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Make a Tote Bag

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One of my resolutions for 2015 is to sew more. My grandmother was a seamstress (and still sews), so I had a lot of exposure to sewing growing up. Her basement was her sewing room, and it was always covered in beautiful fabric remnants and leftover beading, both of which she’d often let us take home. We worked on a few projects together, like Christmas potholders for my parents, but that was about the extent of it.

I also had some exposure to sewing in a middle school home economics class (yes, that was still a thing in 1999). Fast forward to last year—I was furloughed from work, bored, and shopping for wedding veils. I was having a really hard time finding something simple and affordable, so I decided I’d learn to sew and make a veil myself.

Hey—I had nothing but time on my hands, and I figured I might as well make use of it. So I went out, found a sewing machine on sale, and brought it home. My then-fiancé thought furlough had driven me mad.

I did successfully make my veil, but after that, the sewing machine sat collecting dust in the closet (aside from a few minor projects like minor mending and cat toys…yes, cat toys). Since 2015 is right around the corner, I figured I’d get a jump start on my resolution by completing a simple project. I decided to make a reusable bag, which is something we use every day. The approach seemed simple…a bag with two sides and two straps. I can do that, and I did do that:


Not too shabby. If you want to make one yourself, here’s what you need:

  • Sturdy fabric. I used reupholstering fabric I found in the remnant bin at my local Jo-Ann. I bought one yard knowing that I wouldn’t need that much but thinking I would probably mess up something and need extra.
  • Measuring tape & pins.
  • Scissors (remember to use your fabric scissors).
  • Iron & ironing board/pad.
  • Sewing machine.

Here’s the fabric I chose. I did not wash and dry it before working with it because I was impatient. I suggest washing and drying fabric before working with it and will do so in the future. 🙂

sewing for beginners tote bag

Follow the steps below to learn how to complete this sewing for beginners tote bag project.

Step #1: Measure and cut the pieces you need for the bag. You’ll be cutting two big rectangles for the body of the bag and two long, thin strips for the bag’s handles.

I used the measurements 20 x 15 inches for the two body pieces and 38 x 2.5 inches for the two strap pieces, but you can adjust those if you’d like your bag to be bigger or smaller. Remember to build in a seam allowance when measuring and cutting your fabric; the seam allowance is the area you’ll sew to make a seam.

You can also use an existing bag as  template for sizing. On your fabric, you can just make small marks on the wrong side of the fabric to indicate where you’ll need to cut. I made small dots with a little marker. Once you’ve measured and cut out your pieces, they’ll look like this:

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #2: Pin the two big pieces together with the right sides facing one another (see below, top photo). If you sucked at cutting your original pieces (like I did), you may need to do some trimming around your pieces to ensure all sides and corners match up (see below, bottom photo).

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #3: You are now ready to begin sewing. You’re going to sew together three sides of your two big pieces; do not sew the side you’d like to be the opening (i.e., the top) of your bag. Beginning with one side, stitch a straight seam on each of the three sides. After you’ve sewn shut the three sides, trim the excess fabric from the seams, remove the pins, and flip the bag inside out. It will look something like this:

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #4: Take a blunt object, like the eraser end of a pencil, and poke out the corners to make them as sharp and defined as possible. Then, iron your newly created, strapless bag to flatten the seams:

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #5: Next, you’re going to create a french seam, which will give your bag a clean look around the edges. To create a french seam, you’ll simply sew a second straight seam along each side.

However, you’ll sew the second straight seam with the wrong sides of the fabric together, unlike in step 3. By sewing a second straight seam along each of the three sides, you’ll essentially be encapsulating the first seam. When finished, it will look like the next two photos:

sewing for beginners tote bag
sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #6: You’ve now completed all three sides of the bag. Now, you just need to hem the opening of the bag. To do so, simply fold down the open (i.e., the top) side of the bag about an inch all the way around. Fold it down on the inside of the bag, not the outside. Pin or sew the fold in place; then, sew one straight line around the entire opening. Trim the excess fabric from your seam.

Step #7: Now it’s time to work with the straps. Lay one strap out on your ironing board/pad and fold along each of the sides (see photo below). It helps if you iron the folded sides down as you go; this negates the need for pins.

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #8: Once your strap looks like the photo above, you’ll fold it in half once more and sew it shut. I also used the iron to define this fold and did not need pins. It will look something like this:

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #9: Sew a straight seam down the entire length of the strap. Then, repeat steps 7, 8, and 9 with the second strap. When completed, your straps will look like this:

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #10: Now you need to attach your straps to your bag. Place your tape measure along the top (opening) of your bag. On the inside of the bag, make small markings to indicate where to sew in your straps. The placement is up to you. You’ll sew in the straps on the inside of the bag.

Step #11: Fold the end of one strap over onto itself about one inch; then, place it on the inside of the bag at the marking you made in step 10. Sew the end of the strap onto the bag by using a straight stitch to make a rectangle:

sewing for beginners tote bag

The outside of your bag will look like this (except hopefully a bit neater than mine):

sewing for beginners tote bag

Step #12: Repeat for the other three strap ends. You’re done!

how to sew an easy tote bag

Now you can go shopping fueled by the sense of self-satisfaction that is knowing you made your own bag. Here I am mirror-shotting my bag mere hours before coming down with the flu. My shopping will have to wait a few days.


how to sew an easy tote bag

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