper if you need to) and traced around the edge of the carrier I liked the fit of (don’t forget to add a seam allowance – I add an inch to give plenty of room). I made a few tweaks to make it even more perfect for us (one of the great things about DIYing!) and I was ready to go. Your pattern only needs to be half the width of the carrier as we will be cutting on the fold to make it symmetrical. My pattern is about 18 inches wide along the waist band and about 21.5 inches wide up the middle. I have a slight contour on the side and a bit of a curved top. The way you attach your waist band will have some impact on how much seam allowance to leave. For this carrier, I’ll be sewing up the bottom so I needed to account for that in the height. If you are using a continuous waist band and stuff the body into the waist (more on that later), you won’t need a seam allowance along the bottom as the raw edges will be in the waist band.
- Straps: Decide how wide you want your straps to be, double that and add a seam allowance (I just add an inch to keep it simple) and cut a strip that width. Since my tablecloth is 80 inches long, and 80 inches is a pretty good length for straps (you may want shorter or longer depending on your size and how you like to tie – again consult a carrier you like to figure out your ideal length), I just cut my straps down the length of the tablecloth. For the width, I’d also go by straps on a carrier you like. If you want heavy padding in your straps, you’ll want to add a bit more to your width measurement to account for the depth of the padding. I like wider, flatter mei tai straps so I usually cut mine about 11 inches which results in a 4.5 inch wide strap with padding. If for some reason you are using two long strips of fabric for your straps (say if you wanted to make them reversible), don’t forget to account for having two seams in your width measurement. The easiest thing is to cut one wide strip and fold it in half so you only have one edge to sew up. NOTE: Each of your shoulder straps should be one long continuos piece of fabric as opposed to two shorter pieces sewn together.
- Waist: I’ve done a few different waist styles but the easiest has been to just cut the same length and width strip for the waist as for my shoulder straps (doing it this way means burying the body of the MT in the waist band usually). If I’m using a tablecloth, this means about half of my tablecloth is going to be taken up by the straps and waist (3 strips that are about 10 inches by 80 inches). You can also do the waist as two separate shorter pieces that you anchor on either side. If you want a padded waist, the continuous piece will work better (don’t forget to account for the depth of the padding in cutting the width of your waist band). I’m making an onbu so I just cut two small rectangles (about 13 by 5) to use to attach my rings at the base. You could also make the onbu using a long continuos piece that is a big longer than your body is wide and attach the rings on either side of that. I ran out of tablecloth to make my ring pieces long enough to be able to double over so I cut two more rectangles from another piece of fabric so they would end up thicker (this will make more sense in a bit).
- Note: For this carrier I’m cutting my straps 15 inches wide as I’m going to experiment with a wrap style strap. If I were making a mei tai, this wouldn’t really leave me enough tablecloth to cut the waist strap as a continuous piece. I have done one where I cut the shoulder straps 15 x 80 and the waist in two pieces that were 15 x 20 (to be attached at the corners of the body) – that left me just enough to squeeze out two body panels with nothing left over for a hood.
- Optional: If you have left over fabric or something that coordinates, you can add a hood. I had a piece about 13 x 26 left over that I’m going to use for a hood. Sadly my plaid won’t line up – oh well! You can either make hood strings with scraps of your material (like making bias tape) or use ribbon or something similar.
Cutting: Cutting is so my least favorite part of sewing, even worse than prepping a room to paint…but it is kinda necessary so… I mostly use a cutting mat and rotary cutter, but scissors will also get the job done. For those of you that sew already, these directions will seem painfully obvious. But if you are a novice like me…well, these are the tips I found helpful!
- Make sure your fabric has been washed and dried to account for shrinkage. And give it an iron as well to flatten out the wrinkles before you cut (and, yes, you are right I skipped ironing as you can see in the picture below…shhh…).
- It’s pretty straight forward to cut around the body pattern using scissors or your rotary cutter. Since I’m not the world’s most accurate cutter, I generally use the first body piece I cut to cut the others instead of using a pattern. That’s mostly because I’m lazy about making a new pattern so if I decide that I want to cut the body a little taller, I just sort of wing it instead of making a new pattern. At least this way my winging it comes out the same on each piece! You’ll want to fold your fabric in half, lay your pattern on the fold, and cut.
- Cutting straps is a bit of a pain since that’s an awfully long cut to make straight. There are two methods that can help. One is to simply fold over your fabric in half or in fourths and cut that way – so you’ll be cutting 20 inches straight instead of 80. That also means you can probably get the whole thing on your cutting mat. If I do this, I use my long measuring stick as a straight edge and line it up on the markings on the cutting mat.
- If you are working with a wrap or tablecloth (and this may work with other fabrics as well but I’ve not tried it), you can use a handy trick I learned on The Babywearer (sorry, I can’t remember where I saw it or I’d credit the wise mama who thought of this!). Cut a small slit to mark the width you want to cut. You should be able to see one of the lengthwise threads poking out (or tease one out if you can’t). If you pull on this, it will create a “run” down the length of the fabric – you’ll cut along this run. If your thread breaks before you pull it all the way out, just cut down to the point where it broke and pick it up again. If pulling one thread doesn’t make an obvious run, try pulling out 2-3.
- If you are working with fabric that has stripes or plaid, make sure you line up the stripes before cutting so you don’t have crooked stripes!
- I generally try to cut one body panel out laid width wise on the fabric and one laid out length wise if there’s a stripe. If your fabric has a pattern of some sort, you can of course get fancy and be attentive to wear it lands on the body of your carrier.
If you’ve made it through all of that, you should end up with a pile that looks something like this – and now you are ready to sew! Keep in mind that I’m making an onbu here so the rings are taking the place of the mei tai waist straps. Part II is coming soon!
If anything is unclear about my directions, please let me know so I can fix it! I’d also welcome your links for great mei tai/onbu making tutorials to link for others. I highly recommend checking out multiple tutorials and putting together elements that you think will work best for you.
Now head on over to Part II and let’s put everything together!