Tote bag tutorial



I’ve made quite a few tote bags recently using my favourite leather handles and a number of people have asked if there is a tutorial or pattern for these bags.  I’ve always said they are a mash up of a variety of ideas I have got from the numerous patterns of pouches and bags I’ve made over the last couple of years. But with the need to make another totebag to replace one I gifted at Christmas I thought it would be a good idea to capture what I did if only for myself when I want to make more of what has proved for me at least a practical shopping bag that can be sized up and down as needed.

When it was finished I couldn’t resist a snow shot, you can see the snow is falling.  In the U.K., much to my children’s delight, we’ve had more snow than normal. This shot was taken when the Beast from the East, a particularly cold weather system from Siberia, met Storm Emma coming up from the west.


The reason I’m making another is that one of these bags in the next picture was gifted to a dear friend who unfortunately had a burglary when she was away for the weekend. The thieves made off with it presumably filled with loot.  As it’s a pretty unique bag  a picture has been sent to the police just in case they find it at a ‘house of interest’. Wouldn’t that be good.


Burglaries are a sad fact of life.  We’ve had a couple one where my husband left the patio door wide open. He had a fun time with the insurers! But the first one was when we’d just bought our current home 25+ years ago.

I guess we’ve all been the enthusiastic young buyers of houses ‘with potential’. This house certainly had potential for vastly improved security and a couple of months in they easily forced what masqueraded as a back door. My husband discovered the theft on returning from work and rang me. When I got home the police asked me to check our bedroom for missing items as the room had been ransacked. After a quick look I had to admit that it was just as we’d left it that morning! I take comfort from this story when I see the rooms of my sons and hope one day they will see the need for order.


Anyway this is what you will need to make the bag above

Home dec* weight fabric for outer panels.  If you are using directional fabric 2 x 17” square pieces (I’ve used 2 pieces per panel as I didn’t have enough for one but I quite like the two tone look).  If you are using non directional fabric then 1 x 34” by 17” piece. Again you can make this two tone and have a middle section of one fabric and the two equal outer pieces of another fabric. See the picture under K).

Quilting cotton for bag lining panels  2 x 17” squares if no internal zip pocket wanted or 1 x 17” square and 1 x 19” squares if you want to include an  internal zip pocket

Headliner fabric* which is 2mm thin foam, I buy mine on EBay. 2 x 16” squares

If choosing to include internal zip pocket 2 x 10” quilting cotton squares for pocket linings and min 12” zip

For handles thin 1” by 2mm depth leather straps or webbing

* I prefer my bags to have a bit of body so using both home dec and headliner undoubtedly achieves that. If you want a less structured bag then interfaced quilting cotton or linen would be Ok and instead of headliner use the stiffest of fusible fee  you have


A) Cut fabrics incuding headliner.

If you are not going to have an internal zip pocket  go straight to K)

B) Cut larger lining fabric 19” square as follows. This is where the internal zip pocket will go


The top strip should be 3.5”  inches from the top, the bottom 5.5” from the bottom. Then cut 4.5” from either side leaving a 10” square as the middle piece.

D) Lay one of the pocket lining pieces right side up and the right way up if it’s a directional fabric like mine. Lay zip right side up with pull on the right along the top edge of the pocket lining, you can just see the lining  poking out on the left


Now lay on top, right side down, the middle 10” by 10” square of the larger lining square


Sew along the top using a zipper foot using 1/4” seam.


Now fold back both lining and pocket lining and press. Top stitch about 1/8th” from seam.

E) Now place second pocket lining piece right side up and correct way up. Lay zip unit you’ve just made in D above on top, right side up. Using zipper foot sew 1/8th” from top.


F) Move the zip pull to the centre and now trim the zip unit so it is approx 10” by 10”. Take care not to pull the zipper as it is no longer secured by the zipper stops.


H) Now attach side lining pieces using 1/2” seam. Trim so it is now 17” wide.


I) Attach the top and bottom pieces of the lining with 1/4” seam at the top (because of the zip) and 1/2” seam along the bottom. Remember that the top piece is slimmer than the bottom piece.



J) Trim the whole unit to 17” square. This is what it will look like on the reverse side .


K) Now to assemble the bag.

Layout the pieces as in the picture. For the purpose of seeing what I’ve  done I’ve laid them rightside up but of course when you come to sew them you need to join rightside to rightside. You will end up with a long strip.

If you’ve got non directional fabric and got one large outer fabric piece then just slot it in between the two lining pieces – see picture.


L) now fold in half right sides together. Sew all three sides using a 1/2” seam leaving a 10” gap at the bottom of the lining pieces.

80FAB7E2-A6AB-45B6-8737-29E48A64B979M) cut out from each corner a 2” square. Squeeze the sides together and sew 1/2” seam to join the sides together. To strengthen this I sew this seam twice securing each end.  By doing this you’ve boxed the corners.


N) Now birth your bag through the gap at the lining piece seam making sure to push out your corners and pushing the lining into the bag



Carefully press the top edge of the bag then do a top stitch round the top of the bag to finish it off neatly.


O) Your bag should look something like this and is ready for the handles.


For handles either use webbing or make fabric handles or use leather like me. I  sew the leather about 1 1/2” down and 3.5” in from the side. To get the right size for your height/body test out other bags you own to get a length that suits you.

Now my machine doesn’t like this thickness and even with a leather needle it isn’t very neat so I use a rivet to distract. I’ve covered riveting in a separate post here.

You now have one sturdy shopping bag.


F44947A8-6B8A-41DE-B111-F45CAF9A0FD4 This size passes the loaf of bread test. But of course you can size up or down as you like. I find a square panel makes a sufficiently wide top for easy loading  and unloading. A slightly oblong shape also works well. As to handles my friend wanted one that easily went over the shoulder so this one has extra long handles.

I also wanted to see how long it would take to make a simpler bag with just one outer fabric piece and no internal zip. Well discounting time to make and eat lunch, risk a trip up to the shops etc it took less than 40 mins. It’s not my favourite bag but it was the only home dec I had to hand. And I prefer a coloured base but this time I allowed the lining to fold over slightly so it looks as if it is bound. At least it’s way more attractive than my usual bright orange plastic canvas type shopping bags.



4 thoughts on “Tote bag tutorial

  1. Hi love the look of the bags and am keen to make one ! Would you mind sharing where you buy the handles from please ? Thank you


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