Tote bags are seriously the easiest sewing project I can imagine. They are fun, super simple, and useful. Can one ever have enough bags?
Now you are asking the screen: Can a home made bag REALLY stand up to two gallons of milk? (Because, yes, everyone puts two gallons of milk in the same bag to carry home. Right.)
The answer is: Mine can. I tried it.
WOULD I carry two gallons of milk in one bag? No, that shit is heavy!
So, lets get down to business. Making a tote bag.
First, figure out who in your family is a quilter. Yes, a quilter. They will have everything you need. And you can have a convenient babysitter at the same time. (Try your mother-in-law, Emily)
Now, if you want PRETTY bags that are all matchy matchy, you are going to need to buy fabric. While you are there ogling, buy a yard of interfacing. Just ask the people at the cutting counter to help you pick a FUSIBLE interfacing suitable for tote bags. I’ve used various ones with equal success. You can also use batting, if you happen to have some, but it involves a bit more sewing.
Now, visit your quilter, this is an afternoon project.
Raid their sewing room. There is a reason I sent you to a quilter. In their sewing room, you are going to find buttloads of fabric. Shamelessly raid their stash. You need 4 fat quarters OR two half yards OR one full yard for a bag. You will have little leftover bits.
Really don’t know a quilter? (Really, ask the mother-in-law or grandma) You can use anything. Stay away from high quality sheets, though. The weave is really too fine for regular sewing and you will end up with a mess. Crib sheets, old curtains or table cloths, clothes… just not anything stretchy, though with the interfacing, it’s less of a problem.
You will also need:
- Rotary cutter
- cutting board
- 16×24 acrylic ruler
- sewing machine
Seriously, find a quilter. They have everything you need.
Now, break out the iron and the starch. Starching takes time, but it makes the whole cutting part much easier and keeps your fabric from stretching out of shape from handling. Use a lot of starch now, everything will line up later.
You don’t really need to prewash, you can if you like, though.
Once everything is starched and resembling cardboard, you are ready to cut.
The SIZE you cut is less important than all the pieces matching. Yes, I said it.
Alright, I will admit that when I was “designing” this pattern, I got hung up on measurements, which sort of defeats the purpose of “super simple.” This is supposed to be a “raid your quilter’s stash” bag. Not a “this is a perfectly measured and cut and pieced” bag.
That said, I have an idea in my head of what size a tote bag “should” be. I’m tossing it out the window and making this SIMPLE.
First, stack your fat quarters together, sort of lining up the two sides as best you can. If you are using yardage, you want to be using 2 half yard cuts, either the same or different fabrics. Co-ordinating, schmordinating. Now, square up one side. That just means line up your ruler sort of square to the fabric as a whole and trim it until you get one nice even side. Turn your fabric being careful of your layers and square up an adjoining side. (Make sure to flip up all your layers to make sure you are trimming all four)
Now here is your single measurement. Since interfacing comes as 20 inches wide, that’s what we want our longest side to be. Or less. Just not more, because then you didn’t get enough interfacing.
Now, from your longest side (the 20 inch or less side) cut about a 2 inch strip. Just make sure it’s the same width all the way down. You can go narrower or wider, if you want.
Now, square up your last side.
You should have 4 rectangles and 4 strips. Yay!
Now, cut your interfacing to match your pieces. You will need to cut 2 rectangles and 2 strips. If you need to fudge, do it on the strips, not the panels.
Attach the interfacing to whatever 2 pieces of fabric you want on the outside of your bag as per the instructions. Take your time with this step, you really want it stuck on there. If you are worried it doesn’t stick enough, you can run some “quilting” lines through it. You can use some of the decorative stitches your machine might have to more solidly anchor the interfacing to the fabric.
Attach the two strips to any two of your fabric strips.
Now you are ready to sew!
Get out your sewing machine, make sure you know how to use it. If you don’t, get your quilter friend to load the bobbin and thread for you.
Take your two interfaced panels, put them right sides together. You can pin, if you like. I rarely pin. Sew together two of the short sides and one long side. The other long side will be left open. Unless you like tall narrow bags.
Do the same thing with your non-interfaced panels, except leave a 3 inch gap in the long side. Make sure you back stick on either side of your gap. This is important, you need it for turning and your hand needs to fit in the gap.
Sew one interfaced and one non-interfaced strip down both long sides, right sides together. Make sure you leave the ends open. Repeat with the other set.
Attach a safety pin to one end of your sewn strips and turn it so that right sides are facing out. Press it flat, then top stitch along each long edge. It doesn’t matter how far from the edge you stitch, as long as it’s a straight line. This is another time you can bust out the decorative stitching.
I like to add a little hanging tab to all my tote bags. This is totally optional. Find one of your little scraps. What size? Doesn’t matter, though at least 1.5 inches wide. Longer is better, but you will need at least 4 inches. Square it up into a rectangle and take it to your ironing board.
Press your rectangle in half, wrong sides together (you should see your pretty fabric on the outside.). Now comes the tricky part where you are likely to burn yourself.
Open out your rectangle again and fold in one half to the center. Use your fingers to press it, then set the iron on it. Repeat with the other side. You should end up with three folds with your raw edges in the middle.
Top stitch everything in place. This is where the longer is better part comes in. It is easier to sew if it’s longer, you only need to sew about 4 inches of the middle of your folded piece, then trim it to size. And I swear no one will notice if your stitching isn’t perfect.
Now you should have the outside of your bag, the lining of your bag, two handles and a hanging tab. You could, right now, put your bag together. It would be a perfectly serviceable bag and it would carry all your stuff.
I, however, like to have a gusseted bag. That means it’s got a flat bottom and definitive sides. And it’s really easy to do. I’m not going to explain it, I’m going to send you here instead. Use the sew first technique and make about a 4 inch gusset. Don’t worry TOO much about how big it is, but be consistent with all your gussets. Both the outer bag and lining need to be done.
Turn your outer bag right side out (this is the one that is interfaced). Now, match up your side seams and fold it in half. This will find the middle of each panel so you can pin on your handles. Measure about 2.5 inches from your midline fold and pin on a handle. Repeat. Make sure the same fabric is facing towards you every time and the handle isn’t all twisted. Stand back and look at it. Does it look right?
On one side, measure a half inch from each side of your midline fold and pin on your hanging loop the same way.
It’s starting to look like a tote bag, right?
Now things get complicated. Not difficult to do, but hard to understand no matter how freaking clear the instructions are. There are tons of good bag making tutorials you can watch on youtube, I highly recommend doing so. Seriously. Just look for lined bag tutorials.
Now, what you need to do is put your outer bag with it’s pinned handled inside your lining. You should end up with right sides facing in between the two layers. Make sure everything is tucked between the two layers.
Match your side seams, then pin the hell out of it. Seriously. Tons of pins. Just don’t run over them with the sewing machine. (It actually makes no difference which way your seam allowance lays. You might have noticed we didn’t bother pressing any seams.)
Sew around the top edge with a half inch seam (you can go larger). Yup, all the way around. Back stitch over your handles for stability. This doesn’t have to be pretty, it won’t be visible.
Now, remember the hole you left in your lining? You did leave one, right? (If you didn’t, pull out the seam ripper and make one. This isn’t ideal, so I hope you left a hole.) Reach in there and help your lining give birth to a bag. Pull that badboy all the way right side out. Yeah, that’s it.
Before you tuck your lining in where it belongs, you need to stitch up your turning hole. You CAN neatly and invisibly hand stitch it painstakingly. That is perfectly acceptable. It is also acceptable to run that bad boy through your machine. It’s the bottom of the inside of the bag. You aren’t going to care about a visible seam when you use it. Promise.
Tuck the guts where they belong and pin all around the top again. This involves folding down your seam allowance so the seam actually is the top edge. It helps to start around the handles, just pull them up and it will fold over. Pin, pin, pin. It makes the top stitching easier.
Top stitch around the top edge. Yeah, go ahead and use that decorative stitch that’s been eyeing you across the bar. You can happily use more than one row, if that floats your boat.
Guess what? That’s it. Fini. You have a freaking tote bag. Go dump ten pounds of potatoes in it or a couple full gallons of milk and see how it works.
That little hanging tab that was actually a pain in the ass to make? It fits nicely over the plastic bag racks at the grocery store so your bag stands proud while you fill it. Bag handlers everywhere will praise you for it.
Is it machine washable? Heck yeah. Throw it in when you do towels.
Will it shrink? Who cares, it’s a freaking bag.
Do I have to make them one at a time? Heck no! Hit a sale, garage sale, thrift store and pick up lots of hideous fabric. Starch it all up, cut it all out, then mix and match and have a whole herd of hideous tote bags.
Do these make good gifts? Absolutely. And they are a green way to wrap gifts as well. You might wanna measure that gift first, though.
Did you really mean it about raiding a quilter’s sewing room? Oh, oh yeah. But ask first. Remember quilter=fabric hoarder. As long as you aren’t picky, they are going to have plenty of fabric for you to choose from.
Do I have to use ugly fabric? Of course not! I happen to have a box of really hideous fat quarters. Don’t ask. However, you can buy lovely matching fabrics to make your bags.
I like pockets, can I add pockets? Of course. But that’s another lesson.
So, here you are, finished reading my sad excuse for a tutorial and you still don’t have a clue. Well, I have a clue for you. A little list of better tutorials.
ps i quilt Friendship Bag This cute little bag is actually the first bag making tutorial I used. It’s the one that started the bag making frenzy. Beware.