Like many people these days, Jo and I are becoming more aware of our impact on the Earth, and are trying to be more “green” and reduce waste. One of the biggest wastes of materials that we see in our daily lives is the rampant use of disposable plastic bags in grocery and department stores. More and more people (and even a few retailers) are completely cutting themselves off from plastic bags, and Jo and I are making an effort to do the same thing. The first step was to come up with some reusable tote bags to use instead.
Our main requirement for a reusable tote bag is that it fold up into a small size so that we could easily carry a few with us at all times (either in a purse or in the car). Additionally, we’d like the bags to be durable, inexpensive, and fashionable. We found a ton of bags online, and we purchased two samples to look at — made by Baggu and Envirosax — and we studied them closely. We decided we liked the super-durable ripstop nylon fabric that the Baggu used and we liked the handles of the EnviroSax. We also thought both bags were a bit small and a bit too expensive for us to buy in bulk. We quickly identified what features our ideal bag would have, and never ones to back down from a challenge, we knew we could make our own bags that were just what we wanted.
In the spirit of helping the environment by reducing waste, Jo and I encourage you to make the switch from plastic bags to reusable shopping today. You can buy them just about anywhere, and now I’m pleased to be able to provide you with very detailed instructions for making your own!
Step 1: Choosing your fabric
For the fabric for this project, we decided to use ripstop nylon because it super durable and also very thin. The “ripstop” part refers to the tiny grid of strong threads that run through the fabric, so that if the fabric ever tears, the tear will stop at the next thread it reaches. The nylon composition makes the fabric thin and lightweight, so it’s really the ideal fabric to use for this bag.
The only drawback is that ripstop nylon is not available in a very wide variety of colors or patterns. I’m willing to sacrifice fashion for durability in this case, but if any of you ever find some patterned ripstop, let me know! If you really want patterns, you could use any non-stretchy fabric you want, but be sure to choose something thin and lightweight, so that your finished bag is easy to store and carry.
Step 2: Making the pattern
The first thing you need to do is make a paper pattern for your bags. Whenever I need a large sheet of paper, what I reach for is an old roll of wrapping paper that I won’t ever use again. I grabbed some old Christmas paper that I never liked and I rolled it out on the table, face down, and used it to make my pattern. I decided my bag would be 15″ deep and 22″ wide, with 12″ handles. I wish I could provide you with an online, life-sized pattern to work with, but the best I can do is to provide you with this small-scale sample that includes as many measurements as possible. You can use it as a guideline and adjust the measurements as you like, but these measurements worked well for me. Draw the pattern on the paper and then cut it out with scissors.
Step 3: Cutting the fabric
You will need a total of five pieces of fabric for this bag. Two pieces will be the full 28″ x 22″ design depicted in my sample pattern. Two more pieces will be a shorter version, which includes the handles but stops at the dotted line (these are used for the lining of the handles). Finally you’ll need a 2″ x 10″ pieces for the snap enclosure (to be described later).
To cut the two main pieces, fold the fabric in half and lay the pattern on it and pin it in place. By folding the fabric first, you can make both pieces at one time, which will save you time and make both pieces the same size. Cut the fabric about 1/2″ larger than the paper (for seam allowances). For the two handle lining pieces, position the handle portion of the pattern on the fabric (once again, in a double layer) and pin it in place. This time, don’t cut the entire bottom portion — just leave about 4″ of length.
You will end up with four pieces of fabric — two long ones and two short ones, both with handles.
Step 3: Finish the rough edge on the lining
The two short pieces you have, which will be used as a lining inside the bag, need to have the rough edge on the bottom trimmed. To do this, take one piece and just fold the bottom edge over about 1/4 – 1/2″ inch and sew it down. Then fold that edge over again and sew it again, completely enclosing the rough edge.
Repeat this step for the other piece of lining.
Step 4: Sew lining in place
Lay the lining on top of the larger piece, with the finished side up (folded edge face down). Pin the lining in place and sew all along the sides of each handle, about 1/2″ from the edge. You should only sew the sides of the handles and the top edge of the bag. Do not sew the top of the handles or the sides of the bag. See the photo to the right where I’ve marked in yellow exactly where you SHOULD sew (and in red where you should NOT).
Now you must cut little notches in the seams wherever there are curved edges on your piece. This is necessary if you want the fabric to lay flat after you turn it inside out. Just make tiny cuts up to the edge of the stitches (but not across them!) along any curved edges, as indicated in yellow in the picture to the right.
Repeat this step for the other piece of the bag.
Step 5: Finish the edges of the top
Turn your piece inside out and smooth it down as flat as possible. Pin all your edges for stability, then run a line of stitches along every sewn edge, as close to the edge as possible. This will strengthen your edges and make the bag lay flat and smooth. Again, do only the sides of the handles and the top of the bag — do not sew the top of the handles shut. The picture on the right shows the finished piece held up to the light. You can clearly see here how the notches have opened up inside, thus allowing your fabric to flatten and make a nice flat finish.
Repeat this step for the other piece of the bag.
Step 6: Finish the handles
To me, the trickiest part of the bag is sewing the top of the handles together. Because we had to leave these ends open in order to turn the piece inside out, we now have raw edges that need to be taken care of.
In addition, this will be a stress point on the bag, so it needs to be sewn well for strength. Start by folding the two ends towards each other. Take the one on the right and fold the edge under and place it on top of the other side, pinning it in place.
Then flip the handle over and do the same on the back, tucking the other edge under and pinning it in place. Sew both seams down, removing the pins as you go. For extra security, you can also sew the sides, where the little half-inch overlap is, so that it doesn’t come undone.
To ensure that the second handle is the same length as the first one, lay the finished one on top of the other one and line up all the edges. Fold the ends of the handle over the finished handle and pin together. Use the process described above to finish the second handle.
Step 7: Create the snap enclosure
The next step is to create the snap enclosure that you’ll use to keep your bag all bundled up so that it’s easy to store in your purse, pocket, or car. Start with a 2″ x 10″ piece of nylon and fold it in half lengthwise, then stitch along the long side and one short side. Turn the tube inside out (poke a pencil in the sewn end to help you flip it) and cut it to 8.5″ in length. Tuck the final open end of the tube in 1/2″ and sew it in place. Stitch along all four edges, as close to the edge as you can, for support and to force the strip to lay flat.
Sew two halves of a snap onto either end of the strip, making sure to put them on opposite sides of the fabric, so that the finished strap will snap closed in a circle. Test and re-test before you sew that second snap on, because it’s very frustrating if you sew it on wrong and have to start over (trust me!).
Step 8: Assemble the bag
Finally you’re ready to sew the two sides of the bag together! Put the first half of the bag on the table with the lining side facing down and the other half of the bag on top of that, with the lining side face up. Then line up the handles and the top of the bag so that everything is even and straight, and pin the two pieces together in several places. Then take your snap enclosure and fold it in half and tuck it in between the two sides, putting the fold near the edge of the bag, and lining it up with one side of one of the handles. Sew the sides and bottom of the bag together, being sure to sew right over the snap enclosure as you go. When you’re done, turn the bag inside out. Hang on, you’re almost done!
Step 9: Finish the edges
The last thing to do is finish the outside edges of the bag (much like we did for the handles) to reinforce the seams and make the pay lay flat. Start by pinning the sides and bottom together, then stitch as close to the edge as possible. You’re done! Now you’ve got a great and sturdy tote bag that’s ready for your next shopping trip!
Step 10: How to fold the bag
- Fold the handles in towards the middle.
- Fold each side over one fourth of the way towards the middle.
- Fold the left side again.
- Fold the left side again, so that it completely covers the right side.
- Fold the top edge down to the bottom edge.
- Fold/roll the top edge down until it meets the bottom and secure with the snap enclosure.
P.S. Three or four of these bags would make an excellent gift for the person who “has everything” or for a devoted shopper. If you really enjoy sewing, you could make a bunch of these bags and make all your friends very happy.