Absolute Beginner Tote Tutorial

I’m calling this project The Absolute Beginner. It’s a super-cute lined tote bag that really could not be easier.


First gather up all the supplies you’ll need for this project:


You’ll need:

  1. Poster board, buy the least expensive kind you can find. I usually buy some bright color, that way I don’t lose it on my sewing table!

  2. 1/2 yard of canvas, 7oz duck canvas works great and it’s really easy to sew with a home machine. No, I don’t know why it’s called duck either.

  3. 1/2 yard of lightweight cotton fabric. Fabric intended for quilting is the perfect choice.

  4. A 24″ ruler, a transparent ruler is the easiest to work with.

  5. A rotary cutter or fabric scissors.

  6. Paper-cutting scissors or an Xacto® knife.

  7. 2 spools of thread, one to match the canvas, one to match the lining fabric.

  8. Iron and ironing board.

  9. A pen and a fabric pencil or tailor’s chalk.

  10. Pins.

  11. A sewing machine, of course. Oh okay, you could sew this project by hand, but it’d definitely be a nightmare!

Now the first step is to draft a pattern. I know, this sounds kind of intimidating. But really, it’s very easy. Just figure out how big you want your tote bag to be. If you’re like me, you probably have half a dozen cheapie totes that you’ve acquired as give-aways from various trade shows. Chances are that there’s one of those that is just right. It’s your go-to bag that you grab every time you need a tote. If it’s like mine, the only drawback is that it is exceptionally ugly! So grab that ugly tote bag and measure it. This will be the basis of your pattern.

Tutorial001_image003See? I told you it was ugly! But what’s worse, is that it’s made out of that same weird not-quite-fabric-stuff that those hospital booties are made of.

My bag measures 16″ wide by 14″ tall. It has gussets which give it about an inch of depth. But since we’re keeping this project really easy, I’ll skip those, but I’ll add an inch to the width to kind of compensate. So, the bag measurement that I’m going to go with is 17″ X 14″. Come up with the measurements that you want to use and grab your poster board.

That’s right, we’re going to draw out the pattern on the poster board, that’s what it’s for. What? You were hoping that we were going to create a 4th grade science fair project, weren’t you? Oh, something like “Our Solar System, ” with poorly drawn planets, and Pluto crossed out. I’m sorry to disappoint.

Okay, take that poster board, along one long side and one short side draw a 1″ border…like this:


Now, draw your rectangle within that border, like this:


Now you need to add a seam allowance. Line up your ruler with the lines you’ve already drawn and add 3/8″ all around. You’ll have a rectangle within a rectangle, like this:


Your pattern size will be 3/4″ larger in both length and width than your finished bag size. Therefore, my pattern is 14-3/4″ X 17-3/4″. Okay, now cut it out along the outside lines using either a scissors or an Xacto® knife.

Now I’m going to make the bottom corners of my bag slightly rounded. I just think it sort of looks nicer. Do you have one of these handy-dandy things?


What are these things called, anyway? Stencils? Probably. Well, if you don’t have one, it’s no big deal, you can use a jar lid or any round object. Just line it up in the corner and trace around it. You should have something that looks like this:


Now fold your pattern in half vertically and trace around that corner in order to create the other corner. That way, they’ll match perfectly. The pattern for the body of the bag is done. It should look like this:


It’s time to make a pattern for the straps. You need to figure out how long you want your straps to be. Do you prefer shorter straps, so your bag tucks right under your arm? Or do you like your straps to be longer, so you can pull your bag around and get your keys out, without taking it off your shoulder? Personally, I like my straps a bit longer. So I measured those on my ugly go-to tote (it really is a shame that it’s so hideous, because otherwise, it’s pretty much perfect.) They are 22-1/2″ long. But what about the width? I find that a 1″ strap works great for me. Whatever width you decide on, you’ll need to double that measurement for the width of the strap pattern and add one 1″ to the length for the pattern.


I cut a strip that was 2″ wide and 23-1/2″ long. Okay, you are finally done cutting the pattern … YAY!

Now if, let’s say, one were a slap-dash sew-er, one might be tempted to skip ALL of the pattern crap steps. Hmmm … one could … maybe just measure one’s ugly tote bag, add 3/4″ in each direction … throw one’s canvas down on the cutting mat, cut two rectangles for the body of the bag, cut two rectangles for the lining, cut two strips out for the straps and two for the lining … and be done with it! But I would never do that.

Now you’re ready to cut your fabric. Take your pattern and lay it on the canvas. You will need to cut out two pieces for the body of the bag and two pieces for the straps. So make sure that you lay it out in such a way that all of those pieces will fit.


You can either fold the fabric in half, pin the pattern to it and cut around it; or you can trace around the pattern with a fabric pencil or piece of tailor’s chalk … twice, and cut it out … twice. The advantage of the pinning method is that you only have to cut out the shape once. Inexplicably, I prefer the latter, more laborious method. Well, however you get there is fine. You should end up with two rectangles and two long strips cut out of canvas. Now repeat this process exactly with the lining fabric. So you’ll have four rectangles and four strips.


Now take the fabric for the lining, pin one piece on top of the other, making sure that they line up exactly. Lay them out on your cutting mat and trim 1/4″ from the top edge (the one that doesn’t have the curves) and trim 1/4″ from one of the short sides. The reason that you’re doing this is to make the lining just a tiny bit smaller than the outside of the bag. That way it’ll lay flat and won’t bunch up. When you cut the 1/4″ from one of the short sides, you will, unfortunately, mess up one of your perfectly symmetrical rounded corners. Keeping the pieces pinned together, fold them vertically, and trace around the good corner, onto the messed up corner. Just cut around your markings, and you’ve made your corners symmetrical once again. Now take the two strap strips in the lighter, lining material. Trim 1/4” off of one of the long sides on both pieces.

Your cutting is pretty much done. Let’s make the straps. Carry all your strap pieces over to your ironing board. Take one of the canvas strap pieces. Fold it in half vertically, with your iron (set on high heat) press a crease all the way down along the center.


Open up the fold. Now take one edge and fold it in toward that center crease. Use your iron and press along this new crease, like this:


Keep folding in the edge in toward the center crease, pressing as you go. Repeat this process with the other edge.


When you’re done both raw edges will be folded in, meeting in the center. It will look like this:


Repeat this process with the other canvas strip and both of the lining fabric strips. Now you have four strips, each with a smooth side, and a reverse side with raw edges meeting in the middle.

Take one of your canvas strips, lay it on your work surface with the raw edge side up. Take one of your lining pieces and lay it on top of the canvas piece with the raw edge down.


See? Because you cut the lining piece a bit smaller, you have a nice 1/8″ border on each edge. Pin them into place and do the same with the other canvas and lining strips.

This was supposed to be a sewing project, wasn’t it? Finally, it is time to sew! We’ll sew the straps first. Use a bobbin thread to match the canvas and a top thread to match the lining fabric. Use a zipper foot for this part of the sewing. Start at one of the ends, line up the edge of the zipper foot with the edge of the lining fabric.


Sew down to the bottom of the strap. When you get to the corner, with your needle down, bring your presser foot up and rotate the fabric ninety degrees, and lower the presser foot. Sew across the raw edge. When you get to the other side, bring your needle down in the corner, again raise the presser foot turn your fabric ninety degrees, lower the foot, and sew along the other side. You don’t need to sew across the other raw end, but I usually do. Repeat this process with the other strap.


Now your straps are completed. We’ll sew up the body of the bag. Take your two canvas pieces and lay one on top of the other with the right sides together. I know, canvas usually looks the same on both sides. But if your canvas has one side that’s clearly more finished, has a nicer sheen, than the other side, then this will be your right side. So, right sides together, line them up exactly and pin them into place. You don’t need a lot of pins, just enough to keep the two pieces together and in place. I usually try to do it in such a way that the pins won’t interfere with my sewing area.


Change your top thread to the spool that matches the canvas. Change the presser foot on your machine to the standard foot (this one has a built in 3/8″ seam allowance). Line up the edge of the presser foot with the top right corner of your canvas. Keeping the edge of the presser foot on the edge of your canvas, sew along down the side. Slow down a bit when you get to the rounded corner. If you keep the right corner of the presser foot in contact with the edge of the fabric as you sew through the curve, it will work perfectly.


Continue sewing along the bottom edge of the bag, round the second corner and continue until you reach the top lefthand corner of the bag. Needless to say, you don’t want to sew across the top!

Once you’ve sewn the canvas, you have one small additional cutting job to do. With scissors (little snipping scissors work best) cut three small notches, about 1/4″ deep in the rounded corners, like this:


Make sure not to cut your stitches! These notches will decrease the bulk of fabric in the corners of the bag and make it lay better. Now turn the canvas piece right side out. Wow, feels like you’re getting somewhere!


Take your two pieces of lining fabric. Put one on top of the other, right sides together (this time it’s really easy to figure out which are the right sides). Pin them together the same way you did with the canvas pieces. On the bottom edge of the lining fabric, find the center point and mark a dot there with a fabric pencil. Measure three inches to the right of that dot and mark another dot. Go back to the center dot and measure three inches to the left of it and mark another dot there.


The space between the two outer dots is going to be a gap in the bottom of the lining. Now it’s time to stitch up the lining. Start at the top, righthand corner, sew down the right side, slowly through the corner curve. Sew along the bottom until you reach that first dot or marking. Reverse to lock your stitches in place. Cut your thread. With your needle in the up position, bring your presser foot up. Adjust your fabric so that your needle is right above the third mark. Lower your presser foot, take a couple of forward, then reverse stitches and continue sewing along the bottom of the lining. Again, sew slowly around the second curved corner and along the left side of the bag until you reach the top lefthand corner.

Now it’s time to figure out your strap placement. I am going to place my straps 6″ apart. Take your canvas piece, make sure it is turned right side out. Measure and mark the center point along the top edge. Measure 3″ to the left and 3″ to the right of that mark. Mark those points.


Line up the inside edges of the straps along the two outer marks, like this:


Pin the straps into place, taking care not to pin through both layers of canvas. Repeat this process on the other side of the bag. When you’re done, the straps should match up exactly on both sides of the bag. Now that the straps are in place, take your canvas piece (still turned right side out) and put it inside your lining piece (still turned so that the right sides are together … or wrong side out).


Since the lining fabric piece is just a bit smaller than the canvas, it will be a tight fit. Pin it in place, starting at the end seams, lining them up and pinning all around the top.

With the standard presser foot in place, sew along the top raw edge, keeping the edge of the fabric lined up with the edge of the presser foot. Even sewing through the straps, with their layers of fabric, shouldn’t present any problems for a home sewing machine. I should caution you to make sure not to sew both sides of the bag together. If you do manage to do that, it’s not a huge deal, you’ll just have to rip out the seams and resew it.

Once you’ve sewn all the way around and reverse-locked your stitches, you will pull the canvas piece through the bottom gap in the lining. When it’s pulled all the way through, your bag will look like this:


You’ll need to stitch up the gap in the lining:



If you put one finger in each side of the gap and pull, the fabric will naturally fold in, like this:


Pin it closed and sew very close to this folded in edge.



When the gap is stitched up, you’re ready to see your (almost) finished product. Fold the lining fabric into the canvas. Here’s the inside of your bag:


You’re not quite done. We’re going to sew a top stitch around the opening of the bag and reinforce the straps. Along the top edge of the bag pull the lining fabric down a bit so it doesn’t show over the canvas, as you look at the bag straight on. Pin it into place.


Stitch all the way around the bag opening like this:


Now unless you plan to use your tote for only light duty, you should reinforce the straps a bit further. Sew a seam right at the very edge, under the strap, turn your piece ninety degrees and sew down to that topstitch seam, turn again, sew across the strap again on the topstitch seam, and make a final turn, so you’ve made a little box with stitches. Then I usually sew one line straight across, straight through the middle of the box. Repeat for the other three straps. It will look like this:


And now your bag is done!



You’ve made something that looks nice that you’ll actually use. Now donate that awful trade show tote bag to Goodwill!


5 responses on “Absolute Beginner Tote Tutorial

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