How to make a tote shopping bag

This tote / shopping bag features:

  • strong, secure handles which will last forever
  • an inner lining for added strength
  • two inner pockets for phone, pens, etc
  • the option to use two co-ordinating fabrics for the outer

Here’s a simple lined tote / shopping bag which you can easily make in just a couple of hours.
Here, I’ve made a bag specifically to carry my inspiration scrapbook to and fro between my garden cabin and the house, with all the scraps, magazines, scissors and glue I need to create my collages.   Likewise, you could make your own tote bag for a certain purpose, or create a bag to the same size as one you already own. This tutorial will show you how.

You will need:

2 fabrics:  one for the outer and one for the lining

A small piece of interfacing / vilene

Tape measure or ruler; Scissors; Pencil; Notepad; pins;

sewing kit

Step 1 : How to design your tote bag

First up, you need to decide what size your finished bag will be.

For my bag, I’ve measured my scrapbook and allowed extra space to easily reach into the bag with room for another notebook, or a scarf, snack, etc.  The extra space I’ve allowed is approximately half the length and width of the book, so that I’ll be cutting fabric which measures:

one-and-half times the length by one-and-half times the width of my book

Okay, so measure your book (or other item) and add on half the length and half the width, just like I’ve done.

TIP: round up your measurements to the nearest five or ten centimetres.   My measurements came to 58cm by 43cm, so I rounded up to 60cm by 45cm.  Why?  Just because it’s so much easier to remember these numbers and therefore measuring for cutting is simpler.

If you are using two fabrics for the outer bag, like I’ve done, you’ll need to cut the two pieces of fabric as follows:

Allow two-thirds for one piece and one-third for the other piece.   Here’s what I did for my bag:

40cm length by 45cm width for the top piece,
20cm length by 45cm width for the bottom piece.

If you’re copying the size of an original bag – just use the measurements of your existing bag plus the seam allowance.   Remember to allow 1.5cm on each side for the seam allowance, therefore adding a total of 3cm seam allowance to your length measurement and 3cm to your width measurement.

Write down the measurements in your notebook.

The length and width of handles is going to be a personal preference for you.  My tote bag is to be carried in the hand.  Because my tote is quite large, I wanted to create fairly wide handles in proportion to the rest of the bag.    As you can see from the photo, I’m cutting fabric 35cm by 10cm for the handles.  This provides a good width and length to make the handles comfortable, no matter how heavy the bag may be.

For each handle you will need an outer fabric and a lining fabric.
Therefore cut two outer fabrics to your required measurements and cut two lining fabrics to the same measurements.

Also cut out a piece of iron-on interfacing / Vilene to the same size as each handle piece.  You’ll need two pieces of interfacing / Vilene in total.

TIP: Choose vilene which is suited to your fabric, opting for a medium weight vilene if you are in any doubt.

Inner Pockets
It’s useful to have a couple of small pockets for coins, phone, pens, handkerchief, etc.
Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I’m cutting fabric for the inner pockets measuring 20cm wide and 15cm long.

Step 2 : Cutting out the fabric for your Tote / Shopping Bag:

Use a ruler and pencil to mark out your pieces onto fabric .  If you have a set square then you can use this to ensure you’ve got 90 degree angles at the corners.  If not, you could use a book or anything else which has corners.

Once you have marked out the pieces, and double checked the measurements, you’ll need to :

Cut out your outer bag fabric.
Cut out your lining fabric.
Cut out the handle fabrics.
Cut out the pocket fabrics.

Step 3 :  How to Sew your tote / shopping bag:

Start by sewing a hem at the top of the inner pockets, as follows:

At the top of the pocket, turn over and press (with an iron) 5mm to the wrong side of the fabric.
Turn over the same amount again and press to create a hem.
Using a standard straight stitch on your sewing machine, stitch this hem in place.
Press this with an iron.

Now turn over and press 5mm on each of the remaining sides, turning the fabric to the wrong side.    See Photo.
Press with an iron.

Position an inner pocket on the right side of the lining fabric as follows:

Place the top of the pocket approximately 25cm from the top, and centred between the two side edges of one piece of lining fabric.
Pin into place.
Using a standard straight stitch, sew the pocket into place by sewing down one side, along the bottom and up the other side.   At the start and end of the sewing, sew a few reverse stitches to make the sewing secure and thereby strengthen the pocket to the lining.
Position and sew both pockets in the same way.
Now press this with an iron.
Put the linings aside whilst you make the outer bag.

Step 4 :  How to Sew the Outer Bag

NB: If you are using only one fabric for the outer bag, then you can skip to How to attach interfacing / vilene to fabric.

If, like me,  you’re using two contrasting fabrics, you’ll need to sew them together first, as follows:

With right sides facing, sew one of the long sides of the two contrasting fabrics together, using a standard straight stitch.
Press the sewing with an iron.
Now, using your iron, press the seam allowance towards the lower fabric as shown in the photo.

On the right side of the fabric, top stitch through the lower fabric and the seam allowance underneath.  To do this, line up the left edge of your sewing machine foot with the seam line where the two fabrics meet.  Set your needle to the central position and sew with a standard straight stitch.  This will create top stitching which is about 5mm from the seam where the two fabrics meet.  See photo.
Press with an iron as shown in the photo below:

Step 5 : How to attach interfacing / Vilene to fabric

Whilst your iron is still hot, take the two outer fabric pieces for the handles and place them wrong side up on your ironing board.
Take the interfacing / Vilene pieces which you’ve already cut to the correct size for your handles, and notice that there is a shiny side and a dull side to the Vilene.
The shiny side is the adhesive side.
Place the shiny side down onto the wrong side of your fabric.
Now carefully holding the fabric and vilene together, turn them over so that the right side of the fabric is uppermost and the shiny side of the vilene is still in contact with the wrong side of the fabric.
Make sure the fabric and vilene are sitting neatly one on top of the other.
Now, using your iron, hold the iron on top of the fabric for about 5 to 8 seconds, as directed by the vilene manufacturer.
Then check that the vilene has fused to your fabric.

Step 6 : How to sew the handles for your bag

Take one outer piece and one lining piece and pin them so that the right sides of each fabric are facing each other.
Sew, using a seam allowance of 1.5cm, along each of the two long sides.
Turn the fabric through to the right side.

Using your fingers, manipulate the sewn edges so that the outer and lining fabrics sit neatly.   See photo above.
Press with an iron.

Now top stitch along each of the two long sides, approximately 5mm from the edge as shown in the photo above.
Press again with an iron, after which it should look like this:

Repeat for the other handle.

Step 7 : How to position the handles for your tote / shopping bag

Place one outer bag piece, right side up, on your work surface.
Find the centre of the top edge of the outer bag piece.
Mark this centre with a pin.
Now measure approximately 5cm/2inches either side of this centre mark to show where the inner edge of the handle will be.
Mark these points with pins – see the photo above.

Position your handle so that the inner long edge of the handle is touching each of the marker pins as shown in the photo.
Pin your handles to the bag pieces, using a couple of pins.
You can, if you wish, tack the handles in place using large handsewn stitches rather than holding them with pins.
Take care to make sure you have not twisted the handles during this process.
Make sure that the outer fabric of the handle is face down onto the outer fabric of the bag sections.   See photos above and below.

Step 8 : How to make super-strong bag handles by securing the handles to the fabric

Here we’re going to secure the handles to the fabric.  This will create strong handles which will remain attached to your bag even when you’re carrying heavy items.  These handles will stay sewn to your bag FOREVER!

Position your sewing machine foot so that it is inside the usual seam allowance.  See photo – I’ve put the right edge of my sewing foot in line with the raw edge of the fabric and handle.

Sew three or four lines of stitching, with each line of stitching being sewn slightly closer to the raw edge of the handle and the bag fabric.

above shows top view, and the photo below shows the sewing on the reverse side of the fabric:

TIP: You may find that you need to sew these stitches with a slightly longer stitch than usual.  If this is the case, remember to re-set your stitch to a standard length afterwards.

Take a good look at the photos for this section, so that you can see what I’ve done.

Step 9 : How to sew together the two outer sections of your tote bag

With right sides facing, pin the two outer bag sections together.
Start at the top, sew down one long side, sew along the bottom, sew up the other long side.
Press your stitching with an iron.
At the bottom corners, trim away some of the seam allowance as shown in this photo.

You will be cutting no closer than 2 or 3 cm from the stitching.

TIP: We’re cutting this triangle away to avoid excess fabric bunching up inside the corners and to make the corners neat when the bag is finished.

Turn the bag the right way out and press the side and bottom seams with an iron, again.

Step 10 : How to sew together the lining sections of your tote bag

Just as you did with the outer fabric, keep the right sides of the lining fabric facing and pin the two sections of lining together.
Start at the top, sew down one long side, sew one third of the way along the bottom edge and stop, using a couple of reverse stitches.

Leave a gap of about 10cm in the middle of the bottom edge of the lining.

Sew the rest of the bottom edge, starting with a couple of reverse stitches.
Then continue to sew along the bottom edge and up the remaining long side back to the top edge of the lining.

TIP: We’re leaving a gap, as shown in the photo, so that later on we can turn the bag through this hole when we’ve finished sewing.

Press your stitching with an iron.
At the bottom corners, trim away some of the seam allowance just as you did for the outer bag.
You will be cutting no closer than 2 or 3 cm from the stitching.
Turn the lining the right way round, but don’t press it again.

Step 11 : How to attach a lining to the outer bag

In my photos you’ll see I’ve turned the outer bag inside out for the next step.

Now you need to put the outer bag and lining one inside the other.  In the photos, I’ve got the outer bag inside the lining.
Make sure the outer fabric for the outer bag is facing and touching the outer fabric of the lining, and that you can still see all your previously sewn seams.

You don’t want to sew the bag or lining inside out!

Pin the raw top edge of the outer bag to the raw top edge of the lining, making sure that the raw edges match up neatly.
At the sides make sure the side seams are facing each other and accurately lined up with each other – see photo below:

Then, fold the seam allowance of the outer bag in one direction, and the seam allowance of the lining in the other direction.   See photo.

TIP: We’re folding the seam allowances in opposite directions to avoid bulkiness and to provide a smooth, flat, professional finish where these two seams meet.

Now, using a 1.5cm seam allowance, sew all the way round the top of the bag, attaching the lining to the outer bag in the process.

TIP: When you sew through the bag handles, just check that the raw cut edge of the handles is still in line with the raw cut edge of the top of the bag and lining.

Sew again, inside the seam allowance, approximately 5mm from the first line of sewing.   This will strengthen the seam.   See the two rows of stitching in the photo above.

Press your stitching with an iron, all the way round the top of the bag.

Now turn the bag the right way out through the opening in the base of the lining fabric.  See photos below:

Push the lining fabric down inside the bag.

Using your fingers, manipulate the top edge of the bag, to make sure the outer fabric and lining are sitting neatly.

Pin all the way round the top of the bag, to hold the lining and outer bag in place.
Make sure the handles are positioned correctly, and sitting at a 90 degree angle to the top of the bag.  You don’t want crooked handles!
See photos above and below.

Place the sewing foot of your machine, so that you can top stitch approxiately 3mm from the top edge of the fabric.

Top stitch, sewing all the way round the opening, removing pins as you sew if you need to.  If the machine doesn’t sew neatly, it may be because you need to use a longer stitch length to get through all the fabrics.   If you do this, remember to re-set your stitch length afterwards.

Press this top edge with your iron as shown.

Step 12 : Finishing off

Pull the bottom of the lining fabric out through the bag.

Where you’ve left a gap, make sure the seam allowance is tucked into the wrong side.
You may want to pin the gap closed, or just use an iron to make sure the seam allowance is neatly inside.

Now sew the gap closed, by sewing approximately 2mm from the edge.  See photo above.

Be sure to use a few reverse stitches at the beginning and end of your sewing.
Press with an iron.

Push the lining back inside the bag.


Any Questions?  Leave a comment and I’ll write a reply here in the comments section, so you’ll need to pop back to find the answer.

COPYRIGHT:  Please note that this tutorial is the Copyright of Josie Crafter and Homemade & Happy.  It is for your own private use and is not to be reproduced for commercial purposes. Thanks.

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6 Responses to How to make a tote shopping bag

  1. Carol says:

    Lovely bag, excellent tutorial.
    Carol xx

  2. Josie Crafter says:

    Hi Carol,
    Thanks for your feedback – I hope you have fun with this 🙂

  3. I am squealing with delight here! Thanks… I go forth to conquer the world of tote bag making! Thank you xxxx Love Helen, Darcy and Bingley xxx

  4. Josie Crafter says:

    I hear your squeals !!!
    Go forth and conquer, and if it gets tricky, give me a ring 🙂

  5. amjad says:

    I love making tote bags. This is one of the best ,clearly explained tutorials I have come across. Thank you

  6. Josie Crafter says:

    many thanks, Amjad, for your feedback 🙂

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