Introduction: How to Make a Tote Bag
This step by step will walk you through the super easy process of making a tote bag. This particular variation is a pretty heavy duty one, so feel free to adjust a bit if you don't need one that will carry such a heavy load.
You will need:
- Sewing machine. The walking foot machine at any Techshop location is a great bet, but any machine will do.
- Canvas or some similar woven fabric. Canvas is cheap and pretty tough so that was my choice. My bottom is
made of waxed canvas to make it a bit water proof and extra rugged, but we will cross that bridge when we get
- Webbing, enough to go up both sides, and make the handles at the very least. You can figure this by
multiplying the height of your bag by 4 and adding 2-4 ft depending on how big you want the handles and if you
want to wrap the webbing all the way under the bag (extra reinforcement).
This is a pretty basic project so I would say give yourself an hour and half to two hours tops.
Here we go!!
Step 1: Decide on the Size of Your Tote.
The first step is to decide on a size for your tote bag. In this example I made one that is about 12 in tall 12 in wide and 10 inches deep.
We start with the size so we know how much fabric we need. For this bag I actually grabbed a piece of scrap canvas I had and let my fabric dictate the size of my bag, but either way we need to sort out dimensions before we start making any thing.
Step 2: Figure Out How Much Fabric You Need.
Ok, so know that we know our size we can lay out, and cut the fabric.
The tote will be made by folding a big piece in half, and sewing up both sides (seem will be in the middle of the sides of your bag), then the bottom. We will leave approx. 1/2 in at each edge for a seam allowance and 2 inches at the top to make a nice 1 in. turned under clean hem.
We are going to need a piece of fabric that is long enough to create both faces of the bag, and wrap under the bottom. So for my bag I need:
2 x (13 in tall side + 2 in hem allowance) = 2 x 15 = 30 in. + 10 in wide bottom = 40 inches long.
note: you can use one continuous piece or sew together two pieces and have a seam in the middle of the bottom of your bag. I sewed two pieces because I reinforced the bottom, this way the seam wont show on the outside.
Your fabric will need to be wide enough to accomodate the width of the bag plus the depth of the sides (half on each side) plus your 1/2 in seam allowance on each side. Again, for my bag:
12 in wide + 1/2 in seem allowance + 10 in depth + 1/2 in seem allowance = 12 + 10 + 1 = 23 inches wide
So, all in we need a piece of fabric that is 40 inches long by 23 inches wide
note: you want the length of the fabric to be cut along the selvage of your fabric (long wise) there is too much stretch from side to side in most wovens for the bag to hold its shape when carrying heavy objects if you cut it width wise.
Step 3: Layout and Cut the Fabric.
Alright, now that we know how much fabric we need, its time to lay it out and cut it.
fold the fabric in half so you have one big rectangle in front of you.
-layout the size of your bag in the middle, leaving half of the depth on each side, and at the bottom, and the 2
inch seam allowance at the top.
-notch the bottom corner on each side by cutting up and in by half the distance of the depth of the bag. (i.e. : my
bag is 10 in deep, so I cut 5 inch squares from the corners. (actually 5 1/2 in on the side to allow 1/2 in seam
- at this time, I like to cut my reinforcement fabric. Figure out how high up you want it to come, and go that far
above the notches you cut in the bottom. Leave a half inch to fold down to create a clean edge. Fold the fabric
in half and notch the corners to match up with the main fabric.
Step 4: Hem the Top Edge
So, before we attach the webbing, or sew this thing up, we are going to hem the top edge. You can do this as the last step, but its a lot easier to do it well if we do it now so we can lie it flat and make it easy.
- Turn down 1 inch of each top edge and press with an iron or use your nail to crease it.
- Turn down 1 inch again to create a double thick, clean edge hem.
- Pin in place using straight pins. If you put them perpendicular to the edge you can sew over them and not have
to worry about removing them as you go.
- Stitch along the bottom edge of the hem on both sides.
Step 5: Attach Webbing Handles
I like to run my webbing all the way under the bag to make it a bit sturdier and give it the ability to carry heavy loads. You can opt not to if you wont carry super heavy stuff, and instead of wrapping it under, you would stop it just underneath where your reinforcement fabric would stop.
-This is a good place to play around. You can make leather handles, make the handles super long (over the
shoulder style) or just play with different sizes and types of webbing. For this bag I am using really heavy nylon
webbing because, well, I have a 100 yards sitting at the house.
-With your fabric layed out on the table like it was before we hemmed the top, start with the webbing hanging just
a bit past the bottom. This little bit is to create overlap when we wrap it under the bottom of the bag.
-Now run the webbing up the face of the bag, create a loop handle of whatever side you want, and then run the
webbing back down the face.
-Now that we have the webbing layed out for one whole side, mark where it ends, and double the total length so
it will match on the other side.
-When you cut the webbing, if you don't have a hot knife, use a lighter to melt the edges so there is no fraying.
It isn't going to show so its not critical, but is a good practice to get into.
-Re lay the webbing on the bag and pin in place, flip the fabric over and pin the other side making sure to line
them up, and paying extra attention to the length of the handles so that they are the same.
-Take it to the sewing machine lay the whole bag out flat and sew the webbing on, stopping at the hem on each
side so the handle can move freely.
Step 6: Put the Reinforcing Fabric on the Bottom.
You can skip this step if you want, but it makes the tote both look way better, and last a lot longer.
- take your cut fabric and lay it out on top of the webbing and main fabric.
- fold over 1/2 inch and press or crease down.
- pin this edge down to the main body of the tote.
- sew along the folded edge of the reinforcing fabric.
Thats it, now we are ready to close the bag up, only two (sorta three) steps left.
Step 7: Sew the Side Seams.
The first step in sewing the bag closed, and making an actual bag, is to sew the side seams.
In my tote, I was lucky enough to have access to a serger for my edge finish, if you don't have access you can either use a zig zag stitch or trim one side of the allownce to 1/8 in. after sewing, and fold the 1/2 in. side over to create a clean seam and then stitch again. Really, you can skip it but you will get random threads continuing to pop up. The 1/2 in seam allowance is enough that it shouldn't ever fall apart, or at least not for a while.
- fold the fabric inside out, so the webbing and the reinforcing layer are on the inside.
- sew the side seams shut to the notch we cut earlier.
Step 8: Sew the Bottom Shut
Ok, here we are, LAST STEP
Up until now the bag has been layed flat, essentially folded in half. We are how going to smoosh the bag open at the notches we cut so that the square notches become to edges, a top and a bottom.
- At the corner notches, smoosh the bag so it has volume. As you do this the notch will suddenly turn into two
edges, where the side of the bag meets the bottom.
- Pin these edges together, lining every thing up as well as possible.
- Sew the edges together, again leaving about a 1/2 in. seam allowance. If this edges don't line up super well,
sew 1/2 inch in from the shorter one and then trim. If you want to make this seam EXTRA tough, fold over the
seam allowances and sew again to reinforce. As you can see in the pic, I did not fold over, but rather serged
my edge for a more finished look.
- Turn the bag right side out, and.....VOILA!!