June 3, 2015 posted by littlewhitecottage

How to make a tote (shopping) bag of any size…

This tutorial shows you how to make a shopping bag of any size. You don’t need a pattern and you don’t need to measure. I’ve designed this tutorial to be as easy to follow as possible and I haven’t used any complicated sewing techniques or phrases. This is how I teach in my sewing classes. I believe everyone can very much learn to sew without confusion -if you give a dressmaking paper pattern to a total beginner there’s total confusion.

Sewing can be fun and easy from the very beginning and you can make fab things from day 1…

Here’s what you need:

Fabric for the outside of your bag ( 1/2 a metre would absolutely do it)

Fabric for the lining of your bag (you can use old sheets/pillowcases or old shirts for this. It needs to be there but doesn’t have to be the ‘best’ fabric)




A sewing machine and thread.




As I said this is a ‘no measure’ tutorial. To find the right sized bag you would like have a look around your house to see if there is anything that would be right. My first set of tote bags were for children and I used Hubbie’s book of cycle maintenance and I simply drew around that. A chopping board would do or put 2 books together to make a larger bag.

I’m not against measuring, in fact there are many aspects of sewing that require you to be totally accurate but this is a first project and I’ve seen in my 4 years of teaching sewing that there are a few areas that beginners get nervous of and measuring is one of them. Rules are there to be bent as far as I’m concerned if it helps understanding and enthusiasm and makes my ladies want to carry on then it’s absolutely fine with me.

I’ve used my cutting board as a measure and drawn round the right, top and left and sides.


I haven’t draw along the bottom as I wanted it to be a little shorter. I used the board as a straight line to join the left and right hand lines together.


Cut out your shape.


Use it as a template and pin it to another piece of fabric. You will need 2 of your front fabric and 2 of your liner.

Here are my 2 front fabric pieces.


Use one of the front pieces as a template and pin it to your lining fabric and cut out.


Cut another piece. You will now have your 2 front pieces and 2 lining pieces.


Cut a centimetre off the bottom of the 2 white pieces. The liner needs to be a little shorter than the outer fabric so it doesn’t bunch up in the bag when it’s finished.


Turn over the top of all the pieces of fabric 1cm and iron. Press the fabric to the wrong side as in the picture.


Place your 2 pieces of fabric together right sides together (fabric has a wrong side and a right side. The right side is the side that has the pattern and the wrong side is the back of the fabric)


I’ve started with the outer fabric to sew first. Put the pinned fabric under the presser foot. I sew with the foot on the edge of the fabric as a sewing guide. Go forward and backwards to lock your sewing so it doesn’t start to come undone. Sew down to the bottom, turn the corner (make sure you have the needle IN the fabric when you lift the presser foot and turn it. The needle acts as an anchor to keep the sewn line straight)


Once you’ve sewn the 1st piece of fabric sew the other one in the same way but place your presser foot a 1/2cm further in than when you had the foot on the edge of the fabric. This makes the lining a little smaller than the out fabric which it needs to be in order to fit.


Turn out the outer fabric and press (iron) the bag flat. Ironing is a really important part of sewing as it really helps with the finish.

Don’t turn the lining out.


Place the lining inside the outer bag. Put your fingers in the corners to make it fit.


Open out the seams -as per the picture – and line them up.


Pin them. Don’t worry if the seams peek out over the edge you can tuck them back in with a pin just before you sew.


Stretch out the bag and ease the fabrics together. Match up the other seams, open them out as before and pin.


Put a pin in the middle of the top to hold them together. You don’t need anymore pins than that.


Now for the handles.

I have a handle template but you don’t need one. All we’re going to do is cut long rectangles: 2 from the outer fabric and 2 from the lining.

You can use a ruler so you don’t have to measure.


How long to make them? You can use a piece of string and put it over your shoulder as if you it were straps and take that as the measurement you need.


Cut 2 of the outer and 2 of the inner fabric. Use the 1st one you cut as a template for the others.


Now you need to iron the straps.

Start with the lining fabric and fold the sides (see the picture) into the centre and press.


Now press the outer fabric but not quite to the middle as per the lining fabric. This is so the lining fabric is slightly smaller and doesn’t overhang on the straps.


Here are the pressed straps.


Lay the lining fabric on top of the outer.


And pin together.


Here are the pinned straps.


Now you need to sew the straps.


Sew close the edge. If you don’t the straps will have a flap of fabric that doesn’t look nice.


I keep my right hand at the bottom of the straps when I sew and just use my left hand as a guide. This is so the 2 layers are kept taught and don’t come apart.


Sew down to the bottom and along the bottom keeping the needle in the fabric as you turn.


Do this to both straps.

Once made lay the strap out as per the picture. It’s easy to sew the straps on wrong so imagine you are using the bag and fold the strap around your fingers and lay it down.


Open up the 2 layers of fabric. we are going to put the straps in the middle of these layers.


Put the strap in. Poke it down around 3cms.


Measure from the edge of the strap to the seam on the side of the bag. I used the other strap to help with this. Use this measurement to help you to place the other end of the strap so they are equal.


This is the same measurement.


Here’s the strap pinned.


Turn the bag over.


Pin the other strap. You can use the first one as a guide.

Pick up the bag and let it drop to see if both straps are the same length. This is the time to adjust them if they aren’t.


Take off your accessory box to show the ‘free arm’ of your machine. If you’re not sure how to do this the front part of your machine should come away – as in the picture. The free arm lets you sew smaller tubular items such as sleeves, trousers and cuffs.


Place the free arm into your bag and thread the strap (just the one) under the presser foot. Make sure the bag is smoother out and not ruffled in anyway.


I start sewing at the seam so the front and the back of the bag are kept neat.


Hand wind your needle into the machine. (Use the hand winder on the side of your machine – the big circle- wind it towards you just until your needle is in the fabric) This then acts as an anchor and you can take the pin of the seam out.


Start by sewing forwards and backwards to lock your stitches so they don’t come undone.

I have my right hand in the bag gently helping it come out from under the machine as it moves round. I also keep the facric taught pulling is just slightly. This keeps the 2 layers together. My left hand (is taking the picture so this is what I do although you can’t see it!) just rests on the fabric guiding it. Don’t pull or tug the fabric with your left hand.


Sew all the way round remembering to sew forwards and backwards at the end. Trim your threads and you’ve finished!


Here it is hanging


As you now know how to make a tote bag you can make them in all different sizes. Small party bag sized ones are great for parties, smaller shopping bags and also book and iPad sized ones too. You can also make them out of different fabrics – upholstery off cuts are great for tote bags. Shower curtain fabric makes great larger shopping bags that can scrunch up and fit in a handbag.

Have fun with this tutorial and let me know how you get on.


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