A large, strong, and durable tote bag is always helpful to have around. You can use it to haul books or other heavy items, and it's generally big enough to carry everything you need for an overnight getaway. Plus, when you make the bag yourself, you can pick fabric that suits your style. This project requires intermediate sewing skills and a couple hours of your time. The outside of the tote bag features colorful fabrics that create functional pockets. Bold fabrics can give the bag a retro vibe, but you can also swap in any of your favorite colors and patterns.
Updated by Mollie Johanson
Equipment / Tools
- Measuring tape
- Rotary cutter, ruler, and cutting mat
- Iron and ironing board
- Sewing machine
- 1 1/3 yard 60-inch-wide linen (canvas, denim, or another heavy-duty fabric also works)
- 1 1/4 yard midweight fusible interfacing
- 1/8 yard each of four colorful cotton fabrics
- 2/3 yard lining fabric (quilting cotton or linen to match the outside)
- 3 2/3 yard 1 1/2-inch-wide cotton webbing
- Matching thread
- 3 2/3 yards of ribbon to embellish the straps (optional)
- Optional: 4 inch-by-14 1/2 inch piece of lightweight chipboard, corrugated plastic, or similar sturdy material for the base of the bag (optional)
Cut the Fabric
First, you'll cut all of your fabric pieces.
Main fabric (linen):
- Cut one 40 inches by 20 inches
- Cut two 20 inches by 9 1/2 inches
- Cut one 40 inches by 20 inches (alternately, you can iron this to the linen before you cut the 40 inch-by-20 inch piece)
Pocket fabrics (colorful cotton):
- Cut two 20 inches by 2.75 inches from each of the four fabrics
Lining fabric (quilting cotton or linen):
- Cut one 39 inches by 20 inches
Make the Outside Pockets
During the construction of this bag it's important to remain accurate with seam allowances and placement measurements, so the outside pocket sections line up properly as the bag comes together. As long as you are accurate and consistent, the outside pockets will appear to be one continuous strip around the bag.
Sew four of the strips of fabric to make a striped panel. Use 1/4-inch seam allowances. Repeat with the other four strips. Press the seam allowances toward the darker fabric.
Sew the Pocket Pieces
Pin the pocket backing to the front of the striped panel. Using a 1/4-inch seam allowance, sew the fabrics together along the 20-inch edges. Repeat for the second set of pieces.
Press the seams to set them.
Turn the joined fabric sections right side out. Press well, making sure the seams are open and at the very edges of the sections.
Topstitch the Striped Pocket Pieces
Topstitch 1/8 inch from the top edge of the pocket. Then, topstitch 1/8 inch on each side of the stripe seams. You might want to pin the layers together while sewing to prevent the layers from shifting.
Leave the bottom edge plain and without topstitching.
Place and Sew the Outside Pockets
If you didn't attach the interfacing to the main bag fabric before cutting, do that now.
Lay the main part of the bag flat with the interfacing side down. If there are any wrinkles, press the piece before proceeding.
Measure and mark 5 1/2 inches from each 20-inch end of the strip of fabric. Place the topstitched edge of each pocket along the markings, and pin the pocket sections in place.
Double check your measurements to be sure the pockets are straight and that they line up when you fold the body of the bag in half.
Sew the bottom of each pocket section to the main part of the bag, stitching 1/8 inch from the edge so it matches the other topstitching.
Baste the side edges of the pockets to the main part of the bag, sewing about 1/8 inch from the edge. You can also sew around the entire main bag piece to prevent fraying.
Fold the bag in half, and gently press the center fold line. The pressed line will be used for lining up pieces, but it is not a part of the finished bag.
Attach the Handles
Fold the length of the webbing in half, and mark the halfway point. Measure 5 inches in from each long edge of the bag. Then, place the halfway mark of the strap on the center fold line with the edge of the strap on the 5-inch markings.
Without twisting the cotton webbing, bring the two ends of the strap to the center fold line on the opposite side of the bag, again on the 5-inch markings. You can either butt the ends of the strap together or overlap them by about 1 inch.
Pin the strap in place, making sure it remains straight.
Sew along the edge of the strap, stopping and pivoting 2 1/2 inches from each end. At the ends, you can backstitch across the strap for added strength.
Repeat on the remaining strap.
Sew the Outside of the Bag
Fold the right sides of the bag together, matching the pockets at the side edges. Pin and sew the side seams using a 1/2-inch seam allowance. Press the seams, and then iron inside the bag to press the seam to one side or the other.
Fold the bag, so the side seam is directly over the bottom fold line on the bottom of the bag. Measure and mark 2 inches in from the corner. Stitch a perpendicular line across the side seam at the 2-inch mark, backstitching at both ends of the seam.
Trim off the triangle, leaving a 1/2-inch seam allowance.
Make the Lining
Sew 1/8 inch around the 20 inch-by-39 inch lining piece to prevent fraying (or apply a seam finish after assembling the lining).
Fold the 39-inch edges in half with right sides together. Align the edges, and pin the two sides. Sew the side seams using a 1/2-inch seam allowance, leaving a gap on one side for turning. Be sure to backstitch on each side of the opening
Sew the squared bottom corners the same way you did for the outside of the bag.
Sew the Lining Into the Bag
With the outside of the bag right side out and the lining inside out, insert the main bag inside the right side of the lining.
Match the side seams and edges of the lining to the edges of the bag. Pin and sew the lining and bag together.
Turn and Finish the Tote Bag
Turn the bag right side out, pulling it through the gap in the lining.
Fold the seam allowance on the gap, so it matches the side seam. Then, sew it closed. You can do this by hand for a more invisible seam or by machine, sewing close to the folded seam allowance.
Push the lining into the bag. Press the top edge of the bag, and then topstitch 1/8 inch from the top seam.
If you'd like the bottom of the bag to sit flat, place a 4 inch-by-14 1/2 inch piece of chipboard or corrugated plastic inside of the bag.