tote bags 101

A couple of people have asked me if I use a pattern for the little bags I sew. Not usually, but the bags are generally adaptations of one basic design. I thought I’d share that design in case anyone is interested.
First, cut out the fabric! You can cut out either one piece where the fold would be the bottom of the bag or two pieces (you’d have to cut out two pieces if the pattern in the fabric goes in one direction; otherwise, the design would be upside down on one side of the bag). I use 1/4″ seam allowances, so if you want the finished bag to be 5″ wide and 7″ tall, your one piece would need to be 5 1/2″ wide and 14 1/2″ long. The example is one piece, folded:
bag 1 fabcut.JPG
You will want to cut a lining as well. It will be the same size as the exterior.
Stitch the sides of the bag, right sides together and using a 1/4″ seam. Also stitch the bottom if you cut two pieces instead of one. Next, you will sew in the corners of the bottom of the bag to create a flat bottom. Grab the bottom corner and fold the front and back of the bag down:
bag 2 bottom.JPG
Pin where you want to stitch. This will depend on how large of a bottom (heh heh, that sounds funny) you want. I measured in 1″ from the corner:
bag 3 bottom cu.JPG bag 4 bottom sewn.JPG
Repeat with the other corner and with the lining.
Straps are next. I used a light webbing in the example, but you can use just about anything. Cut the handle about 1″ longer than you want. If you want to sew straps using the same fabric as your bag exterior, you can either sew a tube and turn it inside out or cut a wide strip, fold in 1/4″ and press on either side, then fold the strip in half and stitch down one end.
bag 5 straps.JPG
Now you are going to attach the lining and the outer portion of the bag and the straps! You need to pin the right sides of the bag together, so this will most likely entail turning one of the bags inside out and inserting it inside the other. Make sure the side seams line up. Pin the sides and the centers of the front and back. Now take a handle and insert it between the lining and the exterior. Make sure each side of the handle is equidistant from its corresponding side seam (I think I went in 1 1/4″ from the side for these handles). I like to have part of the handle sticking up about 1/4 or 1/2″ from the edge.
bag 6 strap insertion.JPG bag 7 strap insertion b.JPG
Okay, so now you have everything pinned. Stitch 1/4″ from the edge, leaving a couple inches open (I usually leave the portion between a handle unsewn). You have to have this opening so you can turn the bag inside out, like so:
bag 8 insideout.JPG
You’re nearly finished! Push the lining into the bag, and if you are detail oriented you will carefully press the top edge (I am lazy, so I did not press; I do something called finger pressing. I love that term). Pin the top edge, making sure the lining does not creep up and become visible (this is a good reason to make a two-tone lining. I often sew a strip of the exterior fabric to a lining piece so that the top part of the lining will match the outside of the bag. Comprende?). Carefully pin the section that is still open. After you sew it you shouldn’t be able to tell where the opening is!
bag 9 topedge pinned.JPG
All righty, now you are going to edge stitch the top:
bag 10 top edge sewing.JPG
And VOILA! Your bag is complete! You may, of course, embellish as you please.
bag 11 done.JPG

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34 Responses to tote bags 101

  1. Jennifer says:

    That’s just the way I make mine, too. Great idea to post it on your blog. (By the way, I am done with my Moving Hands blog–just in case you try to go the page and it’s not there anymore!) Linings are sooo easy, aren’t they?

  2. Becky says:

    Great totes! Thanks for sharing your design. I’m bookmarking this for when I get my sewing machine. [Hopefully this year, already. Kid’s in school now so I really have no excuse :-)] In the meantime, I’m sending it to my sister. Maybe I can convince her to make me a fab tote

  3. kerrie says:

    Thanks for sharing that Mariko, I love seeing the way that other people make bags. Yours always look so cute.

  4. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much for the tutorial. I am in awe of folks who are so comfortable at a sewing machine. I am going to give this a try!

  5. Em says:

    This is a great tutorial–you make it look so easy! The one time my mom let me use the sewing machine when I was a kid, it did not go well. Looking back, I blame the machine. I wish I had room for one today.

  6. Kristin says:

    Thanks for the great instructions – I’ve been admiring your bags for a while!

  7. Heidi says:

    So sad that Moving Hands is no more…I just noticed that!
    Anyway I love the finger-pressing technique myself. Thank you for this awesome guide!

  8. froggy says:

    I love your bags and can’t wait to try your pattern. Thanks so much for sharing it! What a treat!

  9. Rachael says:

    You are AMAZING! Love this tutorial.

  10. JStrizzy says:

    Wow, thanks for the sewing class! I’ve been thinking about trying a bag, now that I’m comfortable with pillows, and your instructions are so clear! I can’t wait to have a Mariko bag…

  11. Silvia says:

    Oh so cute! I think I’ve got another sewing project.

  12. melissa says:

    thanks for the great and easy-to-follow tutorial! nice pictures too!

  13. Susan in PA says:

    Oh my, now I want to learn how to sew! Must show your directions to my mom who is the current reigning sewer of the family. Thanks, Mariko!

  14. Kristi says:

    I’ve been making bags and totes for the last couple of months, but I sure could have used your tutorial when I was first starting. It is much clearer that the others I had seen. Now I know where to send people who ask me how to make them! Thanks!

  15. Amy says:

    Clever girl! No wonder you can whip out bags whenever you want! Your basic template pattern is very nice 🙂

  16. Allison says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m very excited to give your fab instructions a shot.
    Thank you!

  17. Marissa says:

    Hey Mariko! Nice work! The little tassels look great on that one tote, too. And… GO BEARS!

  18. Jennifer says:

    Your photos are really great for explaining how to put in the handles and lining. I usually baste the handles into place to avoid running over pins when I stitch that part.

  19. Marie says:

    I love it. I think I’m getting in the bag business. Pure inspiration here!

  20. Qdog says:

    Your explanation of how to place the handles and to sew the corners is so clear. This is similar to the process in the Sew Fast, Sew Easy book, but for some reason makes so much more sense. Thanks!

  21. stef says:

    thanks for sharing 🙂 mariko, I’m going to make some cute spring totes of my own now.

  22. christy says:

    Where do you get such great fabrics?!?

  23. Jen L says:

    Wow! Your totes are fabulous. Thanks for the great tutorial. I’m going to visit the fabric store ASAP to track down some fab prints like the ones you’ve shown! Keep up the great work.

  24. April says:

    After following the link from Not Martha, I read and memorized the instructions here, never quite understanding anyone elses. This weekend, I made a bag! I’m giving it to a 4yo girl for her birthday!
    Thank you for the wonderful instructions!!!!

  25. Carrie B. says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial!!! I made a lunch tote for myself this weekend, and some totes for baby gifts are next in line. If you have any other sewing project instructions you’d like to share… feel free! 😉
    Thanks again.

  26. Lucy says:

    What a great tutorial! I have plans to make some in different sizes so I can stop carrying stuff to work in brown paper bags (things like lunch or knitting or books).
    I’m a fan of the super eggplant! You rule!

  27. Cathy says:

    You’re amazing for taking the time to post this mini-tutorial! Your instructions and bags are both absolutely fantastic, you can tell you are very talented.

  28. ani says:

    Thank you! Thank you!!!! I too had thought of doing this but was afraid to try it. Now knowing that you tried it and succeeded greatly it gives me confidence to try it as well. Great site!

  29. Nancy says:

    Such a great sewing lesson! I actually bought a sewing machine just to try it, and it turned out great. One question– am i missing something (i am a beginner) or is there some way to keep the lining inside the bag, beyond than the top stitching– like tacking the lining and the bag together at the bottom?
    Super eggplant rocks!

  30. Donna says:

    In order to sew knitting needle cases, I recently bought a new sewing machine (mine died years ago of neglect in the closet). I used the sew two placemats together project I found in the Carol Duval section of DIY. Now that I’ve stumbled onto your bag project, my machine is jumping for joy. Thank you for sharing!!!

  31. Clarissa says:

    This is the first site that clearly explained making a box bottom. Thank you so much!

  32. Bree says:

    thank you sooo much for your website! its a life saver… ive been wanting to make a bag but i wasnt sure where to start and i was looking through lots of other websites but yours is the only one that made any sense to me… thanks again.

  33. Lise says:

    Do you have any ideas for making the bags stiffer? Perhaps something between the fabric and the lining.

  34. Nicole says:

    Just wanted to say thanks SO much for the instruction on how to make a tote bag. The first one I made was just practice but I just made another today and I love it! Your instructions are so easy to follow. thanks again =)

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