Make A Custom Harp Case For Your Harp

Me with my Harps on my Goldwing.


Make A Custom Harp Case

By Jaye Emrys

Updated January 10, 1999
Copyright © 1991, 1999, 2015 Jaye Emrys


          The harp of your dreams has just arrived! You can't wait to show it to everyone you know!

          But what about scratches? Dents? Temperature fluctuations?

          A soft case may be the answer. Even a simple shell can protect a harp from common mishaps, but if hiking, camping or even motorcycling are in your plans, you will also want padding and thermal protection.

          If you have never sewn before, a beginning sewing book from the library is an adequate introduction to tools, fabrics, supplies, and skills.

          A sewing machine is not absolutely necessary if you don't mind the time investment of hand stitching, but you will want an awl, a heavy needle, and a leather thimble. You may also want to use extra-heavy-duty thread throughout the construction process.

DECISIONS

          Buy all materials before beginning construction. You will need durable fabric for the outer shell, a smooth, strong lining, padding-cum-insulation, and an optional reflective barrier. You will also need a zipper for each pocket, and materials for carrying systems -- nylon strapping/webbing, D-rings or O-rings, and heavy-duty snaps and spring hooks for attaching the shoulder and backpack straps.

          Large (floor-sized) folk harps are not truly portable, and except for a removable shoulder strap to help balance the weight when you must carry it, you need not bother with a carrying system. The rest of the construction process, however, will still apply.

          For convenience in transporting smaller harps, nothing beats a removable backpack strap system, but for times when you don't want to use both straps, or situations when you're already wearing one backpack, and need to carry your harp, too, a shoulder strap is useful.

          Pockets are easy to make and enhance the usefulness of a case greatly. Flat ones are great for music books, notebooks, and strings. Three-dimensional ones hold quartz tuners and other bulky or oddly-shaped necessities, such as some of the newer, more ergonomic tuning keys.

          The third decision you must make before shopping is the padding and thermal protection you wish to use. Foam may seem the logical choice, but it often degrades and powders with age. Quilt batting is permanent and does both jobs very well. If you can afford it Hollofill® does an even better job than batting.

          An additional layer of reflective coated mylar can be added to protect the harp from radiant heat. It has kept my harps safe even through hours of direct summer sun on a motorcycle.

Figure #1 - Linning and batting pattern.
PRE-SHOPPING

          To make a pattern, lay a large sheet of butcher's paper, or of tracing film such as Do-Sew (available at fabric stores) on a large table or on the floor. Lay the center the of the soundbox along the edge of the sheet, column up. Mark 1/2" beyond the top and bottom edge of the harp, then roll the harp onto its side onto the film (Fig. 1).

          Mark around the neck and base (allowing 1/2 to 1" seam margin) and down the column 3" if the column is straight. (If it curves forward, go 1" below its foremost point.) Here, jog the mark 3/4" outward, and continue down the column to the base. Toward the bottom of the column, gradually taper the mark outward from the column until the line is as many inches out from the column as half the soundbox width plus 1". This allows room for the case to go all the way around the bottom of the soundbox - much easier than making a gusset to create the space.

          Set the harp on its base on a corner of the tracing film and mark around it, again leaving 1/2" seam allowance.

          Measure the greatest width of the pattern at the jog. Double that number and add 2" to be safe. This is your "magic number."

          Measure around the top edge of the pattern, following the curves, from the point where the neck joins the back of the body, along the curves and down the column to the jog. Your main zipper for the body of the case will be 1-1/2 - 2" inch shorter than this.

          Now measure the pockets you'll want (see section on pockets) and jot down the amount of fabric and lengths of zippers you'll need.


SHOPPING
Shell Fabric

          The shell can be made of any durable, water-resistant (preferably not waterproof) fabric: denim, duck, upholstery fabric, or canvas. Balance durability against the thickness your sewing machine can handle. (You'll be sewing up to 4 thicknesses plus twice the thickness of the batting on some seams.) Here's the place to be expressive: go for that southwestern look you love, or use other colors and combinations that appeal to you. You may even want to buy extra fabric to make matching accessories.

          If the width of the fabric is at least 2" greater than your magic number, buy a quarter yard more than the height of your harp for a case without pockets. Increase yardage according to pockets you wish to add.

          If width is less than adequate, double the amount you buy for the basic shell, then add extra for pockets. You'll probably have quite a bit left over, but it's necessary to get this much unless you want a "crazy-quilt" harp case, with oddly-shaped pieces from the leftover fabric filling in where you need them. (It's also hard to get the odd shapes to match up without any puckering, if they're very odd at all.)

Lining Fabric

          Lining can be anything smooth and durable enough to resist the wear of tuning pins and string ends. Avoid fabric with nap (velvet, velour, corduroy), as the rough edges of the harp will wear the pile away and weaken the weave, tearing holes.

          Calculate yardage as you did for the shell, but omit extra for pockets.

Batting

          Batting is usually wide - anywhere from 60 - 108", so there should be no problem finding it wide enough for your harp case. For one layer of padding, buy 6" more than the harp's height. For two layers, double the amount. Batting usually comes in 1/2 and 1" thicknesses. I prefer the thicker, and I usually still use two layers.

Reflective Barrier

          "Emergency Blankets" are thin, mylar sheets with a silvery coating, available from any sporting or camping store. From a hardware or fabric store, get a can of spray adhesive to glue it to the batting.

Carrying System

          The basis of the carrying system is two bands of 1" nylon webbing (strap) for internal support, plus webbing to connect it to the snap-on backpack straps, and 2 D-rings to connect it to the shoulder strap.

          Mark your pattern as shown in Fig 2, double the measurements, and add 18" to that number to determine the length you will need for the internal portion.

          Backpack and shoulder straps can be purchased, ready-made, at most camping or sporting-goods stores.

Odds and Ends

          You'll need a candle to sear the ends of the nylon webbing, and the edges of the lining if it is also nylon.

          The shoulder strap is up to 60" of 1-2" webbing, a slide buckle to adjust the length, and two spring clips to attach it to the rings on the case (available from the same stores as rings.) You'll need 2 heavy-duty metal or Delrin D or O rings, to attach it to your case.

          Attachments for a backpack system are three more rings (one large; two may be smaller), two to four heavy-duty snaps (depending on the harp's weight), two more spring-clips, and 18" more of 1" wide webbing. I use snaps because when I used spring clamps, they dug into my shoulders. Two snaps per strap are enough to keep my nice Dragonwhispers harp securely on me, and will be enough for you unless you've got a VERY heavy harp - e.g.. a 32-string wirestrung made of maple or ironwood. If you do, just add another couple snaps per strap 'til you've got enough to be safe.

          Buy zippers for all pockets. I used to use Velcro, but I found that sometimes it pulls open and dumps goodies behind me onto the sidewalk, and unless someone tells me, I don't even know. Each zipper should be the the length of the closure edge.

          Don't forget to get a bunch of extra sewing machine needles of the right gage to handle the thread you'll be using. You'll be working with heavy enough fabric, with enough layers of it at a time, that it's almost impossible not to blunt or even break a few needles during construction. If a needle seems to be having more trouble than usual going into the fabric, replace it. It'll save you much more in frustration than it'll cost you in needles. Don't use ball-point needles. The sharp ones go through the layers much more easily.

CONSTRUCTION
Lining

          (If the fabric is narrower than your magic number, cut it into two pieces slightly longer than the pattern is tall. Pin the two pieces, right sides in, upper edges matching. Sew along the selvages on one side. [If the shell fabric is too narrow, repeat this step with it later on, too.] Place the straight edge of the pattern on this seam.)

          If the fabric is wider than your magic number, fold selvage to selvage, right sides in, and place the straight edge of the pattern on the fold. Pin around the pattern. Pin the base pattern onto one layer of lining fabric in a spare corner.

          Cut out the lining. If the lining is nylon, sear all edges (move the edge through the top of the flame until the ends of the threads melt together) to prevent fraying.

          Fold and cut the batting pieces the same way. Don't sear their edges.

          Baste the lining to the batting pieces (straight seam 1/4" in from edge, or zigzag nearer edge) around the edges. Trim the loose fuzz of the batting away from the seam allowance of the lining fabric, taking care not to cut into the seared edges of the lining. Sew the edges that will lie along the pillar together, lining sides in. The completed liner will be "right side out" (lining toward the harp and the batting on the outside) when you finish. Make sure that the batting and lining fit over the harp with a margin of slack. You don't want to fight to get your harp in every time.

Shell

          Take the harp out of the lining assembly. Fold the shell fabric lengthwise, wrong side out. Lay the folded edge of the lining (the fold that will lie down the center of the soundbox of the harp) along the fold of the shell fabric as you did on the edge of the pattern film, giving yourself an additional 1/2 to 1" at the fold side so the shell over the batting won't be too tight around the harp, and follow the procedure you used in making the pattern to mark the main piece of the shell. Remember - it's better to have the case slightly larger than to have it slightly smaller than you need.

          Remove the harp from the lining assembly.

          Sew the bottom piece into the batting-lining assembly, right sides together.

          If you're using the mylar reflective barrier, spray the adhesive onto batting, a small section at a time, avoiding the seam allowances at the top (sprayed edges make it much harder to sew through the batting later on), and press the mylar into place. Cut the mylar to the shape of the case, but don't leave any holes between the edges. Overlapping the edges is just fine. Don't forget to put mylar on the base piece. Set the assembly aside to dry.

CARRYING SYSTEM PHILOSOPHY

          The worst stress a case must bear is the interface between carrying system and shell. There are several ways to deal with this problem. I've tried (and lived with) them all.

          First, you can simply ignore the problem and sew the backpack rings to the shell. The shell will begin to tear around the attachments, and you'll either make a new case or give up and carry the harp unprotected.

          Second, you can sew the attachment over reinforcement. You will, however, need to disassemble the shell from the lining periodically and re-stitch the attachment, since the seams holding the attachment will work loose or tear out.

          The third solution seems as sturdy as the case itself: Sew the attachment directly to the reinforcement system on the inside of the shell. This seems "impossible" but it's doable with the instructions I give. You'll have a well-reinforced exit hole where the attachment emerges from the case, and the actual stress takes place on the inside of the case, spread over a wide area instead of a small one. The cases I've made with this technique have not, in the years I've had them, evidenced any weakening of the attachment at all.

Figure #2 - Inner reinforcement and rings.
Inner Reinforcement

          Do all sewing of attachments with heavy thread, if you don't use heavy thread throughout (I recommend using heavy thread throughout.)

          When the main shell pieces have been cut out, lay the shell fabric, wrong side up, on your flat surface, be it table or floor.

          Find the balance point of the harp (the point at which you can hold the column so the head and base "seem" the same weight.) Set the harp onto the shell pattern and mark that point on the wrong side of the fabric. Then mark a point 10" above, and one the same distance below the balance point on the wrong side of the fabric.  If the upper reinforcement is closer than about 5" from the top of the case, just decrease both distances to 8" or whatever is necessary. (This will only pertain to cases for very small harps.)

          Pin one end of the webbing to the wrong side of the fabric at the top mark on one side of the shell. Unfold the shell fabric, leaving wrong side up. Stretch the webbing across to the mark at the opposite edge of the shell and pin at 3-4" intervals. (Fig. 2)

          Sew along both edges of webbing. Cut the strap, leaving 3" free. Sear the cut ends. Loop the free end through a ring, double it back on itself, and sew. These are the rings the shoulder strap will snap onto.

          Position webbing across the fabric between the lower marks, sew it as you did the top one, and set the ring.

Figure #3 - backpack system assembly.
Backpack System

          Cut an 8" piece of webbing and sear the ends. Insert a ring and sew the webbing into a "V" configuration with the ring at the middle. (Fig 3C.)

          Fold the shell vertically twice - first edge to edge, and then again fold-to-edge - and mark the midpoint where the second fold crosses the top reinforcement strap. Lay the "V" assembly on the wrong side of the fabric on the top strap at the midpoint, ends of "V" extending down below the inner strap. (Fig. 3A.)

          Make a horizontal line on the shell about 1/2" below the bottom of the ring, centered on the midline, and long enough (1" to 2") for the "V" to fit through it at that point. Draw a rectangle around the line, 1/2" tall and extending 1/4" beyond each end of the line, as shown in Fig 3B. Remove the V assembly from the shell fabric and set aside.

          Cut two pieces of shell fabric 4" wide and 2" longer than the rectangle.

          Pin one piece of shell fabric over the rectangle, right sides together. Sew along the lines of the rectangle. Cut along the original line, and from each end of it to the two corners of the rectangle. (Fig. 3b) Make sure you don't cut through the seam of the rectangle. Turn the scrap to the wrong side of the shell and top stitch around the hole.

          Pin the "V" assembly to the wrong side of the shell. Stitch around edges of webbing, double-stitching where the "V" crosses the inside reinforcement.

          Pin the other scrap of shell fabric over the hole, right side of scrap to wrong side of shell. Sew around the hole, stitching the part of the "V" below the hole to the shell, but leaving the part of the "V" above the hole free. Get as close to the top-stitching of the hole as you can and not get the actual ring under the pressure foot.

          Repeat process for lower backpack attachments, placing one ring right about where the soundbox side becomes flat across your back when you'll carry it, and the other at the front edge of where the soundbox will lie.

POCKETS

          Pockets should be placed on the opposite side of case from the backpack system, with the possible exception of a small, flat pocket which will be "hidden" while the harp is being carried, which can be centered between the top and bottom reinforcement straps.

          Do all sewing of pockets with heavy-duty thread.

          Three-dimensional pockets can be attached over flat pockets, but flats should not be placed over 3D's.

Figure #4 - Dimension of cargo.
Three-Dimensional Pockets

          Refer frequently to Figs. 4-8 for construction of these pockets; they are best understood visually.

          Always give yourself an extra 1/2-1" in each direction - you don't want to have a hassle getting your item into the pocket each time.

          Measure your anticipated cargo. Call the longest dimension X, the next longest y, and the shortest z. (Fig 4)  The top flap will be 2" longer than y (y + 2"), and 2" wider than z (z + 2"). For instance, if you want a pocket for a quartz tuner that is 5" long, 2" wide, and 11/2" thick, the flap would be 4 x 3 1/2".

          Sew one side of the zipper to the right side of the fabric along three sides of the flap piece (Fig 5), with the metal joiner piece 1" from the corner, and the pull between the zipper and the fabric.

Figure #5 - Top flap zipper installation.
Fig #6 - Main pocket.
Fig #7 - Fold bottom corners together and sew.

          The main pocket piece will be x + 2z + 1" long, by y + z + 1" wide. Draw lines z + 1/2" in from 3 sides (Fig 6).

          Cut notches out of corners A, leaving 1/2" nch seam allowance (Fig 7).

Figure #8 - Sew. Turn seam 1/2

          Fold the main piece diagonally at each notched corner, matching corner b and c. Sew, with 1/2" seam allowance. (Fig. 8).

          Turn the seam toward the main part of the pocket, 1" from outer edge, and topstitch. Repeat with the other corner.

          Sew zipper along the top edge of main pocket piece, metal stop 1" in from the corner.

          Turn zipper seams toward pocket pieces. Top stitch. Zip main piece to flap. This attaches closure flap to main pocket piece. Turn edges of pocket under 1" all around. Pin and baste.

          Pin the edges of the 3-D pocket onto the surface where you want it, making sure edges of fabric are in straight lines, and stitch around it with heavy thread.

Flats

          Cut flat pockets a minimum of 2" larger in each direction than expected cargo. (For binders and other flattish but bulky cargo, allow a minimum of 3" extra.)

          Sew the zipper to whichever edge you've chosen to be the "top" of the pocket piece. Top stitch seam allowance toward pocket piece. Pin and baste edges under 1/2" from edge. Tuck zipper ends under and pin them.

          If you have a 3D pocket to sew to the flat, pin it on at this point, keeping edges straight. Stitch it on.

          Lay the basted flat pocket on the case and pin. Stitch around the folded edges with heavy thread.

CLOSING SHELL

          Sew the edges of the fabric pieces together. Turn shell wrong side out. Sew bottom into shell, right sides together.

          Do not sew through reinforcement straps. Leave gaps in the seam. Turn the shell right side out and either top-stitch the free side of the shell to the strap, or whip-stitch it by hand. Turn the shell back wrong side out.

FLY

          (To construct fly for triple and cross-strung harps, and those with wide figureheads, see the section, "Varying the Case for Special Harps" at the end of the article. Position the wide-tapered section where it is needed, and make it as long as needed.)

          Cut one strip of shell fabric and one of lining, 4" longer than the zipper. It's much better to have these pieces too long and trim them than not to have them long enough. You can trim them as needed once they're sewn in along the long edges. Cut one batting strip 4" wide and the same length. Don't forget to sear the edges of lining piece if it's nylon.

          Draw a line 1" from the long edge of the lining strip. Line up side edge of zipper along this line (tab away from fabric) with the metal closure 1" from the end of the strip. Sew.

          Pin batting to wrong side of lining strip. Fold the strip lengthwise over batting and pin down. Baste (1/4" seam allowance) or zigzag around edges.

          Pin the lining strip back on itself so it does not extend out under the zipper. Zip the sides of the zipper together.

          Draw a line 1" from the edge of the shell strip on the right side of the fabric.

          Lay the shell strip right side up on your flat surface, and lay the lining piece-with-zipper, zipper-side down, on the shell strip. Pin the free side of the zipper to the shell strip, with the fabric edge of the zipper along the line you've drawn and the metal pull between the shell piece and the zipper.

          Sew the zipper to the shell fabric.

          Separate the zipper and fold the shell strip lengthwise, with the zipper on the outside, and baste the edges together. If you want to pad the shell strip, too, you can, but it's not essential. If you pad it, do it the same way you sewed the batting into the lining strip.

          Zip the zipper up, and baste the ends of the lining strip to the ends of the shell strip.

INSTALLATION OF FLY
Unzip the fly.

          Pin metal closure end of fly into the top edge of the case at the shoulder part of the top edge leaving just room at the end of the zipper to sew. Center it on the center fold of the main piece, right sides together. Pin fly around curves, snipping seam allowances (always less than 1" in from edge) where necessary to enable pieces to lie smoothly. Sew carefully all around. Note that you'll have the lining-zipper strip sewn to the shell on one side of the case, and the shell-zipper strip sewn to it on the other.

          Turn the edges toward the main piece and topstitch.


SEW LINING TO SHELL

          Pin and baste raw edges of lining top back upon themselves 1" from edge. Snip the edges to let the pieces fit where necessary, but less than 1" in from edge.

          Pin edges of lining to shell/fly seam. If the thickness will fit under your pressure foot, machine stitch lining to shell. If not, hand stitch using heavy-duty thread. Your actual case is now finished.

STRAPS

          Sew hooks to ends of shoulder strap and bottom ends of backpack straps the way you sewed the D-rings to the reinforcement straps.

          Set a heavy-duty snap in the top end of each backpack strap. Use two or more snaps for each strap if your harp is very heavy. Follow directions that came with the snaps for setting the snaps. Usually they come with their own snap-setter.

Attach straps to rings.
VARYING THE CASE FOR SPECIAL HARPS
Figure #9 - Fly for harp with wide figurehead or wide neck.

          For triple, cross-strung, figureheaded, and other harps with wide necks, increase the jog width to accommodate the wider areas, remembering to add 1" for seam allowance. When you have a wider fly than normal, remember that the flat edge at the top of the fold in the pattern must be wider to accommodate it, and plan accordingly.

          Cut the fly strips 1" wider than double the neck width (e.g. a neck 4" wide would call for lining and shell strips 9" wide).

          For a harp with a wide figurehead, use a basic fly assembly, but increase the width at the head area only.

          Cut two strips each of shell and lining as in Fig. 9. Taper and trim the column end of the fly to fit your harp before sewing it into the shell.




ENJOY TRAVELING WITH YOUR HARP!!!

Bibliography
  • Aiken, Joyce, and Jean Ray Laury, The Total Tote Bag Book. 1977. Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York, N.Y.

  • Frostline Kits, Grand Junction, Colorado. (No date.) Sewing Instruction Guides for: Attache, Bighorn Sleeping Bag, Hatchback Sack, Alpine Tent, Trailridge II Tent, Stuff Sacks, Travel Kit.
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