A TOTE-ally Easy Way to Help the Earth




I've got one, my friends have them, and I'm willing to bet you've got one, too.
Oh, sure, we try to hide them. We stash them under our kitchen sink or in the back of a drawer.

I'm speaking, of course, of the evil wad of plastic grocery bags (more than 500 billion of them are used every year worldwide). These ubiquitous little devils seem to multiply like crazy, and we know they're no good for the environment. To learn more about the environmental effects of disposable grocery bags, please read Step 7:Get informed.

The best solution is to carry your own re-usable sacks. You've probably thought about it before or seen them in your local grocery store. You were probably turned off by their cost and dreadful appearance, usually featuring a big corporate logo.

With this instructable I'm going to show how you can make your own durable, stylish tote bags for very cheap, even if you have little to no experience with sewing. I use a very simple design to create a fully lined bag which will be amazingly strong (no more chasing your canned good around the parking lot!) The next time that greasy little bagboy asks you if you want paper or plastic you can tell him to stop pushing those evil things on you... or you could just ask him politely to use your totes instead.

This instructable is written assuming that you have little to no experience with sewing.

The sample items made in this tutorial are also available to be purchased at my etsy page http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=6135809

Step 1: Everything You'll Need to Get Started!

I put a lot of thought into the design of the tote for this instructable. I decided it had to meet three requirements:
1. The supplies need to be cheap
2. The bag has to be strong enough to hold groceries
3. the design has to be easy enough for anyone to follow

Here are your required materials:

-- 1/2 yard of fabric
If you've never bought fabric before, just go to a local sewing or craft store and start wandering around. When you find the one you like, just grab the big thing of fabric (the 'bolt') and take it up to the cutting counter. They'll cut it to any length you need. For this project I'll suggest that you stay away from anything that stretches. it probably isn't worth the trouble. Prices are generally printed on one end of the cardboard center and refer to the cost per yard. Depending on what fabric you choose, you shouldn't have to pay more than a couple of dollars for your fabric. (If you're using the same fabric for the straps as the main bag you will need to add 8-12 inches to the length you buy.)
Note: A standard pillowcase is usually the right size to use in place of the fabric, this can make the project even cheaper!!

For the straps of your bag you can choose to sew them from the same material as your main bag, from a contrasting fabric, or use 'webbing' or 'strapping' (that's the stuff they use on most backpacks) If you want to sew your own you'll only need 8-12 inches of fabric (a little more for thicker straps)

--Sewing machine or needle and thread
You just need to be able to sew a reasonably straight line.

-- Straight pins
although not entirely necessary, they will make things much easier

makes bumpy things smooth, or make creased folds

any stuff you want to sew/glue/iron on to make your bag unique (Step 6 has a few ideas for decorating your bag)

Step 2: Prepare Your Straps

If you're attaching purchased straps or using ribbon you can skip this step, otherwise:

img 1 Cut the fabric that you picked for the straps in half lengthwise so that you have two 4-5 inch wide strips.

img 2 Next, with the outside facing down, fold the long edges of the outside edges in so that they meet in the center. Iron this flat.

Fold the strap in half lengthwise. You should now have a strap with four layers of fabric 1-3 inches wide (depending on what you started with)

img 3 Finally, stitch along length of the straps on the edge of the fabric with the folded in sides, holding together the open side.

img 4 This is a quick illustration of cutting and attaching straps made from the same fabric as your main bag. (The darker areas show the fabric being used for straps)

Step 3: Attach the Straps to the Bag Fabric

img 1 Unfold you fabric and lay it out flat. It should be 18" on the short side. The long side's length will vary depending on the fabric.

img 2 Fold the short lengths of the fabric in towards the middle. They should overlap just a little.

img 3 Fold the whole thing in half with the open edges inside. This is about what the final size of your tote will be.

img 4 Lay your straps down on the fabric how you want them and begin to pin. Make sure to pin only to the top layer of the folded fabric, and that you place a pin near the top of the bag where you will stop stitching.

img 5 Once you've finished pinning the first side, flip the bag over and pin up the other side the same way

Step 4: Stitch the Straps in Place

img 1 As long as you were able to pin only to the top layer of fabric you should be able to unfold the fabric completely and your straps will be pinned to the middle of the fabric

img 2 Stitch along the straps, securely attaching them to the main bag fabric. Make sure to stitch across the strap where the pins stop.

Step 5: Sew the Body of the Bag

img 1 Fold the straps in towards the center and fold the main piece of fabric in half so that the straps are on the inside (it will be inside out when you sew it) You can pin the edges together if you like.

img 2 Sew along the open sides of the bag except for a 4-6 inch section on the short side. When you finish your sewing reach into the unsewn section and turn it inside-out (now the right side with the straps should be on the outside)

img 3 fold the loose edges of the hole to the inside and stitch across the fabric as close to the edge of the fabric as you can.

img 4 Now you have big rectangle of fabric with straps sewn on one half. The half with no straps is the lining, so pull apart on the straps and push the lining down into the other half.

Now sew or tie the ends of the straps together and you have your basic tote bag!

The next step will cover a few easy techniques for adding more flair to your brand new bag.

Step 6: Extras! Add Flair to Your Bag!

There are an infinite number of ways that you can add to or change this design to personalize your tote bag and make it really special. I'll share a few ideas here.

img 1 to add a pocket to the front of your bag, just sew a rectangle the size you want for your pocket and pin it in place while you're pinning on your straps in step 3. Sew the sides up with the straps and put an extra line of stitching along the bottom of the pocket.

img 2 Even very simple applique can add a lot of character to a bag. For this example I used stiff craft felt with a little sparkle to it (unfortunately the sparkle doesn't show up well in the photos). Use a simple zigzag stitch around the shape during step three, after the straps are attached.

img 3 If you want the lining to be a different color from the outside, just use two pieces of fabric sewn together. Actually, you can use as many pieces of fabric as you want, as long you end up with a piece that is 18" wide and four times as long as you want it to be tall.

img 4 box corners are an easy way to add stability to the bag, make a stronger and better looking bottom. To do this, just fold the bottom corners of the bag towards the straps, flattening out the side seam. stitch around the triangle shape that will form.

img 5 Ribbon, Lace, Buttons, Beads, or patches can be sewn, glued or ironed onto your bag to add the little details that make your bag stand out. Fabric paints or markers are an easy way of adding flair as well. Your only limit is your imagination!

Step 7: Get Informed

I feel very strongly about the need to reduce the numbers of disposable bags we all use. There are serious effects throughout the lifecycle of these bags. From production, to transportation, to disposal, It is staggering to try and wrap your mind around the statistics involved. I hope that you'll read what I've written here, maybe check out a few of the links I've included at the bottom and seriously consider carrying your own bag. Just think of the difference you could make, even if you reduce just some of the bags you carry home.

- Plastic or paper bags are not really free. The cost of these bags is figured in when the store sets the prices on their product. Reducing the number of bags a store has to buy will reduce their cost, which they can pass on to you.

-According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.

- Most plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which is made from crude oil and natural gas, nonrenewable resources.

-There are no wide-spread recycling programs for plastic bags, it would cost too much for too little result.

- 47% of wind borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic and much of this is plastic bags.

What about the paper bags?

-Paper comes from trees (obvious, I know)

-Most paper bags are made from virgin materials (not recycled) or with a very small recycled content because recycled paper is generally not as strong.

-Paper bags weigh more than plastic and therefore require more resources to transport

- It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.
Energy required to produce bags (in British thermal units): Plastic bags: 594 BTU; Paper bags: 2511 BTU.

Here are a few links to learn some more:



    • Fat Challenge

      Fat Challenge
    • Jewelry Challenge

      Jewelry Challenge
    • Pie Contest

      Pie Contest

    24 Discussions


    9 years ago on Introduction

    For the money the reusable grocery bags now being sold are hard to beat. I'm male, not that much of a greenie, but I'm not to proud to be seen using them. They do make carry the items that 75-100 feet from parking space to middle of living room much easier. Yea I know purchasing isn't in the spirit of instructables, so save me any grief. :)


    11 years ago on Introduction

    The only problem I see with tote bags is that they can get disgusting if you carry things that drip in the, also you'd need to make several if you buy a lot of stuff. These can be especially useful at bulk places like Costco where they often don't give you bags.

    3 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I understand what you mean about the bags getting dirty, but one of the benefits of this type of bag is that you can choose a fabric that is easily machine washable. Since this design uses two layers of fabric, there is less chance of any leakage getting out of the bag. This could be lessened still by picking a waterproof or water resistant fabric. You could also reuse some old plastic bags. Even if they're not as strong as they once were, you could keep some in your tote to wrap around questionable items (I always wrap up raw meat, for example). Otherwise, you could choose to just use a tote to carry dry items, like bread, canned goods, or boxed items. I think what's really important is just to try and reduce the number of bags we use. Personally, I carry one very large tote with a long shoulder strap. sometimes I buy more than I can fit in my bag and carry the rest home in plastic. I'm not going to tell anyone that they have to give up the disposable bags completely, but consider that a sack like this will hold about twice as much as the disposable. Even if you bring in just one bag with you and have the rest of your stuff bagged regularly you could be saving 2-3 bags per trip. Depending on your shopping habits, that could really add up in just a year! Now imagine if everyone brought just one bag in with them. I hope my reply doesn't come across as a rant... I don't mean it to be. I really appreciate your comments, because that tells me that you've at least thought about it, and that makes me smile. Thanks for your thoughts!


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    To help the environment further, go veg!

    ------begin quote------
    A 2006 United Nations report summarized the devastation caused by the meat industry by calling it "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." The report recommended that animal agriculture "be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."1

    Many leading environmental organizations, such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, are now establishing the link between eating meat and eco-disasters like climate change. According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads.
    ------end quote------



    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I just toss mine in the washer if they start to get gross. Meat gets a plastic inner bag, and some fabrics (especially heavy canvas) are pretty good about controlling leaks. Of course, all my cloth bags are conference freebies- I want to make some of my own! We never have enough.

    An alternative to buying the fabric off the bolt, is to hit the remmant bin at the fabric store or I have found fabric at thrift stores for even cheaper! Of course I always give any fabric a wash before stitching, so it will be pre-shrunk. I even used old ties as handles instead of ribbon, top stitching the "handle" part, so it doesn't stretch as much. A fun project and makes great looking custom bags.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    If you or a friend have a cat or dog and buy dry food in the large bags--the bags are now made of some nearly indestructible plastic/fiber combination, but when cut apart on the original seam lines, there is quite enough to recycle into a marvelous tote. Dog & Kitty pictures free!


    10 years ago on Step 1

    Sewing, craft and dressmaking stores often have scrap fabrics (leftovers from dressmaking, or short pieces off the end of the cloth bolt) that they sell at very cheap prices. Old curtains are another good source of strong fabric as well.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    great site haven't made bags yet can't wait to do some. I live in Australia and from January 1 we are plastic bag free. Fran


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Great! I've made about 4 bags this way, and even though I mostly use them for carrying my stuff around, they work very well. Nice job! :D


    10 years ago on Introduction

    It might be advantages to use oil cloth for one of your bags for things like meats that might leak.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    How do I remember to take them to the store with me!!! I always end up in the check-out line and then remember I have a dozen paper bags to recycle and my reusables still in the car!!!

    2 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    We were having the same issue but it's corrected itself. We would 1)have one of us run out and get them OR 2)use the COSTCO approach and put all of the loose items back into our cart, roll them out to the car and pack them in our bags there. This has seemed to cure us as we may forget our bags 1-2 times per month at every store we travel to (grocery, dry goods, clothing stores) so we aren't taking out as many loose items anymore. We now remember to take them on our way into the store. I think it took us 6 mos to go from remembering to take them into the store about 50% of the time to 98% of the time now. To remember to get them back in the car, immediately after unloading them, stuff all of them into one bag and hang it on the doorknob of the doorway to your garage or front door. If you see a bag hanging there, take it with you when you exit that door the next time. Good luck!


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I have several bags that I keep on the front seat of my vehicle. It doesn't take long to get into the habit of grabbing a few bags as you're heading into the grocery store, particularly if you shop at a store that offers rebates. Lowes Foods offers greenpoints (50 per bag in my area). EarthFare gives you a few pennies off your total bill. I've even trained DBF to bring his own bags. :-)


    11 years ago on Introduction

    This is great, everyone should have these. I'm commenting because you said supermarket ones are ugly and costly. In Australia they can be as cheap as $1.50 to $2, and tho ugly are bloody convenient and well shaped, with flat bottoms for great storage. You say to carry one, I take about 6 or 7! And when I think I have too many the spares usually end up coming in handy. Also, some added tips for convenience - sometimes ugly cloth showbags from fairs and whatnot, or strong cardboard bags that fashion boutiques use when you buy clothes, make great grocery shopping bags. And those (often) ugly bags you get sometimes with cosmetics, perfumes, magazines (I got some tote with Lancome) and whatnot - same again. Please, use anything! Avoid plastic.


    Reply 11 years ago on Step 2

    Oh, I'm sorry if it wasn't clear. The length of the strap is the same as the original width of the fabric (if you're cutting your straps from the same fabric as the main bag, that is.) If you're using different fabric for the straps than for the main bag you'll want it to be about as long as the long side of the main bag fabric. Of course you can always make them longer, but I don't recommend going any shorter. Since fabric widths vary (generally they're 32" to 36", but can be shorter or longer) it will depend on the fabric you're using. I hope this is clear. I've uploaded another image to illustrate the cutting for the straps, assuming that you're using a single length of fabric. (it's image 4 in step two. It looks like the one below, but bigger) Let me know if you have any other questions, and thanks for looking!


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Nice! I am totally going to make some of these. We reuse our plastic and paper bags until they are literally falling to bits. These will be cuter! They seem very easy to make. Great instructable!

    It's fantastic to know that conservationist ideals run in the family! I JUST finished making my own shopping tote, and have picked out fabrics with my roommates to make theirs! Way to go!