Making a Reusable Shopping Bag (Tote Bag)




Introduction: Making a Reusable Shopping Bag (Tote Bag)

This instructable shows you how to make a simple reusable shopping bag.

It is aimed more at someone who is new to sewing, the concepts and such are fairly simple and can lead to more advanced work.

I made it at TechShop ( using the standard sewing machines.  The bag was started at Menlo Park, and finished at San Jose.

You will need for this bag:-

- A quantity of fabric (I have used Ripstop nylon), if purchased, a single yard should be sufficient for a single bag (and give you extra material at the end).
- A small amount of nylon webbing, or other heavy duty fabric for the handle.
- Thread to suit your material (I used cotton thread of different colours for my bag, but I should have used nylon for material matching).
- A round needle for the machine, sized for your fabric and cotton (I used a Ball-Point 100/16 needle).
- Free time (the most expensive item in the list).

Now, the bag you make will not be cheaper than just buying one of the cheap bags at the supermarket, but you can make it any reasonable size, and it won't have a corporate logo unless you want to put one on it :)

An important note: Sewing tools should not be used for anything else, no cutting of paper with your sewing scissors, or pins used for unclogging glue tubes.  If you use sewing tools that way, never re-use them for sewing, as they will cause you problems.

NOTE: At the moment this instructable is a work in progress.  Please request any clarifications in the notes, and I'll update as necessary.

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Step 1: Dimension and Measure

First off you will need to figure out the size of the shopping bag you are making.  In my example photo's, I sized the bag to fit larger standard frozen pizza boxes, as those are fairly much the largest single item you might want to put in a shopping bag.  Given the dimensions of one of those boxes, it was decided that a bag with an internal volume of 16"x16"x7" (approx 40cm x 40cm x 18)  would be appropriate.  Given that, the fabric needed to be cut to fit those internal dimensions, with extra space for hems and sewing the parts together (about an inch is good, but as you get better smaller uses less material, and if you have problems larger is better to cover for mistakes).

Given the above, the dimensions of my sample bag fabric cuts was:-

Main Panel   : 41" x 18"
Side Panels : 7" x 18"

Now a typical bolt of cloth is 60" wide in the US (other countries might vary, but the bolt width is fairly stable country-wide), as such, I needed 55" total "length", so given that, I just cut a 18" wide section off my bolt.  The bolt was then put away, and the rest of the fabric here was cut off that 60" piece.

Next, I measured 20.5" up the folded over bolt piece, measuring from the edge to the end of the bolt (see the second photo).

Then, I remeasured the off cut piece to validate I could get both of the sidewall panels out, which I could, so those where cut out (The final picture for this step shows both end pieces on top of each other, you will notice they are different widths, this is corrected later when they are hemmed, you can cheat a lot this way with the fabric if you don't mind using a little too much.  And while you are getting used to sewing, I recommend overcutting a little and hemming it to the correct size, you then have space to fix other mistakes as appropriate).

Step 2: First Sewing

Next we hem each piece of fabric.  Once you have gotten more experience, hemming each piece of fabric is not actually needed, however as this is a shopping bag and it will be subjected to a lot of beating that something else might not be, it is good practice to do this anyhow.

First off we pin the hemline of the piece, notice the direction of the pins in the fabric, the heads are positioned so that when we sew the hem, we can remove the pins once they get close to the needle, on some sewing machines the machine can even automatically remove the pins as you sew (this was a trick my mother used to use), however I do not recommend this as if it does not work, you could break the machine's needle... and in the middle of a low sewing line this is not something you want to have happen :)

In my photo's below, you will note that I have used two different colours of thread, grey as per the material, and black, this was done for two reasons 1) I had a lot of black on the bobbin and did not want to rewind the bobbin with grey thread (lazy), and 2) it makes it easier to see the sewing line in the photo's.  You will also note that my hemline does not look perfectly straight, this is due too two things again, 1) I'm still gaining practice sewing, I've been sewing since a kid, but I don't sew very much, and 2) the fabric itself is wavy in the picture :)

In other words, this is a shopping bag, not clothing, so don't sweat the small details, as you get more practice your sewing will improve to be more straight, as will your cuts and other sewing work.

Step 3: Corners

The hardest part of hemming a piece is the corners, you will notice from the photo attached to this step how the fold of the material sits.  Also note that both hem sides are on the same side of the material.

This means that one side becomes the "outside" and one the "inside", or in other words one "good" side with only the thread line for the hemline, and the other side :)

This basically requires a special step as getting these corners is important to a good looking final product.  Take your time, make sure your corners fold correctly both when you pin, and when you sew the finished item.   Your patience here will be rewarded (I think that phrase is copyright Alton Brown, but I doubt he'd mind too much *grin*)

Step 4: Putting It Together

Now we have all the pieces, cut, hemmed (to the correct sizes *grin*), now we need to put all this together into a bag :)

First, lay out your main panel piece face (outside) up on the table, then pin the side panels face down (outside) to opposite edges of the main panel.  See the first photo above.  Make sure you match the top (open) ends of the panels as otherwise the bag will look really wonky (technical term *grin*).

Now here is where an experienced sewer might diverge from the directions herein, a truly experienced sewer might sew the entire side panel in at once.  For these instructions, I'm going to tell you how I did it, as I wanted to make sure it went correctly, and I don't have years of experience :)

For the rest of us, here's the simple method (though the results do not look as neat/trim as you can get sewing it in one pass usually, it is much easier even if it's more fiddly).

- Sew one side of the side panels to the main panel as pinned in the first photo.
- Once thread is trimmed, pin the side panels unsewed long edges to the other end of the long edges of the main panel, matching sides (see the second photo).  Again, make sure you are pinning the "inside" of the bag together, and you haven't rotated the outside around.
- Sew as before, this should give you a bag that has open bottom side edges, here's where we can clean up a little bit of oversizing, center the bottom edge of the main panel leaving the excess sticking out, and pin and sew.  Your corners won't be perfect here unless you are a better sewer than me, and also managed to get the material cut exactly to the right size (remember, no pattern here, so we measured....)

The above step will be easier or more difficult depending on your sewing machine, you will need to feed a large bunch of material between the needle and the main body of the sewing machine, it's just how this goes together, take it slow, steady and make sure you aren't sewing together more than the pieces you intend to sew together.

When done with the sewing here, you should have a bag similar to the one pictured in the third photo (ripstop nylon means the bag can semi-stand up by itself, which is handy too *grin*).

Now, turn the bag inside out, and you have the correct outside on the outside, and all your over-hemming is hidden inside the bag where people won't notice it :)  The last photo shows the completed bag, right side out.

Step 5: Add Handles

Now we've got the main bag built, we need to have some method of carrying it around.

You could hem some of the other fabric in a thin strip then turn it inside out so the hem is on the inside, and then attach, however I find I carry heavy loads for long periods of time with any bag I have (and this bag can be used for a large number of different things other than just shopping...), so this Instructable both cheats, and gives us stronger handles :)

Start by cutting two pieces of the Nylon Webbing to a size that is suitable for your handles adding an additional 10 inches (I went with a little over 28 inches for my bags, large hands, longer legs, all that stuff *grin*, but you can size this to your needs, and I recommend doing so once you know what those are), see photo 1.

Next we need to measure the size of the main panel width (photo 2), we measure this now as it _should_ be the width we want if the hemming and such went well, but so far I'm yet to get that luck *grin*.  Once we know the width, we want a quarter of the width (or a third, depends on your handle length, you will need to find what works best for you), and that is where we pin the handles down (photo 3).  Make sure you pin at least 5" of webbing down to connect the handle, which on this bag is about 1/3 of it's length, which seems to make a reasonable position for strength.

Sewing nylon webbing on a bag this large is difficult normally, so your pins will always be in the wrong plate to sew, just be patients and it will all hold together just fine.

Now, sewing Nylon Webbing is difficult for most machines, that is why we went with a Ball-Point needle instead of a universal or standard needle, this lets the needle slide between the weave of the webbing rather than trying to cut through, so it's less work for the machine (I found with this bag, and the TechShop machines, it was easier to sew the handles on, than hem the corners for the machine).

I have found that a reasonably strong method of sewing the handles on, are to start in one of the upper corners (near the opening of the bag), sew down the length of the webbing, pause the machine rotate the bag to sew across the webbing, pause the machine, rotate the bag to sew back up the webbing towards the opening, then pause right near the top, and sew completely across the webbing going a little off, reverse sew all the way back, and repeat a few times (depends on your machine, your thread strength, material strength, etc, but with rip-stop nylon and good cotton thread 4-5 times seems a good hold).  Then finish off the sew line and you've got one handle end done (photo 4).

Repeat for the other three handle ends, and you'll have a complete bag once you trim all your threads, and if you've used good fabric it will last you quite a while.

Once you've mastered this, making larger or more complex bags are possible, and watch this site for a special bag design I'm in the process of making if you happen to use the laser cutters frequently at TechShop :)

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    2 Discussions

    Nice job! And those straps really look like they are going to stay on which is really good for shopping bags!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    That's the idea :)

    I'm working on some extras for some testing, and once that's done I'll be trying to figure out exactly how much weight one of these bags can hold before starting to show problems, I know it can hold over 20lbs (given other stuff I had to pack in the first one I made).