Designing the Bag for Your Needs
There are two basic styles of tote bags—flat and box. Flat bags are made from two same-size pieces of fabric sewn together. While the bottom corners of the flat bag can be tucked, or boxed, slightly to give it more depth, to make a really wide-mouthed tote you will need to make all four sides for a box-style bag.
Tote bags are generally square or rectangular, but they don’t have to be. Consider the use of your bag—what shape and size will best suit its purpose? Remember you are working with fabric and, though you can find some fairly stiff fabrics, your bag will be pretty limp when it’s empty. The larger it is, the more this will be true.
When you’ve decided on the shape you want, determine the exact dimensions. You will need either two same-sized rectangles or one that folds in half to become the size you need for both sides. Add at least ½” seam allowance all around. Also consider the thickness of its future content. As happened when you stuffed a pillow, your bag front will seem smaller once it’s full.
If your bag is going to have a rounded bottom, make a pattern for your pieces. Remember to allow for depth with this pattern as well. Small tucks are possible in the sides of round totes as well as the square ones, and these will make the front seem smaller.
To make a more box-like tote bag, you will need sides separate from the front and back. For one piece, begin with the size and shape you want the bottom to be when it’s finished. Extend the front and back pieces out from the bottom pattern to the height you want, and do the same with the sides. Add your seam allowances all the way around this cross shape, and you have your pattern.
It is a good idea to reinforce the bottom of this kind of bag, especially if you are making it large and expect it to carry fairly heavy loads, such as books or groceries. To do this, you can cut another piece the size of the bottom plus a seam allowance. You will turn under the seam allowances and stitch it to the bag either inside or out. If you will be putting it inside, it should be a tiny bit smaller than the bottom itself.
Or you can cut a piece that will extend 1” or so up the sides or up the front and back as well. This will probably need to go on the outside, or it will make the bottom spread.
Handles and Facing
You will also need to decide how long you’ll want your straps. For most tote bags, the straps will be sewn on the top with the raw edges hidden under a facing. If your bag will be used for heavy items, your handles can be sewn down the entire front and back of the tote, meeting
at the bottom. Consider making the handles long enough to go over your shoulder. Keep these possibilities in mind when you are planning and shopping.
You can buy heavy woven ribbon or make your straps by folding and turning strips of the same fabric you’re using for your bag. You can even make a combination of both. If you are making top-mounted handles, allow about 1½” at each end for extension under the facing. This will reinforce the handles and help them stand up.
The facing is a 2” strip that will go all the way around the top of your bag. This strip may be pieced or cut from one length. Make it more narrow for a really small bag and wider for a larger one.
You can make your bag out of anything you want, but heavy, tightly woven fabrics will give you a more satisfactory tote. Denim or canvas will probably be your best choices, but check for heavy twills or even upholstery fabric if they suit your project. The heavier the fabric, the more difficult it will be to turn for straps. Consider grosgrain ribbon backed with your tote bag fabric, or possibly backed with fabric you will use in your appliqué decoration. If you are planning to use fabric for handles or to reinforce the bottom, be sure to allow enough when you buy your fabric. You might not want to wash your fabric before you make your tote, because washing it might make it softer. You can treat your tote bag with stain-resistant spray and waterproofing to put off having to wash the finished bag.
Handles for Heavy Loads
If you want handles that extend down the front and back of your tote bag, you can prepare the two handles in one long piece. If you are making a box, it will measure four times the height, plus twice the width of the bottom, plus twice whatever you want for the extension at the top of the tote. You can make this in two equal lengths if that is easier to work with. Zigzag across the raw edges at the ends of the handles.
For flat styles, begin by sewing the bottom seam. Since this raw edge is going to be inside your bag and could catch on things and fray, the allowance should be finished. A French seam is one option and can be used for lighter weight fabrics. Other suggestions are zigzag-finishing the edge or using pinking shears.
A flat felt seam is another possibility. To make this seam, sew it as usual with right sides together. Trim one allowance, probably the one toward the back, to 1/2 the depth of the other. Fold the deeper allowance over the shorter one and sew them both flat to the back piece, stitching close to the fold.
A variation on this is to press the seam open and turn each seam allowance under. Stitch them on their respective sides of the seam. If you are making the box style and did not cut it as one piece, sew the front and back pieces to the bottom piece, and finish the seams in some way.
Reinforcing the Bottom
A small reinforcing piece intended to be sewn inside of a box-style
tote can be added at this point. Turn the edges under, and sew it to the bottom section of your tote bag.
If you have chosen a reinforcing piece that extends up the sides and front and back, it can be added now. Turn under the top edges, pin it right side up to the right side of the still-flat tote bag piece. Stitch close to the folds.
If you are using handles that extend to the bottom and you would like them to disappear under this reinforcing panel, simply wait and add this piece after the handles are in place.