For as many people there are on the planet, there are just as many ways to sew the classic tote bag. You can choose to line it, put pockets inside, put pockets on the outside, and on and on. The possibilities and variations are endless! There is no one definitive way to sew a tote bag. My personal preferences in a tote are based on what I’m typically using it for.
I don’t use a tote as my purse, so when I go to grab a tote, it’s to carry my lunch to work, or to carry books to the library, or some other simple act that doesn’t require a lot of fancy bells and whistles. I’m mostly looking for something cute and functional.
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For this tote bag, I decided to do just that - make it a simple unlined tote, but I used two different fabrics and created panels on the body of the tote to give it a little zip. This can be made with as many different fabrics as you’d like! Use something for the handles, then use three other fabrics for the body if you desire. I can see this looking fantastic in all solids, or in a gradation of solids. Picture the handles in light pink, the top panel in a slightly darker pink, and ending with a red at the bottom for an ombré effect. The possibilities are endless!
Step 1: For the middle body of the tote, cut two pieces of fabric 16” x 10”.
Step 2: For the shoulder straps, cut two pieces 26” x 4”.
Step 3: For the upper part of the tote, cut two pieces 3” x 16”. For the lower part of the tote, cut two pieces 8” x 16”.
Step 4: To press the handles in shape, fold the fabric in half and press the entire length of the strap. Open the fold and press each side into the center so you have four equal pressing sections.
Step 5: Once all of the folds of the handle are formed, fold the entire handle closed and give a final press.
Step 6: Close the opening on the side of the shoulder strap by top stitching at the 1/8" seam allowance. Repeat on the other side of the strap and press flat.
Step 7: Repeat step 6 on the second shoulder strap so you have two finished straps.
Step 8: Sew the bottom panel to the middle panel with a 3/8" seam allowance. I used my overlock serger for this step so it finished the edges and sewed the seams at once. If you use a straight stitch machine, finish the seam allowances with a zigzag stitch after sewing the straight stitch to keep the fabric from fraying. Or sew the bag with French seams to hide the raw edges completely.
Step 9: Press the seam allowance toward the lower panel and top stitch the seam allowance in place by stitching 1/8" from the seam on the right side of the bag. Repeat steps 8 and 9 on the other side of the tote.
Step 10: Pin the handle straps to the top of the middle panel 3” from each side, being careful not to twist the handle.
Step 11: Pin the upper panel to the bag on top of the straps, right sides together. The straps will be sewn into the seam while attaching the panel to the bag.
Step 12: Sew the upper panel to the bag using the same method as in step 8. Press the seam allowance up toward the upper panel and the straps down toward the bottom of the bag. Repeat steps 10, 11, and 12 on the other side of the tote bag.
Step 13: Top stitch the seam allowance to the upper panel of the bag using a 1/8" seam allowance. Do not stitch the handles into the top stitching. Keep them down and out of the way. Repeat on the other side of the tote bag.
Step 14: Placing right sides together, pin the side and bottom seams of the tote bag together. Keep the handle straps out of the way of all stitching. I tucked mine into the center of the bag. Stitch all three seams as you did in step 8.
Step 15: Measure and mark a 1” square on the bottom corner of each side of the tote bag.
Step 16: Open the bottom seam of the tote bag and fold a triangle of fabric. The bottom seam and the side seams will align and the 1” corner marks will line up as well. Pin through the mark on the bottom of the tote, making sure that the pins are lined up with the chalk marks on the opposite side.
Step 17: Sew through all the layers of the corner, stitching along the chalk marks to create a boxed bottom on the tote. This will take it from being two flat pieces sewn together, to creating a “bottom” to the bag. This depth can be any size you desire. Repeat on the other side of the tote bag.
Step 18: Fold the top panel into the bag 3/8" wrong sides together and press. Repeat with a second 3/8" fold and pin in place.
Step 19: Stitch the top of the bag in place by sewing as close to the inside fold as you desire. Press the entire seam flat after stitching. Be sure to keep the shoulder straps out of the way while sewing.
Step 20: Fold the straps up toward the top of the bag and press. Pin in place by pinning through the strap and the top layer of the bag. To sew it to the bag, mark a lower line, and upper line, and an X connecting these lines. Be sure to use a water soluble chalk that you have tested on a scrap first to ensure it can be removed after stitching.
Step 21: Stitch along the upper line, lower line, and X. Also sew along the sides, stitching on top of the previous stitch line. Repeat on all four strap connections.
Step 22: Remove the chalk marks and give the strap a final press. Et voilà! You are done sewing your tote bag!