Introduction: Easy Cloth Tote Bag
No matter what your level of sewing expertise, this useful bag is a great project. It's simple enough for beginning sewers, but universally practical enough to be worthwhile for just about anyone. The construction is so simple that there is no pattern required and it can easily be customized by just changing the fabric or altering the size or pocket design. It's also a great way to practice simple straight seaming, topstitching, hemming and binding to see how these techniques are applied to a real world project.
Once you know how to sew this bag, you'll probably want to make one in every color and fabric! I've made several and I use them all the time for shopping or carrying stuff. They also make great gifts!
If you're just starting out with machine sewing and this project seems a little above you skill set, do not fear, just check out the first three lessons of my free Machine Sewing Class where I go into more depth about how to master the simple techniques you'll use in this project.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
For this project you'll need some basic machine sewing tools:
- Sewing machine
- Iron and ironing board
- Extra bobbins
- Standard sewing machine needles
- Or machine needles for heavy duty fabrics depending on the weight of your fabric
- Fabric shears
- Thread snippers
- Seam ripper
- Magnetic pin holder
- Tailor’s chalk or disappearing marker
- Flexible measuring tape
- Clear 18"x2" ruler
- 1 yard medium weight cotton canvas, upholstery fabric or denim - I used a 100% cotton duck canvas in olive from Joann Fabrics
- 1/2 yard contrast fabric for a pocket (or you could use the same fabric) - I used a 100% cotton pillow ticking fabric in blue stripe from Joann Fabrics
- 3 yards of 1 1/4" wide cotton webbing or belting in the color of your choice - I used black
- 1 package (3 yards) of double fold extra wide (1/2") bias tape - I used lime green
- All purpose thread to match your fabric, your contrast fabric, your your bias tape and your webbing (you don't have to have matching thread for everything, but it is a good idea to start accumulating a collection of thread colors anyway)
Step 2: Test Your Fabric
Since the fabric you're going to be using here is fairly thick, cut a piece and test it on your machine. Try sewing two layers, even three layers, and see how it does. Adjust the tension if you need to.
If your machine seems like it's struggling at all, you might want to change to a heavier duty needle, but my machine did fine on this fabric with a regular needle.
Step 3: Cut Out the Bag
Your grocery bag is going to be made out of just two pieces of fabric.
For the bag itself: cut a piece 36" long by 18" wide (shown here folded in half)
For the pocket: cut a piece 8 1/2" wide x 11" long (or cut two if you want a pocket on both sides, you can also eliminate the pocket entirely if you like)
Step 4: Finish the Top and Bottom of the Pocket
Before we attach the pocket to the bag, we have to finish the top and bottom edges (the 8 1/2" long edges) so they don't fray. We are going to do this with a 1/2" wide double fold hem. The best way to do this is to press them into place before we sew.
To do this very precisely, let's use our ruler and marking tool to draw a line 1" in from the edge of the bottom and top of the pocket, on the wrong side of the fabric.
Now take your fabric over to your ironing board and fold the edge of the fabric over so it just meets the line you drew. Press this fold with the iron.
Now fold one more time, so the raw edge is is hidden. The fabric should naturally want to bend at the edge of the first fold. Press again with the iron, creating a perfect 1/2" wide double fold. If you want, secure the hem with pins every few inches.
Repeat on the other side of the pocket.
Now go back to your sewing machine, and make sure that it is threaded with thread that matches your pocket fabric, or you can sew with contrasting thread like I am here. With your stitch length set to around 3, sew about 1/8" from the inner folded edge of one of the hems, being sure to lock your stitches on both ends.
Don't sew the hem on the other end of the pocket! We'll sew this down in the next step.
Step 5: Sew on the Pocket
Use your ruler to find the center point on the bottom hem of your pocket and place a pin there.
Take the large folded piece of fabric that is the body of your bag. Use your fingers to press the fabric together at the folded corners, making little creases.
Remove the pins and unfold the fabric, you should still see these creases that mark the middle of the fabric on both sides. Mark each one with a pin or make a small mark with chalk or disappearing pen.
Position your pocket in the middle of the fabric, 4" up from these pin marks on one side, like this:
Making sure you're pocket stays square to the ruler, pin it down at the top and bottom. (If you want to put a pocket on both sides of your bag, pin another pocket on the other side of the center line.)
Take it to your sewing machine, and sew just the bottom of the pocket down 3/8" in from the edge of the pocket hem. Leave the top of the pocket pinned in place.
Step 6: Pin on the Handles
If your webbing is a different color than the thread in your machine, re-thread the machine with a matching thread color.
Take your full 3 yards of cotton webbing and fold it in half on itself, making sure there are no twists. Match the two ends and hold them together with a couple of pins. Mark the opposite end of the loop of webbing with another pin.
Sew the ends of the webbing together about 1" in from the edge, locking your stitches.
Lay your bag fabric out again, with the pocket facing up. Now we are going to pin the webbing handles down to the bag so they are overlapping the sides of the pocket by 3/4". To get them lined up properly, use your ruler.
Take your loop of strap and lay it down on on top of your fabric, arranged so the seam and the opposite point you marked with a pin are both lined up with the center fold of the bag, and the webbing overlaps the edges of the pocket by 3/4".
The raw ends of the webbing should be facing down into the fabric.
Pin the straps down every few inches making sure they are laying very straight. Place the last pin on each strap 2" down from the edge of the fabric
Step 7: Sew on the Handles
To sew the black webbing down to the green fabric, you can use a little trick if you don't want the thread to show up on either side. Thread the top thread of the machine with black thread, but put green thread on the bobbin. This way the stitches on the bottom will be green, and the ones on top will be black!
Now sew the webbing down to the fabric by starting at the center fold about 1/8" in from one edge of the webbing. Sew up one side of the webbing, stop at the last pin, then turn, sew across the strap, turn again, sew back down, and keep going to repeat on the other side.
To make the turns, make sure you stop sewing and rotate your fabric with your needle down as I demonstrate in this video.
Lock your stitches when you get back to where you started, then take your fabric out and snip your threads.
Repeat this same process to sew down the other side of the webbing loop.
Step 8: Pin and Sew the Bag
Now we are going to sew the side seams of the bag together.
Fold the whole thing over at the middle fold point so the straps and pocket are on the inside.
Match the sides the fabric and the top edges to each other, and pin the side seams together. If you want, you can mark a 1/2" seam allowance line on the side seams where you are going to sew, or you can just use the stitch guides on your needle plate.
With your sewing machine loaded with thread that matches your fabric, sew the two side seams, locking your stitches at both ends.
Step 9: Order of Opperations
I just want to point out that the way I sewed this bag together is one possible order of operations, but it's not the only one. One of the most important parts of making any project is figuring out the best order in which to put it together. Sewing is often a logical puzzle with more than one answer.
For example we could have hemmed the grocery bag before we attached the straps or sewed the side seams, like I did with this other version of the bag:
Step 10: Pin the Binding to the Side Seams
Now we're going to bind the side seams with bias tape for a decorative seam finish. To do this, take your double fold bias tape, and cut two pieces that are 1/2" shorter than the length of your side seams.
On the bottom corners of the bag, we are going to create a clean finish on the binding. To do this, open up the end of the bias tape and fold half an inch down into itself. Now take the bottom corner of your bag and slip the bias tape over the end of the seam allowance like this:
Pin the rest of the tape on, it should stop about 1" below the top of the bag.
Repeat on the other side seam.
Step 11: Sew on the Binding
Now sew the binding on, stitching about 1/8" in from the inner edge. It will be easier to sew if you start at the unfolded top end of the binding not the folded bottom end. Remove the pins as you sew, and lock your stitches at both ends.
Repeat on the other side seam.
Put your bag over the end of your ironing board. Push the bound seam allowance to one side, and press the seam flat. Don't worry about pressing all the way down to the bottom corner.
Repeat on the other side, pressing the seam allowance in the same direction.
Step 12: Hem the Bag
Now we're going to finish the top edge of the bag with a folded hem. You could also use another hem treatment if you wanted.
Draw a line 2" down and fold and press once to meet this line all the way around.
Then fold again and press down the double fold.
Pin in a few places to secure your hem if you want, then take it to your sewing machine. Before you start sewing, remove the extension table from the machine to expose the free arm, this will let you easily sew around the loop of the hem without accidentally catching the other side in your stitches.
Start sewing at one of the side seams, and stitch the hem down all the way around about 1/4" from the bottom of the fold, using your seam guides as a reference. As always, lock your stitches at both ends.
When you get to the areas where you are sewing through a few layers of fabric, your sewing machine might give you a little trouble. Go slow, push the fabric through a little with your hands and use the handwheel to help you along if you need to.
Step 13: Sew the Box Corners
The last step in making the bag is to give it some dimensionality by sewing the corners to create a boxed bottom.
To do this, fold your bag with the side seams matched like this:
Play around with the corners until they are creating two 90 degree angle points that match up at the bottom.
Then flip one of the corners up so it looks like this:
Take your ruler and draw a 5 1/2" line that evenly cuts off the corner parallel to the sewing line of the strap. Place a couple of pins along this line. Repeat on the other corner, then sew along these lines.
Now turn your bag rightside out again, fold the corner flaps down and push the corners out so the bottom of the bag forms a box shape.
Step 14: You're Done!
You made a handy little bag good for carrying all kinds of things! And as you can see, it would be really easy alter this design to make different versions of the bag. I made a slightly different one by silk screening the Instructables logo onto the pocket pieces and using yellow bias to bind the edges instead of hemming them. I also made this version a little larger.
A big part of creating your own awesome sewing projects is just making small alterations to pre-existing patterns and choosing materials that speak to you, so when you're first starting out there's no need to try re-inventing the wheel every time you want to make something.
If you've made a version of this bag, please post an "I Made It" in the comment section below. And if you're looking for more basic sewing instruction, please check out my free Machine Sewing Class!