Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Easy Tote Bag Sewing Tutorial

I mentioned in my previous post about making the baby blankets and tote bags for the Craft Hope project I just finished that I was planning to write up a tutorial for the tote bags.  I know there are a lot of tote bag tutorials out there, but I think this is worth adding to the mix because it is easy and produces a nice, sturdy but lightweight tote bag.  The construction is fairly similar to my roll-up shopping bag, but simpler.  The bag is unlined and uses french seams to create a nice, neat inside with no exposed seams.  But don't worry, it isn't hard!

There are a few different construction options for this bag, which I explain in more detail in the step-by-step instructions.  The instructions given below are to make the body of the bag from a single fabric, but if you wish to make a bag with two contrasting fabrics you can follow the instructions at the beginning of the roll-up shopping bag tutorial to attach the two fabrics (using a kind of faux flat-felled seam), then continue with the tutorial below.  I include suggestions for the size of the bag but using this basic technique you could easily adapt the pattern to make a larger or smaller bag.  This bag would make a great bag to carry around knitting or sewing projects, books, groceries, or anything else that you would like to stick in a tote bag!  If you make a bag with this tutorial I would love to see how it turned out - you can share a photo in the Needle and Spatula Flickr group.  If you like these bags and don't feel like making your own, I also will be putting some up for sale in my Etsy shop.

TERMS OF USE:  For personal, non-commercial use only.  If you are interested in making these bags for small-scale commercial sales (eg craft fairs, etsy), please contact me to discuss a licensing agreement.

DONATE TO SUPPORT THIS TUTORIAL - this tutorial is provided free of charge, if you would like to show your appreciation and support the free patterns I provide here, you can donate here (or it helps if you click through to any of the amazon links on this site, whether you purchase that particular product or not!).  Thanks for your support!

What you will need:

  • For bag body: 1/2 yard of fabric or slightly less, depending on size of bag desired and whether the print has a directional orientation that you wish to maintain.
  • For straps, either:
  • Thread in coordinating color.
How you construct the bag will depend on whether your fabric has a directional print where you wish to keep the print oriented up and down; in this case you can cut a wide piece of fabric, fold it in half (to create a side of the bag) and then add seams at the bottom and sides.  In the case when the fabric either does not have a print or maintaining its directional orientation is not important, it is simpler to make the bag by cutting a long strip of fabric and folding it in half to create the bottom, them creating seams for the two sides.  I will start with the instructions for the first situation, so scroll down if you have a non-directional fabric to find the second set of instructions.

For a bag with a directional print, to make a bag with finished dimensions 11 1/2" wide x 13" tall, cut the main fabric into a large rectangle measuring 24" wide and 16" tall (or 12" wide when folded in half).  If you wish to make a different size bag, just add 3/4" to the width at each side for the side seam (so a total of 1 1/2" for the entire fabric width), and 3" to the height for the bottom seam and the top edge.  Make sure that the directional print is oriented up and down (parallel to folded side) when the fabric is folded in half, as shown below.

To start, make the handles (unless you are using webbing); if you are using bias tape, you can skip ahead to the step where you top-stitch the straps.  If you are using the fabric strips, iron each long handle strip in half lengthwise (wrong sides facing) to create a crease down the length of the strip.  Open the strip and put interfacing on one side of the crease, then iron to fuse it to the fabric (see top strip in photo below).

Then, iron the fabric edge above the interfacing down and over the interfacing strip (see top strip in photo below).  Then fold down the original crease and then fold it one more time around the earlier fold and iron it in place (as shown in the bottom strip below).  You will basically have a roll of fabric ironed in place.

Open up the roll (as shown in the top strip below) and then tuck the last edge inside the fold (as shown in the bottom strip below).

Top stitch along both edges of the strips (or bias tape, if you are using it) about 1/8" from the edge (not shown).  

Then, to make the body of the bag, open your folded piece of fabric and fold down the top edge by 3/4" to 1" and iron in place.

Then fold it down again and iron in place.

To determine the handle placement (or see next step for measurements), fold the fabric back in half along the original fold (where the side of the bag will be) and then fold it in half again, but do not fold it all the way - the folded edge should be 3/4" in from the raw edge, as shown below (as this excess will ultimately become part of the seam allowance, so if you don't account for it your handles would be off center).  Along the upper edge of the fabric that you just folded and ironed in place, place a pin at the approximate midpoint of the top layer and then in each layer below (the pins should be lined up on top of eachother).

Then unfold the fabric and you should have four pins across the top edge.  If you prefer to measure the placement, on the 24" wide piece of fabric my pins were placed at 3.5", 9", 15", and 20.5".  Then, take ends of the straps and tuck them under the top folded edge at the spots you have marked with pins and pin them in place as shown below.

Topstitch 1/8" from edge along the bottom folded edge, securing handles in place, and then iron the handles to face up.

Topstitch 1/8" from the top edge, securing handles in place (and making sure they are perpendicular to the edge when you sew over them).

Fold your bag in half with wrong sides together (along the side) and line up the edges at the side and the bottom.  Sew across the bottom with a 3/16" seam (or you can sew with a larger seam and trim to 1/8-3/16").

Make sure that the seam is even and that there are no frayed bits sticking out, trimming if necessary.

Turn the bag inside out and iron the bottom seam flat, then sew with a 5/16"-3/8" seam across the bottom, making sure to backstitch at the beginning and end to secure the stitches.

Open the bag back up and make sure the side edges are aligned, and press the bottom seam open.  Sew the side seam with a 3/16" seam, then again check that the seam is even and not frayed, trimming as necessary.

Turn the bag inside out again and press the side seam flat.  At the bottom corner, where the two seams meet, it will fold up slightly, just poke the corner out as much as you can.

Sew the side seam with a 5/16"-3/8" seam allowance, making sure to backstitch to secure stitches at the beginning and the end.

And your bag is done!

Version 2 - if you are making a bag with a non-directional print (or one that would look good oriented side-to-side as opposed to up-and-down), to make a bag with finished dimensions 10 1/2" wide x 13" tall (note: mine was slightly taller but this is a better height), cut the main fabric into a long rectangle measuring 30" wide and 12 1/2" tall (or 15" tall and 12 1/2" wide when folded in half to create a bottom seam).  If you wish to make a different size bag, just add 3/4" to the height of the rectangle for each side for the side seam (so a total of 1 1/2" in additional height), and 2" to the width on each side for the two top edges (so a total of 4" to the width).   Make the straps as you would for the first version.

Open the folded fabric and at each end, fold down fabric 3/4"-1" and iron in place.

Then fold down again and iron in place.

Insert straps under fold and pin in place evenly spaced from each edge - mine were 3" in from the edge.

Topstitch 1/8" in from bottom edge of the fold, securing straps in place.

Iron the straps so they face up (and pin if necessary to secure - helps if you are using webbing).

Topstitch 1/8" down from top edge, securing straps in place (and making sure they are perpendicular to edge when you stitch across).

Fold in the middle (what will be the bottom of the bag) bringing wrong sides together and align the two sides of the bag, pinning in place.

Stitch sides with a 3/16" seam allowance, then trim any uneven or frayed edges.

Turn the bag inside out and press side seams flat.

Sew side seams with a 5/16"-3/8" seam, backstitching to reinforce at the beginning and end.

Congrats, your bag is finished!


  1. Adorable bags! I need to bookmark this one so I can come back and try it out next time I need a new tote! I also love your fabric choices-- the Joel Dewberry prints are some of my favorites at the moment!

  2. Wow! what a great idea. Just love your blog and I will be certainly giving this a whirl on the sewing machine.
    Happy week

  3. Awesome tutorial! I just finished mine and it turned out great!!
    Thanks so much for sharing!


  4. Super cute! Thanks for sharing...can't wait to make my own. :)

  5. This is amazing! I'm very new to sewing and have trouble making stuff look neat. But this technique is amazing and my bag looks really good!

  6. Wow, this is brilliant. At last a tote that I can sew without stress! (I'm not a bad sewer, but straight-forward pieces are best!) I love the way you've reinforced the handles and made them so secure. Thank you for the great tutorial!

  7. Thank you for the great tutorial. I am very new to sewing and this was a great place to start. I made treat bags for Halloween for my kids and they love their bags!! The only thing I did differently was not put in the fusible interfacing (didnt have any) so I just folded the fabric so it was 4 layers thick and sewed them together.

  8. Dear Kate...First time visiting your blog and I know I'll be back! I found you when I was doing a search for a simple tote bag. Your's is fab and your step by step instructions are just GREAT! At our quilt shop, we are going to start a charity sew-in to make 'butterfly tote bags' for one of our local hospitals and I would love to be able to direct our friends to your website/blog/pattern/tutorial. It's just perfect, especially for our online friends that want to participate. Just realized I probably should email you this request..haha...so I will do that as well. Thanks

  9. thanks it's a nice idea i'm so excited to begin one like it

  10. First project for my 11 yr old - she wants to make her own book bag for Jr. High....Needless to say I am very proud. Can't wait to show her how easy this is. Great tutorial.

  11. Replies
    1. Yes, as the tutorial says, it uses french seams so it is unlined.

  12. I haven't sewed anything for almost 20 years and still found this easy to do. Great tutorial!

  13. Love how quick this little bag is! I'm whipping up 12 for preschoolers to take to the pumpkin patch!

  14. I just want to say Thank You! for posting this tutorial on how to make this bag. I love the fabrics you use and the methods of sewing. This definitely seems like it will hold up to the daily use of toddlers better than the others we were considering making. I am using this design as the basic bag and adding a little touch of my own to make some Christmas presents for our nieces and nephews. I will be sure to take photos and let you know how they like them! Thanks again.

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have just made two of these for my girls as library bags for school and they loved them! Easy to follow instructions and very user friendly. I, like others, haven't sewed in ages but managed to make these without any hassle at all. So happy that my eldest (year 2) actually wanted a homemade library bag instead of a bought one :) Thanks so much for posting.

  16. Did you use any special kind of fabric, in the pictures it looks pretty light weight. I'm curious because I'm considering making a couple of these for my nieces and was wondering how sturdy they are when made out of a lightweight fabric or if I should upgrade to something more "sturdy". All the cute prints they would love seem to be in super lightweight cottons. Thank you!

    1. Yes, I just used standard quilting weight cottons, I thought they were pretty sturdy (the french seams won't unravel or anything I don't think). Hope that helps!

  17. Thanks for the tutorial. I made three for my daughter's pre-school teachers. Handprints went on the top. I think this will be my go to tote bag pattern for future tote bag gifts!

  18. This is the best tutorial I have found. I have made bags similar to this, but I really like how with a few extra steps the bag would look fancier then the way I make them now. Thank You!!

  19. Just learned that I shouldn't iron the cotton webbing straps. Oops, I should have known better. :/


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