Introduction: Shopping Tote Bag

About: I'm a chartered mechanical engineer and life-long maker. I especially like making useful things from cheap materials, including waste, and fixing things that would otherwise be scrap. I'll have a go at anythin…

Everyone needs a shopping bag. Here's a useful tote with an internal pocket and a one-piece waterproof base so you can put it down on the ground without getting a soggy bottom. Made from a pretty furnishing fabric with webbing handles and a lining, it's attractive yet strong enough to carry a few bottles of beer or several pounds of potatoes.

The finished bag measures 14½” wide, 14½” high and 4” deep. I sized it to suit the fabric I had available (a Liberty linen union furnishing fabric), but you can adjust the dimensions if you wish.

Shrink all the fabric and the webbing before you cut anything, unless you're sure you're never going to wash your finished bag. Just toss everything in the washing machine on a cool cycle and iron it once it is almost dry.

Then cut out the following pieces:

  • bag outer – patterned hardwearing canvas or furnishing fabric, 2 pieces each 15½″ wide x 11½″ high
  • base – plain canvas, preferably water resistant, 1 piece 15½” wide x 13” long
  • lining – plain fabric or a fabric without a 1-way design, 1 piece 15½″ wide x 33¾″ long
  • internal pocket – same fabric as lining, 1 piece 6” wide x 8” high
  • handles – 66” of 1” wide webbing

Also needed:

  1. Sewing machine fitted with a jeans needle
  2. Strong thread
  3. Scissors, pins, ruler, tailors’ chalk, etc
  4. 1-3 magnetic catches or other fasteners (optional)
  5. Iron and ironing board

General instructions

All seam allowances are ½” unless otherwise stated. If your sewing machine has a triple stitch setting, use it; otherwise sew over all seams again for strength, with the second line of stitching running alongside the first.

Method of construction

The canvas base and the lining are single pieces of fabric, meaning that they have side seams but no seam along the bottom. The webbing handles run down the outside of the bag as far as the canvas base and are attached to it, for strength. An internal pocket is positioned between the webbing on one side of the bag, but can be omitted if time is short. Optionally, the pocket can be held closed with a magnetic fastener, and another 2 fasteners can be applied to the top edge of the bag. The bag is given width by "bagging out" the base (see Step 2). As it is fully lined, there are no raw edges visible.

Step 1: Handles

Cut the webbing into two 33” lengths for the handles. Position each handle on the right side of an outer bag piece, as shown, with the ends of the webbing level with the lower edge of the fabric. There needs to be a gap of 4½” between the inner edges of the webbing, ie each is placed 2¼" from the centre line of the fabric. Machine-tack it in place with a large stitch, stopping the stitching 2” below the top edge. Repeat with the other half of the bag.

Step 2: Assembling the Outer Bag

Sew one long edge of the canvas base to the lower edge of one of the outer bag pieces, right sides together, trapping the webbing in the seam.

Press the seam allowances downwards (towards the canvas base) and topstitch on the right side about ¼” from the seam to hold the allowances in place.

Do the same with the second outer bag piece, attaching it to the other long edge of the base. (Take care to get the pattern running in the right direction, if applicable).

With right sides in, bring the top edges together and pin the side seams. Sew them and press them open. At the same time, iron the fold in the canvas to mark the bottom of the bag.

“Bag out” each bottom corner by lining up the lower side seams (one at a time) with the crease in the canvas, forming a triangular shape. Mark and then stitch a 4” long seam across each corner, perpendicular to the seam/crease. Trim away the triangles of excess fabric and press the raw edges towards the base.

Step 3: Making the Lining and Internal Pocket

Press under ½” along both sides of the pocket (the long edges). On the right side, zigzag stitch from one top edge down the first side, oversewing the turned-under raw edge as you go, then along the bottom to neaten that (non turned-under) raw edge, and back up the other side.

Press under ½” along the top edge of the pocket and turn under another ¾” to form a hem. Stitch on the right side to hold the hem in place.

Position the pocket on the centre line of one half of the lining, right sides together, with the lower edge of the pocket towards the top edge of the lining and 9” below it. Sew this lower edge in place, stitching ½” from the neatened edge. Then fold the pocket up into position along the seam, press it and pin it to the lining along the sides and the top. Topstitch it in place close to the edge, starting at the top of one side and stitching down, across the bottom and up the other side. (Leave the pocket opening free, obviously.)

Fold the lining in half, right sides in and with the top edges together. Sew the side seams and press them open. Take a seam allowance that is slightly larger than ½” so that the lining is a little smaller than the outer bag and fits neatly inside it. The easiest way to do that with a swing needle sewing machine is to move the needle position over to the left. “Bag out” the bottom of the lining as for the outer bag in Step 2.

You might want to hold the pocket closed with a magnetic catch or a large press stud (popper / snap fastener). Now is the time to fit the half that is in the lining, centrally under the top edge of the pocket, while you still have access to the wrong side of the lining. You can reinforce the back of the lining first if you wish, using a small piece of iron-on interfacing. The other part of the fastener can be fitted to the opening edge of the pocket later (see Step 4) to avoid unnecessary bulk while there is still stitching to be done.

Step 4: Inserting the Lining

Turn the outer bag inside out and place the lining into it, right sides out (ie right sides together). Make sure the handles have flopped downwards and are out of the way of the raw edges at the top. The lining should be slightly shorter (about ⅛") than the bag as well as slightly narrower. With the top edges of the lining and the outer bag even and the side seams lined up, sew the top edge of the bag taking the usual ½” allowance. Leave a 3” gap for turning and be careful not to catch the handles in the stitching. Trim the lining seam allowance to avoid bulk and press the seam, then turn the bag right sides out through the gap. Push the lining into place, inside the bag. Position the seam you have just sewn so that it is just on the inside of the bag (that's why the lining is a little short) and press it again.

If you want to fit catches on either side of the top edge of the bag to keep it closed, do that now. Mark their position on the lining on each side of the bag, just below the top edge and in line with the handles, then attach them. As for Step 3, it’s not too late to reinforce the back of the lining first with iron-on interfacing at each spot, if you feel it is necessary, while you still have access through the turning gap.

Edge-stitch along the top edge to close the turning gap. Topstitch again ¼” down (or lower if necessary to avoid catches.) Again, be careful not to trap the handles in the stitching.

Step 5: Handles and Finishing

Finally, stitch the handles in place close to the edges of the webbing through both the lining and the bag outer. The stitching along the inside edges of the handle on one side of the bag should also catch in the sides of the pocket. Pin or tack through all layers first, to make sure they stay in the right place when you sew.

Mark an X at the top of each handle using tailor’s chalk or a disappearing ink pen. Using the photo above as a guide, make each X start just below the top edge of the bag and end about 1” below, with its four corners positioned on the stitching line rather than the edge of the webbing.

You will sew in one continuous seam, pivoting at the end of each line of stitching by raising the presser foot with the needle in the fabric and rotating the work. Start by securing the top edge of each handle by sewing from one upper corner of the X to the other, then sew all the way down one side until you reach the canvas, sew adjacent to the seam (or “stitch in the ditch” if you like), sew up the second side back to the starting point, sew diagonally across the webbing to the opposite corner of the X, sew horizontally across to the other side of the webbing, and finally sew the second diagonal. Remove the tacking that was holding the handles in place.

If you have already fitted one half of a magnetic catch or press stud for the pocket in Step 3, fit the other part to the opening edge of the pocket.

Give your new bag a good press (preferably with a steam iron) and carry it with pride.

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