Isn't materialism lovely? I've saved labels and scraps from America's surplus of stuff, and used them to make a shopping bag... to buy more stuff! There's a "Made in USA" label sticking out of the side, and the words stamped on the handles celebrate all things excessive.
The bag is made entirely of scrounged materials (and, of course, thread). In addition to the obvious clothing labels, the body and lining of the bag is made of the offcuts from an upholstery shop. The handles are upholstery scraps and pieces of plastic strapping that were used to hold cartons and pallets together for shipping.
Let me take a minute to tell you where I'm coming from with the design of the tote. I read the Little House on the Prairie books when I was younger, and I was really impacted by how few things the family owned. It was a very big deal when they bought... not a new dress, but fabric to MAKE a new dress. And then they had to take the fabric home and sew every seam and buttonhole by hand. They valued things because they were so hard to get, and because they had so little. These days, it's easy to get stuff... and easy to throw it away.
I'm not suggesting that everyone ought to get rid of all their stuff, grow a beard (even the women) and live in the woods. I just think that everyone would benefit from being mindful of what we use and discard, and how... and why.
This bag is an art project, a statement about a throw-away society, and an exercise in re-using things that are easily overlooked and discarded. This is not an instructable about the quickest, easiest way to make a tote bag... but it could be, if you just ignore every step that involves saving, ironing, and painstakingly stitching down hundreds of clothing labels. In fact, the tote itself is a very nice beginner sewing project. I hope you give it a try, and decorate it to make a statement that's all your own.
You will need two large rectangles of fabric, one for the bag and one for the lining. Typically, the bag and handles are made of a fairly thick, stiff fabric, to give the tote some shape and durability, and the lining is thinner. If the bag and lining fabrics are both thin, the bag will be floppy like a pillowcase. But feel free to use whatever fabric you'd like. (That's kind of the point of making your own stuff, after all... it looks the way you want it to look!) If you have a thinner fabric that you want to use, you can use three or even four layers of cloth to make the bag stiffer, but overall it does work best to choose a fabric with some body to it for the outside of the bag and the handles.
I'm using the dark fabric for the outside of the bag, and the cream piece for the lining. If you cover your bag with labels, the outer bag fabric will not be seen. So you can use the ugly piece Aunt Milda has left over from making her curtains, if you want (mine are scraps from an upholsterer). The size of the fabric depends on how large you want your tote bag to be. The pieces I used were each 18" by 24" (45 cm by 60 cm). The fabric will be folded in half to construct the bag, the corners will be boxed, and you will lose some size to seam allowances, so fold your fabric in half, and then plan on the bag being about 5 inches narrower and 3 inches shorter than that. (From my 18" by 24" rectangle, I ended up with a tote that was 13" wide by 9" tall by 3" deep.)
The handles are each made from 5" by 18" rectangles of fabric. They will also be folded, and they end up about a third as wide as they started out. Again, you can change the length or width of the fabric to suit your taste and what you want your handles to look like. The basic construction techniques remain the same.
I punctuated the handles by attaching plastic straps that originally were used to hold pallets or cartons of stuff together for shipping. They say "sold by carton only", and I thought they worked well with the statement I was trying to make. Some other fun ideas for the handles would be to use ribbons on top, or a contrasting fabric, or braided fabric strips, or anything else you think would look neat.
You will also need a bunch of clothing labels, if you wish to decorate your bag like I have. If you get some clothes and take a look at the labels, you will see that some labels have the text embroidered on them, and some have it printed on. You can tell more easily which is which by looking at the back. Printed tags have a blank reverse side, and embroidered tags have words on the back, but the words are backwards and in reverse colors. Check out the pictures to see an example of the difference I'm talking about. The embroidered ones are more durable, and the words won't fade or rub off like the printed ones will, so I chose to use only the embroidered tags on my bag. I want it to last a long time and be well-used.
You need thread as well. I chose to use a matching all-purpose thread for the actual construction of the bag, but clear monofilament nylon to attach the labels and pallet straps, and for the final topstitching. I didn't want the thread to show up and draw your eye to the stitching lines instead of the labels and straps that make the bag what it is.