This is the third project in our (free!) 'Level 1: Learn to Sew' online course.

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 way. 

Here's Dana's video:
 

 

I've created some step-by-step written instructions with diagrams and photos, which you'll find 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.

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 (make sure it contains needles in these sizes: 90/14 and 100/16).
pins
a ruler sewing gauge would be ideal (this is a short ruler with a sliding plastic tab: it's great for quickly measuring hems).  However, you can just use a regular ruler.  
paper You'll be making a paper pattern for your tote bag, so you'll need a piece of 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, we've included a large 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 A seam ripper is a sewist's best friend: we all make mistakes, and this great tool allows us to get rid of our mistakes and start again!  
0.5 m (5/8 yard) of non-stretch medium-to-heavyweight cotton or cotton/polyester fabric

If you're not getting one of our kits and are instead buying your own fabric, look for these types of fabric: canvas, linen-look cotton and upholstery-weight fabric.

If you plan to wash your bag in the future, you may want to wash your fabric before you cut out your bag: this will pre-shrink your fabric.  Wash the fabric in the same way that you're planning to wash your bag in the future.  

1.5 m (1.5 yards) of webbing for the handles of your 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. It should be around 25 mm to 30 mm (1 inch to 1.25 inches) wide.
    thread to match your fabric and your webbing

    Choose a good-quality all-purpose thread like Gutermann 'Sew-All' thread or Coats 'Duet' 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.

    In terms of choosing a matching colour, have a look at this great blog post by Stitch & Pink which provides some advice regarding choosing thread colours.

       

      If you don't already have all the materials and tools required for this course, make sure to have a look at the kits that we sell. They contain fabric for the three projects, matching thread, webbing for the bag, a piece of gridded paper, and access to our private beginners' Facebook group (where I'm on hand to provide extra advice and answer any questions you may have!). You also have the option of adding any tools that you need to your kit (needles, pins, sewing gauge, scissors, fabric marker, and seam ripper).  You can see the kits here.  

       

      In her video, Dana shows two methods for making a tote bag.  I've combined the two: you're going to be cutting out your bag using the instructions from the second method (as the first method doesn't work well with some printed fabrics), and you're going to be sewing your bag using instructions from the first method.    

      Here are my step-by-step instructions:

      In Video  
      1. --

      Iron your fabric and then cut out 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 to cut out your rectangles: this will ensure that you end up with two matching, perfectly-cut rectangles.  As your tote bag pattern is slightly smaller than the pattern you made for your napkins (your napkin pattern was 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 to do, as each square is 1 cm wide! 

      In laying your pattern on the fabric, 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.  :-)  

      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 my stitches clearly.  You'll want to choose a thread that matches your fabric.  

      Put your two rectangles together, with the right sides (the nice sides) 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. 

      As you did with your napkin, start by sewing a line of practice stitches on a scrap of your bag fabric to check (a) that you've threaded your machine correctly, and (b) that your tension is okay. 

      Forgotten how to sew stitches?  Re-visit the instructions for doing this in step #5 of our sewing exercises

      Forgotten how to do the practice stitches and how to change the tension on your machine?  See step #2 of our napkin tutorial.

      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 1/2 inch marking on your needle plate (as you're going to use a 1/2 inch seam allowance).  You may need to raise and lower the presser foot a few times to get the correct position.  

      If you've only got metric markings on your needle plate, you have two options: you can either place a piece of masking tape or washi tape between the 1 cm and 1.5 cm markings (this will be approximately 1/2 inch), or you can just use the 1 cm guideline.  In her video, Dana states that you can use a 1/4 inch, 3/8 inch or 1/2 inch seam allowance: 1 cm is approximately 3/8 inch.

      Now, lower your presser foot (if you haven't already) and start sewing!  Make sure to backstitch at the beginning and end of your stitches and make sure not to sew over any pins.  You will need to pivot in the two corners.

      Forgotten how to backstitch?  Re-visit the instructions for doing this in step #7 of our practice exercises.

      Forgotten how to pivot?  Re-visit the instructions for doing this in step #10 of our practice exercises.

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

      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 third 'Learn More' section of this class, I provide 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.

      I'm now going to give you step-by-step 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-sides 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.

      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 edge of your presser foot. 

      Once you're happy with the position of your fabric, lower the presser foot, and then start sewing.  Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of your stitches. As you're sewing, focus on keeping your stitched seamline aligned with the left-hand-edge 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 practise 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 seams 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 seam.  

      Turn under the top edge of the bag by 0.5 inches (1.3 cm).  Press the fold.  Do this all the way along the top edge of your bag.  

      Now, fold the top edge over by 1 inch.  This will completely encase the cut edge of the fabric.  Press the fold.  Do this all the way along the top edge of your bag. As with your napkin, it pays to be exact with your measuring and pressing 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). 

      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 your hem if it's pinned in place).

      Now, you're going the sew the hem!  You're going to use the same method you used with your napkin.  Put masking tape or washi tape about 1/16 inch (2 mm) away from the 1 inch (2.5 cm) mark on your needle plate (as your hem is 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide and you want to sew 1/16 inch (2 mm) 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 that are tubular, as your item can move freely around the arm of 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 length 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 top edge of your bag 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.  Be careful, though: you don't want to accidentally poke a hole in your bag!

      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 the needle thread on your machine with a thread that matches your webbing.  Don't change the bobbin thread.  This will result in stitches on your webbing that will match your webbing, and stitches on the inside of your bag that will match your fabric.  Neat, huh?!   :-)  You can see the end result of this in the second tote bag I made:

      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 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, follow the diagram below. 

      This is a little different than what Dana does.  I'm getting you to sew the box and the first part of the X all in one go.  This is a faster method than sewing both parts of the X separately!

      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 before you start stitching, so you can 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!  
      • 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!