Sewing DIY - How to Make Your Own Tote Bag

I wanted to follow up my recent "Sewing 101" post with an easy project perfect for a first time or beginner sewer.  A tote bag is a great project for a beginner because it is relatively quick to make, uses a few basic sewing skills and is very versatile.  It is also an inexpensive project to make.  I made my tote bag using fabric squares that I got at Joann Fabrics for a little over $2 a piece!  For those of you that don't know what fabric squares are, they are pre-cut squares of fabric that are folded up and marked for sale.  You can usually find them right along with the full bolts of fabric at your fabric store of choice.

To get started on your tote bag you will need the following supplies:

1.) Five fabric squares.
2.) 3/4 yards of interfacing (Iron on or non-iron on.  I used non-iron on.)
3.) Matching thread
4.) A chalk pencil
5.) Sewing ruler
6.) Fabric Shears
7.) Straight Pins
8.) Seam Ripper (just in case)

Once you've assembled your materials you are ready to get sewing!

Step 1:  Make sure your fabric is square.  To do this, I like to line up the selvage edge of my fabric directly against the edge of my table and then line the ruler up against the edge of the table too.  This will give me a straight line to mark or cut.  I also found a great tutorial for squaring up fabric here.

I lined the selvage edge and the ruler up right against the edge of the table to ensure a straight cut.

Step 2:  Measure and mark your fabric using the sewing ruler and chalk pencil.  Again it is imperative to make sure you are marking the fabric so it is square.  Lining the selvage and ruler up against the edge of the table works well here too.

I wanted my bag to be 16 inches long so I measured and marked a line that was 18 1/2 inches long, 16 inches for the length of the finished bag plus 2 1/2 inches to allow for a 5/8 inch seam allowance on the bottom and a 5/8 inch hem at the top.  Then I measured a line 1.8 inches in on either side of the bag.  This is to allow for 1 1/2 inches on the side of the bag plus a 5/8 inch seam allowance.  From there I measured a line that was 1 1/2 inches on either side and then drew a straight perpendicular line to measure for the bottom of the bag.  The picture below explains this more clearly.


You need four pieces of fabric this same exact size.  One each for the front and back of the bag and one each for the front and back of the lining.

Step 3:  You can either measure mark and cut four times on the four separate pieces of fabric or carefully line all your fabric up straight on top of each other and cut four pieces at once.  I stacked my pieces on top of one another and it worked just fine.  Just be sure to take the time to make sure you are lining them up straight.

Step 4:  Once the fabric is cut, you need to cut two pieces of interfacing that are exactly the same size as your fabric pieces.  You can do this by lining the fabric up on top of the interfacing.  If you are unfamiliar with interfacing, it is a white fabric with some stiffness that adds structure to projects.  It comes in various weights, choose whichever weight you would like for your bag, there really is no wrong answer here.  Just touch and fold the interfacings in the store so you can get an idea of how they will perform in your project.

Line one piece of cut fabric on top of the interfacing and use that as a guide to cut the interfacing.


The end result should be two pieces of interfacing and four pieces of fabric the same size and shape.


Step 5:  Pin one piece of interfacing to the wrong side of one piece of fabric.  Repeat with the other piece of interfacing and one more piece of fabric.

I like to pin with the points of the needle facing out, this way my sewing machine will easily go over the pins.


Step 6:  Baste the interfacing and fabric together using a 1/2 inch seam.  If you are unfamiliar with basting, it is just a temporary stitch that is used to hold fabrics together before the final stitching is done.  Basting stitches are longer than regular stitches and therefore easy to remove.  To set your machine to do a basting stitch, simply change the stitch length to the highest setting.

You can consult your machine's manual to see how to adjust stitch length.
As you can see basting stitches are much longer than regular stitches.

You only need to baste along the sides and the bottom of the tote bag as shown below.  Basting along the top is not necessary.

Just baste along the sides and bottom of the bag.
Step 7:  Once the interfacing has been attached to both the front piece and back piece of the bag it is time to sew the pieces together.  To do this pin the front and back pieces of the bag right side together and sew with a normal straight stitch along the sides and bottom of the bag with a 5/8 inch seam allowance.  Only sew the sides and very bottom of the bag leaving the top of the bag and the two notched out sides open as indicated by the red lines below.

Do not sew where I drew the red lines.


Notice how the straight stitch is to the left of the basting stitch.  This means the basting stitch will not show when you turn the bag right side out.

Step 8:  Press the seams open.

Step 9:  This is tricky to explain in words, but take the bag at the notched out part that forms the bottom of the bag and then match the side seams and bottom seams together and sew.  This will form the bottom corners of your bag as shown below.

Match the side and bottom seams to form the bottom corners of your bag.

Sew the matched seams together.
Step 10:  Now it's time to tackle the lining.  Pin the front and back pieces of the lining right sides together and sew in the exact same manner as you did the front and back pieces of the bag.  This time don't sew all the way across the bottom of the lining.  You need to leave a few inches open to turn the bag right side out once you've sewn the lining to the bag.  Don't forget to leave the notched out pieces and the top of the lining open.

Step 11:  Match the lining seams in the same manner as you did the front and back pieces of the bag.  Sew them together to form the the bottom corners of the lining.  You will end up with something that looks like the following.  Leave the lining turned wrong side out.



Step 12:  Make sure the bag is turned right side out and then insert it into the lining.  With the right side of the lining against the bag and the wrong side of the lining facing out as shown below.



Pin the bag to the lining along the top of the bag.


Step 13:  Convert your sewing machine to free arm sewing and stitch along the top of the bag using the 5/8 inch seam allowance.

When done the hem will look something like this.
Step 14:  Turn the bag right side out by pulling it through the hole you left in the bottom of the lining as shown below.  Then stitch the hole in the lining closed and tuck it into the bag.

Turning the bag right side out.
With the sewing machine still converted to free arm, stitch along the top of the bag to make a hem.


Step 15:  Congratulations the bag part is done!  Now it's time to tackle the straps.  I made my straps 21 inches long and thought that was a good length.  I also decided that I wanted my straps to be one inch wide once complete so I knew I needed to measure a width of 3 1/4 inches.  The reason I measured the straps to be 3 1/4 inches wide is to allow for a 5/8 inch seam allowance on either side of the strap, plus I knew I would be folding the strap in half so I would need that extra inch when measuring and marking the width of the strap.  So in summary, mark the fabric with your chalk pencil to measure 21 inches long and 3 1/4 inches wide.


Cut two pieces of fabric to size and then cut two pieces of interfacing.

Step 16:  Pin one piece of the interfacing to one piece of strap fabric and repeat.  Baste the interfacing to the strap fabric using a 1/2 inch seam allowance.

Pin the interfacing to the strap fabric

The interfacing baste stitched to the strap fabric
Step 17:  Fold the strap in 5/8 inch on either side and press.

The strap with a 5/8 inch seam on either side
Fold the strap in half, pin and press.

Step 18:  Sew the strap down the side.  I lined the edge of my strap up with the inside edge of my presser foot as shown below.  This way I ended up with a small hem on the side of my strap.

Line the strap up with the inside edge of the presser foot for a small hem

The completed straps
Step 19:  For the strap placement, I measured 3 inches from the edge of the bag and 1 6/8 inches down.  I then marked the bag with a chalk pencil to ensure I line up the straps correctly on the bag.

Match the straps with the chalk markings
Line up the straps with the markings and pin in place.

Step 20:  Sew the straps in place.  Be sure to back stitch to reinforce the straps.  To be extra careful, I stitched over each side of the strap four times.  This will make the strap extra sturdy when carrying heavy items in your tote bag.



 Step 21:  Congratulations!  You finished your tote bag!  Now go out and use it!

Your new tote bag is perfect for carrying your favorite wine and a snack for an afternoon picnic!


Till next time, dear readers!

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