Friday, January 14, 2011

How to: Make a tote bag for knitting, crafting or toting

I can't believe I didn't get better pictures before gifting this...

I do realize there are probably a million and a half free tote bag tutorials floating around on the web, but I haven't seen anything quite like mine so I thought I'd share.  I absolutely love this bag I created to hold all my various knitting projects and tools and have already made several more as gifts.  If you didn't guess on the timing of this tutorial, yup, the one pictured here was indeed a gift for a certain someone, Granola Mama in this case.  I must say with this pattern there is something I really enjoy about picking out all the various fabrics and seeing how they work together.  { it's located in PDF format here}  Here's what you'll need to make one for yourself:
  • 4 pieces of 18"x 8" fabric for the outside of the tote, one 4 1/2 " x 7 1/2" for the closure, and 2 more pieces 4 1/2" x 28" for the straps
  • 3 pieces of 18" x 7" contrast fabric for outside of bag
  • lining fabric 1/2 yard of 45" wide fabric
  • interfacing (I use either medium or heavy weight), 4 of 18" x 8", 2 of 18" x 7"
  • batting, 4 of 18" x 8", 2 of 18" x 7"
  • fusible interfacing, enough for the straps and closure fabric
  • zipper (if you wish to put in a zippered pocket, you'll need some extra pieces of fabric also)
  • button or velcro
It is actually a pretty straight forward design (since I came up with it I'd be really surprised if it were anything but dead simple!) and doesn't require any fancy stitch work, well at least not anything I'd consider fancy.

materials all assembled and ready to sew!

The first thing I do is cut out all the pieces of fabric before I even think of pulling out the sewing machine.  This way I make sure I have enough of everything, although it seems I am forever running short on either batting or interfacing!  First thing I do is to make a little pocket for the outside of the bag, take that third piece of contrast fabric, fold it so the right sides are together into an 8x9 square.  Sew along the raw fabric edge (opposite the fold), fold it right side out and press.  Don't worry about the sides, they will be sewn up later.

Then I make little sandwiches of my outer bag fabric-batting-interfacing.  I layer it like that so it will be strong enough to hold all my stuff, I have actually tossed my DSLR in my tote on many occasions along with my knitting projects and the bag has been able to hold that additional weight just fine.  The bag should work fine if you choose to just have one big piece of interfacing and one of batting between the outer layers of fabric and the lining.  I prefer to make sandwiches as I feel it gives some extra sturdiness to the finished product.  On one of the contrast sandwiches layer the pocket you just sewed on top about 4" from the top and sew about 1/8" from the bottom of the pocket.  Now to start sewing the bag together!

fabric sandwich components

pocket placement, I put the folded edge up top for strength

I assemble the outsides of the bag first, a front and a back which are identical.  Take one sandwich of the main outer fabric and one of the contrast fabric and line them up with the long sides matched up to sew along, my seam allowance is usually between 1/4" and often closer to 1/2" as I can't seem to cut anything the same size to save my life (I also don't recommend using striped fabric as I did, it really shows up the crooked seams!).  Once that seam is done line up another main fabric sandwich along the other long side of the contrast fabric and seam.  Press the seams, trim excess fabric and set aside.  Then sew together the other 2 main fabric sandwiches and one contrast sandwich for the other half of the tote in the same manner.  Press those seams and trim the excess fabric too, now you have a front and back for your bag.

front completed, note the pocket on the center panel
front and backs laid right sides together to sew around 3 outside edges

Now place the outsides of the tote bag right sides together (make sure when placing the side with the pocketed contrast sandwich you have the pocket facing up, wish I had the first time!) and sew along the sides and bottom.  It can be left at that, but I like to square up the bottom by folding the bottom seam so it lines up with the side seam to make a triangular shape and stitching a seam perpendicular to the bottom seam, I make it about 3" long.  Do this on both bottom corners and then trim off the excess.

where to sew to square up the bottom corners
the bag standing up with the marked corner
the bottom corner right side out now, pretty isn't it?

Next up are the straps, first fuse the interfacing to the shoulder strap fabric and the fabric for the closure strap, follow the manufacturers directions on how to fuse together (if I tried to tell you I'd probably get it wrong and then you'd be mad at me-and I really don't like people mad at me!).  Then fold the shoulder straps right side together in half lengthwise and stitch along the seam, fold right side out and press.  Next topstitch along the length of the straps on each side about 1/8" in from the edge.  Don't worry about sewing the ends shut, they will be hidden inside the bag.  For the closure strap fold in half lengthwise right sides together and sew along the side and along the bottom, leaving one opening.  Fold right side out and press, topstitch around the three closed sides about 1/8" in from the edge. 

straps with fused interfacing, cut and ready to sew
closure strap right side out and topstitched

Now to do the lining, sewing it into a tube 18" tall and the whole width of the fabric around, well, check the fabric to your finished outside part of the tote (I had to cut 7" off of my lining fabric, leaving a piece 38" x 18", drat!).  Then sew along the bottom of the lining, leaving an opening about 6" long to pull the finished bag through later.  To finish it off nicely I fold the corners (lining up the two seams on one corner so they lay on top of one another) and stitch across the the corner as I did with the outside fabric.  If you want a zippered pocket inside your tote bag, do it now, I used this tutorial by Lisa of U-Handbag for mine (this tote didn't get a pocket because, well, to be honest I was just plain too tired and lazy by this point).

To put  it all together start with the outside of the bag right side out, place the closure strap at the center back (the side without the pocket is the back, unless you want to be backwards!), lining up the raw edges of the fabric of the strap and tote and pin.  Take your shoulder straps and place one on the back and one on the front of the bag, also lining up the raw edges of the straps with the raw edges of the tote bag and pin, make sure the strap isn't twisted.  I make sure the side edge of the straps line up with the seam between the main fabric and the contrast fabric.

straps laid on the tote which has already been inserted into the lining

Then take the lining, make sure it is wrong side out and put the whole outside of the totebag into it.  Line up all the raw edges, making sure side seams match up and pin all together.  Sew along the whole top of the bag then trim off the excess.  Remember that opening you left in the lining? now is when you will get to use it.  Pull the whole tote through the opening and make sure everything is sewn together, then stitch up the opening on the bottom of the lining.  Now you will need to warm up the iron again to press the seam along the top of the bag prior to topstitching all around the top edge just as with the straps.

that opening in the lining for the tote will be pulled right side out through
tote pulled right side out, lining still needs to be sewn closed
top stitching along the top of the bag
the strap where if you can imagine, there is a buttonhole, sigh...

Now just use whichever closure method you prefer, button/buttonhole or velcro on the closure strap and the front of the tote above the pocket opening, I place mine about 1 1/2" from the top of the tote.  Voila!  A new tote bag to stuff all your other projects into.  I hope you enjoyed my little tutorial, I know that I really enjoy making these tote bags for myself and my loved ones.  If you have any trouble please feel free to shoot me a message and I will try to clarify if anything I've written doesn't quite make sense.  Happy crafting!


    1. This is such a gorgeous bag; I love the design and the choice of fabric pattern. I am going to try to make it. Thank you so much for the step by step instructions :-)

    2. Thank you for the compliment! I love putting the different fabrics together and am planning on another one as a gift for a friend soon. More sewing, yea!

    3. Wonderful bag !!!
      Mirevan from Chambéry

      1. Thank you! I use it all the time and everyone I have made one for uses theirs regularly too.

    4. Love this! I have a blazer of my mom's that is too big for me and I want to keep it. I'm going to use it to make this tote. Thanks!!


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