Introduction: Axolotl Book Bag From Upcycled T-shirts & Curtains

About: Engineering PhD Student

I made this bag as a birthday present for my sister - the design was inspired by her star sign (Pisces), hence the shape and the starry background. (And axolotls are just adorable, right?)

Around half of the fabric used in this project was upcycled. Some of my favourite fabrics to work with are curtain offcuts or ex-display pieces that you can find in stores like John Lewis; you can get really interesting textures and patterns cheaply, and save them from being thrown out. On this occasion, I repurposed an old t-shirt and part of some faded curtains.

Of course, this motif can be applied to anything you like: bags, shirts, cushions or whatever you feel like sewing! The first half of the instructable describes the process for making the motif, whilst the second is about making the book bag.


Main bag:

  • 44 cm x 90 cm patterned fabric
  • 44 cm x 90 cm sturdy curtain fabric (optional liner)


  • 90 cm x 10 cm sturdy fabric

Axolotl design:

  • 2 old t-shirts or other fabric (avoid fabric that frays easily)
  • 4 black buttons
  • Sequins or buttons to decorate


  • Sewing scissors
  • Sewing machine
  • Coloured threads
  • Needle
  • Pins
  • Clothes iron
  • Coloured permanent marker

Step 1: Cutting the Fabric

Fabric selection

Axolotl motif: Try to find fabrics that don't fray easily, unless you want to embroider around all the edges. I found that old t-shirts are quite good for this.

Bag body: Almost any fabric will work for this! Non-stretchy fabrics are usually easier to sew with a machine though.

Bag liner & handles: These should be made from a strong material if you're planning to use this bag for anything heavy. I used some plain backing fabric from a set of faded curtains for mine.

Printing templates

I recommend printing off the attached template for the axolotl pieces, scaling it to an appropriate size for your application. (Filling as much as possible of an A4 page will be about right.) I hand-drew the templates in my photos so they'll look a little different from the ones I redrew for you.

Tracing edges

Normally, you'd trace outlines like this using a soft pencil or tailor's chalk but you can see here that I used a sharpie. This is because I wanted to add a coloured outline to my pieces and found the sharpie worked quite nicely. Make sure the pieces are as flat as possible and sat on a hard surface during tracing, especially if you do use a pen.

Cutting out

Sewing scissors (or a sharp pair of kitchen scissors) are best for cutting the fabric. Try to cut the motif edges neatly but don't worry too much about making the edges of the bag parts perfect because these will be on the inside anyway. I find it easiest to mark out the line to cut first, rather than trying to cut straight by eye. A reminder of the dimensions:

  • 44 cm x 90 cm patterned fabric (bag exterior)
  • 44 cm x 90 cm sturdy curtain fabric (optional liner)
  • 90 cm x 10 cm sturdy fabric (handles)

Step 2: Ironing the Pieces (optional)

The fabric I used had been left folded for a long time, so there were big creases running across several pieces. To get rid of these creases before sewing everything, I used a clothes iron, gently dabbing the area I wanted to smooth with a wet sponge before applying pressure and heat.

Step 3: Sewing the Shapes Into Place

If you want your bag to look a little neater and last longer, it's worth sewing the motif on before making the bag. (The back of the design will be protected by the inner liner, so the threads are less likely to snag on anything you put in your bag.)

Position the pattern such that the centre is approximately 30 cm from the top of the long patterned piece (see pic 3), and centred horizontally. Arrange the parts until you're happy with their positions and angle, then pin them in place using some sewing pins.

Use backstitch to sew around all the edges (excluding the gills) around 5 mm from the edge. Use a thread colour that complements the part you're sewing.

(You might notice I'd already sewn on some of the details here but I recommend getting everything fixed into place first.)

Step 4: Adding the Details

Here's where you give those axolotls their cute faces!

I backstitched black thread for the mouths and dark pink for the top axolotl's feet. (It's best to choose a colour that will stand out against the fabric.)

The fluffy-looking bits on their gills were done using sequins but small beads or buttons would also look great. If you plan the sequin positions first, you should be able to sew on several at once, rather than each individually.

Lastly, for the eyes, I used black buttons; dark beads or embroidered eyes work too.

Step 5: Sewing the Bag

For these steps, using a sewing machine will save a lot of time. Diagrams for each step are included in the images. (N.B. The "right side" is the side of the fabric you want to have facing outwards when your piece is finished - i.e. the patterned or nicely textured side.)

Step 1: Handles

Take one of the handle strips and fold it in half along its longest direction, right sides together. Sew 1 cm from the edge on the open side, along the longest edge only. Turn the handle inside-out like a sock, using the blunt end of a pencil if you need to. Repeat for the other handle.

Optional: The handles will look neater if the seam is in the middle, on the underneath. You can do this by flattening the piece out with the seam in the middle, then carefully ironing it so the new edges are crisp.

Step 2: Main body

You can skip this step if you're confident that your bag fabric is strong enough to use without an inner liner.

Lay the bag outside and inner liner on top of each other, with the right sides of the bag together. Sew along the long edges, about 1 cm from the edge. Turn it inside-out, so the right sides are now showing.

Step 3: Attaching the handles

Pin the handle ends at a comfortable distance apart, with the edges in line with the short edges of the main body piece. (If you like carrying bags over your shoulder, you'll want the handle edges closer together, so the bag hangs lower. If you prefer holding it in your hand, move the pieces further apart & consider shortening them.)

Sew the handles on using a cross and square pattern for extra strength, then fold the edge over the handle twice, hiding the cut edge. Sew along the lower folded edge, around 1 cm from the edge. Fold the handle up, then sew it with the cross and square pattern again. Repeat for the second handle.

Step 4: Last one!

Fold the bag in half, with the right sides together. Sew along the left and right sides, around 1 cm from the edge, going over each line twice for extra strength. Turn the bag inside-out so the pattern is showing.


Your bag is now complete and ready to use!

Step 6: Template & Cutting Guide

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