Saturday, November 03, 2007

How to Sew a Cloth Shopping Bag

Sew your own gorgeous shopping bags--stylish and ecologically sound! I'll walk you through the steps of making a very sturdy tote bag that will hold a good heavy load of groceries. I recommend that you make two bags at once, as this will use your fabric up very nicely, and you'll find that the second bag goes much more quickly. I'm using corduroy and denim fabrics, and this is going to be the World's Strongest Bag--it will be able to tote bricks, potatoes, and heavy metals. Do choose something sturdy and closely woven, not a delicate vintage voile!

You will need one yard each of your lining fabric (LF) and your main fabric (MF), as well as a ruler, matching threads, and good sharp scissors.

1. Cut a rectangle from each of your two fabrics. The rectangle should be one yard long, parallel to the selvage, and 18 inches wide. You can fit two of these from one yard, you will note. Also cut four handle pieces, two from each of LF and MF. They should measure 17 inches by 2.5 inches, and they may run either with the grain or across the grain. (You will have a very likely-looking leftover piece to cut them from after you cut your main pieces).

2. If you want to do any embellishing, such as an applique, or rickrack, now is the time to do it on your main fabric. Make sure that the design is placed well within the margins of the bag--you will be losing about three inches on the sides and bottom. Have fun! For my bag, I am using tan corduroy for my Main Fabric and a red denim for my lining. I am appliqueing a design of rectangles (think Denise Schmidt and her contemporary quilt designs) on the lower right corner of my bag.

3. Now, working first with the main fabric, take your big rectangle and fold it in half, right sides together, to make an inside-out bag shape. Then repeat with the lining fabric.

4. Using a 5/8 inch seam, sew up the sides of the bag. First the MF. Now the LF. Now, take your scissors and snip the bottom fold of the bag from the edge of the fabric to your stitching.

Now press those seams open. And lightly press a crease at the bottom of the bag.

5. Now you're going to box the corners. This is so fun and three-dimensional! Look at your bag from the side, and slide your hand up in the corner. Now spread the bag at the corner so that the corner forms the top of a triangle. Flatten the seam, and let the sides of the bag fall apart. It's going to look a lot like the sides of a present if you're wrapping it with paper.

Using the crease you pressed as a guide, make sure the seam runs down the center of the bottom of the bag. Pin it in place. Now mark a straight line across the corner of the bag, 2.5 inches down from the corner.

You might want to draw a line with pencil or chalk across the bottom of the triangle, or you can throw caution to the wind and eyeball it. Do make sure that your triangle is symmetrical, by checking the seam placement against the bottom crease of the bag. Now, stitch it. Repeat for the other corner, and for the lining piece.

6. Finish the corners by cutting off the triangle half an inch from your stitching line. Here is my tan piece that has been stitched and cut.

7. Time to construct some handles! We're making lined handles because they're cuter and stronger. Lay each handle piece right side down on the ironing board and press its edges in--half an inch for the main fabric, 5/8 inch for the lining fabric.

Now match up your two handle pieces with the lining piece placed over the main fabric piece, wrong sides together. The main fabric color should just peek out around the lining. Working on the lining side, carefully pin in place, and then topstitch together (that just means stitch about 1/4 inch from the edge).

Here you see my handle getting stitched, but there are no pins in the other side yet. See, main tan fabric is down below, red lining is up above.

8. Almost done! Turn your lining bag inside out. Insert it into the already inside-out main bag. The two "pretty sides" are going to be touching each other. Now, stick your handles between the two layers. I like to place the outside edge of each handle three inches away from the side seam.

Make SURE the handle isn't twisted inside the bag. That the top side stays UP as you peek into the bag; the top side of your handle should be touching the right side of your outer bag.

Pin the handles securely in place, and match up the lining and outer bag so that the raw edges are even all the way around.

Here is my sandwich all ready for stitching--tan outer bag is inside out, red lining is seamy side inside the bag, handles are sandwiched between with the tan side touching the tan bag.

9. Time to stitch! You need to do two things. One, leave the bag unsewn beween the ends of the handles on one side, so that you can turn it inside out. Two, every time you get to a place where you're sewing over a handle, sew over it, then reverse and sew backwards, then sew forwards again so that the handle is triple-stitched. Got it? Great!

10. Turn the bag by pulling the lining out, then feeding everything through the hole, then stuffing the lining back inside, and cheer for yourself! Now, carefully press the top edge. Where it is open, press it down the way you want it to lie, with the edges turned in. Now topstitch the whole thing, working from the lining side.

11. Now you are really done, and the happy owner of a lovely shopping tote!

Note: if you use contrasting fabric for the lining, you may or may not care about changing your bobbin and top threads to keep them matching your fabric. I personally don't like contrast stitching, so do a lot of juggling the two threads to get my thread to match my fabric (for instance, when stitching the handle, I have red thread on top and tan in the bobbin). Not required, though.


Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks for posting this for us all.

I had posted a question to you before regarding a sewing machine that you'd recommend. I think it must have gotten buried in the comments though.

Any input you have on the subject is appreciated.

Thanks very much,

Anna said...

Hi Kim--

I have a Brother CS-8072. I bought it reconditioned from It does everything I need, is easy to use, and has held up to a LOT of use! It's also comparatively inexpensive!

Sorry for missing your question--


Family W said...

Clear and concise.... thanks for sharing these directions. Your bags are lovely. : )

Heather Anne said...

What a great tutorial for those who want to make shoppping bags! I love the ones you made from the table cloth also! I have cloth shopping bags, but they are ugle and stained, so perhaps I should follow your lead and stitch up something I will be happy to use - instead of apologetic as I hand them over to the bagger! I need to figure out how to make them to fit on those silly round about bagging systems - those things give me fits - I'm always worried I'll miss a bag!

Serena said...

This is a wonderful tutorial! I have cloth shopping bags, but the one I made isn't quite so nice as these...I may have to make myself more!

Emily said...

Thank you for sharing the instructions. I will not procrastinate this like I did the tea cozy. I did finish it and gave it to my mom yesterday. I was trying to save it for Christmas but I couldn't. : ) So now I am going to make her several cloth bags and TRY to wait for Christmas.

Trina said...

you have really inspired/motivated me this time, anna! thank you! i will be keeping my eyes out for fabric at my thrift store.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for writing these wonderful instructions and for the pictures!

Jackie said...

Every time I go to your blog, I end up coveting your camera!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,
Your son Giles is great!!! Thank him for taking so many wonderful pictures and sharing them with us. Your children are so talented. The bags you make are so much easier than the ones I struggled to piece together the other day. I should be more patient!!!
In Him,
Kim E

Linda said...

Thanks so much for posting this tutorial. I really appreciate it and will try it as soon as I finish my Christmas presents.

Emily said...

Thanks Anna for sharing. I made a very plain version of the bag this afternoon. If you would like to check it out I posted it on my blog.

Amy said...

Beautiful! I really like that shopping bag! I think once I get my doll clothes sewing caught up on a bit, I think I'll try making it.

Also - I'd appreciate it if you view my blog:

Anonymous said...

You are so good at explaining how to do something, and so thoughtful and patient to do it! Thanks!

Ginger said...

Thanks for sharing how you made your bags.

The Jacobson Family said...

Anna, I am so glad to have been introduced to your blog! I have passed it on to many of my friends and family. The only word to describe what you do here is "delicious!"

Tyna said...

Very, very nice! be crafty someday...when do you have time to do this stuff?!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your talent! I had some gorgeous jewel striped fabric leftover after making window treatments for our bedroom. I was able to make 9 bags out of it and it made my trip to the grocery this week so much nicer! I felt better only using their bags for my meat/milk and knowing I won't have to remember to recycle them is a joy! I was so inspired I made a more practical bib for my little one today - now that it is winter, her long sleaves seem to always get food on them, not anymore!

Rebekah said...

In case you're still checking these comments (please oh please!)I'd like some clarification on the part about the handles. This sentence, especially, has me boggled: "Now match up your two handle pieces with the lining piece placed over the main fabric piece, wrong sides together."
Do you mean that in this sewing sandwich, you have two parts of the main fabric with one part of the lining? For what it's worth, I'm using the same fabric for both parts, so it may not matter as much, but I am stuck!

Cookie said...

i just looked at the date on this posting and realize i'm SOOO late finding it. but it's never too late to post a thank you! i found your instructions last week and finally sat down yesterday to try it out. i'm a newbie and teaching myself how to sew on my own. my mom left me her sewing machine when she passed away and i wish i had taken the time to have her teach me - she was an awesome seamstress. anyway, i made myself stick to the project yesterday and, other than a little confusion at step 8, i was able to make a flawless bag! i even used it at the grocery store right after finishing it. can't wait to make a couple more! thanks for the instructions and i've marked your site for future project ideas!

Rebekah said...

funny, I forgot of course that I clicked "email me new posts to this thread" so I just got your comment, cookie! This is the best tote pattern ever and I did make several last year as gifts. I never did figure out the handle thing though, I don't think. I jest sewed tube handles and turned them inside out before sewing them into the seam.

Anonymous said...
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diybaglover said...

Hi there!

i have link ur tutorial in

Hope u dont mind =)

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Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

A few pictures/drawings would help. If you are a beginner it is hard to imagine whats actually going on.

Jo Whitby said...

I had to do a "bing" search to find your tote bag tutorial, but I knew it would be something I could follow. I have gone back to several of your projects for sewing instruction. Your posts are always a good read, and I like the gentle encouragement you offer. Thank you for the tutorials, too.

Anonymous said...

I am completely new to sewing (got a machine recently) and this bag is the first thing I've made...very easy instructions....thank you!

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