This is the second project in our 'Level 1: Learn To Sew' online course.  [add link]

There are loads of great tutorials online for making a tote bag!  I thought that the best one for absolute beginners was by Dana Willard of Made Everydaythe techniques she uses are easy, and she explains and demonstrates them in a really clear manner. 

Here's Dana's video:
 

 

I've created some step-by-step written instructions with diagrams and photos which you can print out and refer to as you're sewing your tote bag (you'll find them below).  The instructions also contain various helpful hints and tips which aren't in the video, including how to finish the cut edges of the fabric inside your bag.

In her video, Dana shows two methods for making a tote bag.  I've provided instructions for the first method.  

photo of my tote bag

To make your tote bag, you will need:

a sewing machine
an iron and an ironing board
sewing machine needles Get a pack of 5 universal needles in different sizes (make sure it contains needles in these sizes: 90/14 and 100/16).
pins
a ruler
paper You'll be making a paper pattern for your tote bag, so you'll need paper that measures at least 18 inches by 16 inches (46 cm by 41 cm).  If you don't have a piece of paper that's that big, just tape or glue a few smaller sheets of paper together.  If you've bought one of our kits [insert link], we've included a piece of gridded paper which you can use to make your pattern.
masking tape or washi tape
sharp scissors You need really sharp scissors for cutting fabric. If you can, get a pair of dressmaking scissors that you'll just use for cutting fabric. This will keep them sharper for longer (cutting paper quickly dulls scissors)!
a seam ripper This is a sewist's best friend: we all make mistakes, and this great tool allows you to get rid of your mistakes and start again!
0.5 m of non-stretch medium-to-heavy-weight cotton fabric for making a tote bag

If you plan to wash your bag in the future, you may want to wash your fabric before you cut out your bag: if you don't do this, your finished bag may shrink when you wash it for the first time (and this could potentially ruin your bag).  Wash the fabric in the same way that you're planning to wash your bag in the future.  

1.5 m of webbing for the handles of your tote bag
    It's called webbing here in the UK (it might be called canvas twill tape in the US, as that's what Dana calls it).  Look for webbing that's 100% cotton or a blend of cotton and acrylic. Webbing that's 25 mm to 30 mm wide is a good choice for your bag.
    thread to match your fabric and your webbing I recommend Gutermann 'sew-all' thread. Don't use cheap thread in your sewing machine, as it will be prone to shed and break, and won't form nice stitches.  For your webbing, you can buy matching thread or thread in a contrasting colour: it's up to you!)

       

      If you don't already have all the materials and tools required for this project, make sure to have a look at the 'level 1' kits that we sell: they contain everything you need!  

      photo of kits

       Here are my step-by-step instructions:

      In Video  
      1. --

      Start by ironing your fabric, so as to remove any wrinkles.  

      Cut 2 rectangles of fabric which are 18 inches by 16 inches (46 cm by 41 cm).  Use the method described in step #1 of our napkin tutorial, so as to ensure that you end up with two matching, perfectly-cut rectangles.  [add link!]  As your napkin pattern is only slightly bigger than the pattern you'll need for your tote bag (your napkin pattern is 18.5 inches by 18.5 inches), you can modify your napkin pattern to create your tote bag pattern: just reduce one side by 2.5 inches (6 cm) and another side by 0.5 inches (1 cm).  If you're using the gridded paper which comes in our kit, this is super-simple, as each square is 1 cm wide!

      In cutting out your rectangles, follow the diagram below:

      I'm getting you to cut two shorter rectangles (from method 2 in the video), rather than one long rectangle that you fold in two (from method 1) because this last method doesn't work with many printed fabrics: you'll end up with the print right-side-up on one side of your bag and the print upside-down on the other side of your bag.  Since many of you will be using printed fabrics, I thought it would be easier to just show you a method which will work with whatever fabric you choose to use.  :-)  The cutting diagram above will also make sure that you're cutting out your rectangles in such a way that your print will face the right way (not sideways!).

      2. 8'45"

      Now, you're going to sew the side seams and bottom of your bag!

      I'm using white thread in the photos below because I want you to be able to see the stitches clearly.  You'll want to choose a thread that matches your fabric.  

      Put your two rectangles together, with the right sides (the nice side) on the inside.  Put a few pins along the two long edges and one of the short edges. The pins should be at a 90 degree angle to the cut edge of the fabric: this will make them easy-to-remove as you're sewing.  If you're using a fabric with a print, make sure that your print is facing the right direction: you don't want to finish your bag and find that you've got upside-down cats on one side of your bag (for example!).

      You're going to sew around the bag like this:

      Select the straight stitch on your machine and set the stitch length to 3.  Use a size 90/14 sewing machine needle. Pull the threads from the needle and bobbin under the presser foot to the back of your sewing machine.  (If you've got a more modern computerised machine, you may only need to do this with your needle thread: check your manual if you're not sure). 

      As you did with your napkin, start by sewing a line of practice stitches on a scrap of your bag fabric to check that (a) you've threaded your machine correctly, and (b) that your tension is okay.  To do your practice stitches (this is a reminder, just in case you've forgotten all the steps involved in sewing a line of stitches), put a piece of fabric that's leftover from cutting your bag under your presser foot.  Use your hand wheel to lower your needle into your fabric.  Next, lower your presser foot and start stitching.  Stitch a few inches, then stop.  Use the hand wheel to raise the needle, so that the take-up lever is at the highest position (the take-up lever is the piece of metal that's in the centre top of the photo below - it bobs up and down as you stitch). Finally, raise the presser foot, remove the fabric, and cut the threads.

      If you've got a computerised machine, you don't need to use the hand wheel: you can simply press the 'needle up/down' button on your machine. When you end your stitching, you can also press the 'cut threads' button, if you have one: this will cut the threads and raise the needle in one go!  Check your manual if you're not sure.

      Now, have a look at the stitches. If they look fine, then you can start sewing your bag.  If they don't, first try re-threading your machine.  If that doesn't solve the problem, try changing the tension (see the video on tension in the second 'Learn More' section of this tutorial).  [add link]  

      Once you're happy with the stitches, place the upper right-hand corner of your bag under the presser foot so that the cut edge of the fabric is aligned with the 0.5 inch marking on your needle plate (as you're going to use a 0.5 inch seam allowance).  You may need to raise and lower the presser foot a few times to get the correct position.  

      Now, lower your needle and your presser foot (if you haven't already), and then sew a few stitches (I usually do 3-4).  Now, press the backstitch button and stitch backwards.  Once you reach the start of your stitches, release the backstitch button and start stitching forwards again.  As you sew, make sure not to sew over any pins!  Remove each pin just as it gets close to your presser foot.  Also, use your hands to gently guide the fabric and focus on keeping the edge aligned with the 0.5 inch marking on your needle plate.

      Keep stitching until you get to the point where you're going to have to pivot your fabric to start sewing along the bottom of the bag (this will be 0.5 inches from the bottom: you may want to have your ruler handy, so you can figure out when you've gotten to within 0.5 inches of the bottom).  You may want to do the last few stitches using your hand wheel, so that you're going really slowly and don't accidentally go past the point where you need to pivot.  To pivot, keep your needle in the fabric, raise your presser foot, and then pivot the fabric so that you're ready to start stitching along the bottom of the bag.  Lower the presser foot and start stitching again.  You will need to pivot again once you reach the next corner.

      Once you've finished stitching along all three sides of the bag, make sure to backstitch a few stitches to secure your stitches.  Then, use the hand wheel to raise the needle, so that the take-up lever is at the highest position.  Then, raise the presser foot, remove the fabric and cut the threads.  

      You've now sewn the side seams and bottom of your bag!

      3. --

      For simplicity, Dana doesn't show you how to finish the bag's seam allowances.  However, it's a good idea to finish these edges, as your bag will likely get a lot of wear and tear, and you don't want the fabric to unravel!

      In the second 'Learn More' section of this class, I provided two videos which show how to finish your seam allowances with a zigzag stitch, which is an easy-to-sew and durable way of finishing seam allowances.  Hopefully you've already watched these!  If not, you can see them here.  [add link]

      I'm now going to give you instructions for finishing the seam allowances together with a zigzag stitch.  

      Clip the two bottom corners of your bag.  This will make your corners look nicer when you turn your bag right-side out (it gets rid of extra bulk that would just bunch up in the corners).  

      Next, select the zigzag stitch on your machine.  Set the stitch width to 3 and the stitch length to 3.  If you don't have a machine where you can set the stitch width, just choose a medium-width zigzag stitch on your machine.

      To start sewing, place the upper right-hand corner of your bag under your presser foot.  Line up the fabric so that your stitched seamline is aligned with the left-hand side of your presser foot. 

      Once you're happy with the position of your fabric, lower the needle and the presser foot, and then start stitching.  Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of your stitches. As you're sewing, focus on keeping your strait stitch line aligned with the left-hand-side of your presser foot.

      You'll need to pivot in the two corners.  However, due to the diagonal cut, you'll need to pivot twice. First, pivot directly in front of the diagonal cut you made, sew close to the edge of the fabric along the diagonal cut, and then pivot again so that you can sew along the bottom of the bag.  The outer stitches of your zigzags will probably go off the fabric as you're sewing down the diagonal cut (as it's so narrow): this is absolutely fine.  Do the same pivoting when you reach the next corner of your bag.  

      Once you've finished sewing your zigzag stitch along the three edges of your bag, trim the seam allowances close to your zigzag stitch.  Make sure not to accidentally cut through your stitches!

      4. 3'20"

      You're now going to hem the top of your bag using a double-fold hem.  This is the same type of hem that you did with your napkins.  This one will be much wider, though!  You're also not going to do a preliminary line of stitches to guide your fold: Gretchen only had you do this to get you to practice sewing straight lines and to make the folding easier! 

      In her video, Dana tells you to turn your bag right-sides-out to fold, iron and sew the hem.  I find that it's much easier to do this when the bag is wrong-sides-out.  So, don't turn out your bag just yet.  :-)

      First, you're going to press your side seams to one side.  However, before you do this, iron them flat.  This will meld the stitches into the fabric.  It's always a good idea to iron your stitches flat before you either press them open or press them to one side: it usually results in a nicer finish.

      Now, open your bag up and put it over the end of your ironing board.  This will make it much easier to press your side seams and your hem.  Position your bag with one of the side seams in the middle of your ironing board.

      Now, press the side seam to one side (it doesn't matter which side).  Then, rotate the bag around your ironing board so that you can do the same with the other seam allowance.  

      Turn under the top edge of the bag by 0.5 inches (1.3 cm).  Press the fold.  Do this all the way around the top edge of your bag.  When you get to a seam allowance, simply press the seam allowance to one side and then do the fold.

      Now, fold the top edge over by 1 inch.  This will completely encase the cut edge of the fabric.  As with your napkin, it pays to be exact here, as the more precise you are, the better your stitches will look in the next step (they'll be a consistent, even distance from the fold). Press the fold.  Do this all the way around the top edge of your bag.

      To secure the fold, place some pins at a 90 degree angle to the top edge of your bag.  (Dana doesn't do this, but it will be easier for you to sew the fold if it's pinned in place).

      Now, you're going the sew the hem!  Put masking tape or washi tape about 1/16 inch from the 1 inch mark on your needle plate (as your hem is 1 inch wide, and you want to sew 1/16 inch away from the edge of your hem. 

      Remove the extension table from your sewing machine (refer to the manual that came with your sewing machine if you're not sure how to take it off).  It's always a good idea to do this with items you're sewing 'tubular' items (like the hems on bags, pillowcases, and trousers), as your item can move freely around (and under) your machine as you're sewing.

      Now, select the straight stitch on your machine and set the stitch length to 3.5 (you'll see this stitching on the outside of the bag and a longer stitch will look better here). Just as you did with the napkins, put your hem under the presser foot.  Do this about 2 inches (5 cm) from one of the side seams (you don't want to start sewing on one of the side seams, as the seam allowances are bulky and you'll likely get into trouble if you start there).  Align the edge of your hem with your masking tape.

       

      You're now ready to start stitching!  Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of your stitching - and also remember not to sew over any pins!  

      5. 4'38"

      You're now going to sew your straps on - the last step!

      Turn your bag right-sides-out (so that the nice side of your fabric is on the outside and the seam allowances are on the inside).  Push out the two corners. You can use something pointy (like a chopstick, a blunt-end knitting needle, etc.) to really push the points outs and make them look sharp.  Make sure that the bottom of your bag is folded along the stitching line and then iron the bottom of your bag.  

      Cut your webbing so that you've got two straps that measure 0.75 yards (69 cm) each.

      If you'd like to, re-thread your machine so that you're using a thread that matches your webbing.  An even better option would be to just change your needle thread: this would mean that the stitches on your webbing will match your webbing, and the stitches on the inside of your bag will match your fabric.  Neat, huh?!   :-)  

      Fold one end of one of your straps under by 0.5 inches (1.3 cm).  Press it (this will help it to stay in place and make it easier to sew).  Make sure to press down hard on your iron as you're pressing your webbing: this will make the fold very crisp. 

      Now, place this end of the webbing on your bag so that it's 2 inches (5 cm) from one side seam of the bag and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) down from the top edge of the bag.  Pin it in place with two pins.  You will find your straps easier to pin and sew if you place your pins exactly as I have in the photo below.  Make sure that you don't accidentally pin your bag closed: you just want to pin your strap to one side of your bag!  

      Do the same process with the other end of your strap.  Make sure that you don't twist the webbing: you don't want to have a twisted strap! 

      You're now going to sew on the strap. For your first line of stitching, you're going to follow the diagram below. 

      Set the stitch length back to 3 and put the extension table back on your machine.  Start at the top left-hand corner.  Align your fabric under the presser foot.  You may wish to lower your needle into the fabric to see exactly where the stitching will start.  You may also need to slide your pins down a little, so the tips don't go under the presser foot. 

      Once you're happy with the positioning of your fabric, lower the presser foot, and then start sewing (remember to backstitch!).  Follow the diagram, pivoting at each corner and removing the pins as you go.  Here's some tips to remember as you're sewing:

      • Sew slowly!  If you have a speed control dial on your machine, set it to a slower setting. 
      • Make sure to check periodically that you're only sewing through 1 layer of fabric!  It's good to check this each time you're pivoting.  It's really easy when sewing something like this to accidentally sew through other parts of your bag!
      • As you're sewing, keep checking to see that the bit of webbing that you've folded under at the bottom isn't peaking out at the sides.  
      • You may need to use the hand wheel if your machine is having difficulty getting through all the layers (particularly at the bottom, where the strap is folded).  To use the hand wheel, simply stop using the foot pedal and form the stitches by turning the hand wheel towards you.  
      • If your machine is having difficulty sewing through all the layers, you could also try switching to a larger needle (size 16/100).

      You'll need to sew the second part of your X separately.  To do this, align your fabric so that you'll start sewing in the top right-hand corner of the box you've just sewn (use the same technique that you used above to find the right positioning).  Once you're happy with your positioning, start sewing - and remember to backstitch at the start and end of your stitches.  

      That's one end of the strap done!  Now, sew on the other end of the strap, following the same method.  

      You've now attached one of the straps!  Do the same all over again on the other side of the bag with the other strap.  :-)  

      Once you've finished that, you're done: you've now got a snazzy, handy tote bag, handmade by you!