Beginner Friendly Tote Bag
Sew4Home is well-known for designing fashionable and functional bags and totes. From shoppers to satchels, carry-alls to coin purses; creating a wonderful bag for yourself or as a gift is a great sense of accomplishment. For this tutorial, we put our heads together to come up with a cool tote that would be perfect for beginners. This is it! Yes it’s easy, but the style is so cute and classic, everyone will have fun making it. More experienced? Add a bit of extra embellishment, such as a monogram on the pocket or fancier handles.
One of the things that makes our Sew4Home exclusive designs stand out is how we are able to include high-end style and professional finishing details, yet still keep the construction clean and easy.
These totes have crisp boxed corners, motif-matched exterior pockets, beautifully coordinated linings, topstitching detail, and more. The end result can be achieved even by someone brand new to sewing.
We offer two different handle styles. One tote has short, sewn-in handles with one sporting a pretty bow. The second tote has longer, shoulder straps with adjustable D-rings. Choose one or try them both!
A pattern download is offered below for the pockets. It is a simple rectangular cut, for which we wouldn’t normally provide a pattern, however, we use it to show you the tricks to getting a perfect motif match of the exterior pocket against the front panel.
Keep an eye out throughout the project for links that take you to additional how-to tutorials. Plus, remember to browse our Techniques category if there are other skills you’re looking to improve. We have a great library of step-by-step instructions for both basic and specialty techniques.
To give your tote some structure, we suggest a cotton/linen canvas or similar for the exterior paired with a standard quilting weight cotton for the lining. The original fabrics we chose, both from Cotton + Steel, are no longer readily available, but there are always new options to choose from each season from all the fabric companies.
Each tote finishes at approximately 14″ wide x 12″ high x 3″ deep.
Sewing Tools You Need
- Sewing Machine and standard presser foot
- Quarter Inch Seam foot
- Edge Guide foot; optional but helpful for exact topstitching – you could also use a Quarter Inch Seam foot
Fabric and Other Supplies
NOTE: Supplies shown are for ONE tote
- ¾ – 1½ yards of 44″+ wide medium-weight cotton canvas or similar for the exterior panels, facings, and pockets
- NOTE: The yardage is shown as a range because it will vary based on how large of a repeat you have and how perfectly you want your exterior pocket to match. If you have a very large motif and/or repeat as we did, opt for the high end of the range (we did). If you have a random pattern and aren’t concerned about a super-perfect pocket match, you can get away with as little as ¾ yard.
- ¾ yard of 44″+ wide quilting weight cotton for the lining (and the optional bow accent)
- ½ yard of 45″ mid-weight fusible interfacing; we used Pellon Décor Bond
- ¾ – 2 yards of 1″ cotton webbing
NOTE: The range on this one is based on which handle style you choose. Get ¾ yard if you are doing the short handles; 2 yards for the longer adjustable straps.
- For the longer adjustable straps: FOUR 1″ D-rings; we used a gunmetal finish
- All purpose thread to match fabrics
- All purpose thread in a slightly contrasting color for all topstitching; we used natural
- See-through ruler
- Fabric pen or pencil
- Seam gauge
- Seam ripper
- Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
- Iron and ironing board
- Straight pins
Getting Started and Pattern Download
NOTE: All our exterior pieces were carefully fussy cut. We show you how to create a perfect pocket match below. This is optional, but is a great pro-finish detail.
- Download and print out the Pocket and Ring Tab pattern sheet.
IMPORTANT: Both patterns will print on ONE 8½” x 11″ sheet. You must print the PDF file at 100%. DO NOT SCALE to fit the page. There is a guide rule on the page so you can confirm your final printout is to scale.
- Cut out each pattern piece along the solid line (the ring tab is only used on the longer adjustable straps).
NOTE: Your printer paper may be transparent enough to allow the pattern matching steps shown below. If you have trouble seeing through the printout, trace the pattern onto tissue or pattern grid paper.
- From the fabric for the exterior, facings, and pockets, fussy cut the following:
TWO 19″ wide x 15″ high rectangles for the exterior panels – for the best look, the motif should be the same on the front and back panels
TWO 19″ wide x 3″ high strips for the facings
FOR THE LONGER ADJUSTABLE STRAPS: Using the pattern, cut TWO ring tabs.
Exterior Pocket and Lining Pocket
- For a perfect pattern match, find one of the two exterior panels. This will be the front panel; the two exterior panels should be the same, but if you feel one of your two is better than the other, choose it as the front.
- Measure for pocket placement. The pocket should sit 4″ down from the top raw edge of the fabric panel and be centered 6½” in from each raw side edge. Pin the pocket pattern in this position.
- Using a pencil, trace a few parts of the fabric’s motif onto the pocket template to indicate parts of the printed motif. This will help you visually line up the print when you cut out the front pocket. Draw as many parts as you feel necessary to get a good match. If you’re just beginning, you might find it helps to not only draw around the edge (as we did in the photo below) but to also trace a bit of the pattern inside the pocket.
- Remove the pocket pattern from the fabric panel and take it over to the remaining exterior fabric. Lay the template on the right side of the fabric and move it around until you perfectly match the tracing on the template to the motif on the fabric. Pin in place.
- Cut out the matching exterior pocket.
- Using the same pocket pattern, cut ONE additional pocket front for the lining pocket. This one does not have to match as it will sit against the lining fabric as a contrast.
- From the fabric for the lining, cut the following:
TWO 19″ wide x 13″ high rectangles for the lining panels
Using the pattern, cut TWO pocket lining panels
FOR THE SHORTER HANDLE’S OPTIONAL BOW: Cut ONE 27″ wide x 5″ high strip
- From the fusible interfacing, cut TWO 19″ x 15″ rectangles.
- From the webbing:
FOR THE LONGER, ADJUSTABLE STRAPS, cut TWO 30″ lengths
FOR THE SHORTER HANDLES, cut TWO 12″ lengths
At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board
- Find the exterior panels and the interfacing panels. Following manufacturer’s instructions, fuse an interfacing panel to the wrong side of each exterior panel, aligning all the edges of the fabric and interfacing.
- Find the main exterior pocket panel, the main interior pocket panel, and the two lining panels.
- Pin each main panel right sides together with a lining panel, leaving a 3″ opening along the bottom for turning.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch the layers together, pivoting at the corners and remembering to lock your seam at either side of the 3″ opening.
- Press open the seam allowances and clip the corners.
- Turn the pocket right side out. Using a long, blunt end tool push out the corners so they are nice and sharp. A long knitting needle, chopstick or point turner works well for this.
- Press the pocket flat, pressing in the raw edges of the seam allowance at the opening so they are flush with the sewn seam.
- Find the front exterior panel and the front exterior pocket.
- Lay the pocket on the front exterior panel, matching up the motif on the two pieces. Pin in place. As measured above, the pocket should sit 4″ down from the top raw edge of the fabric panel and be centered 6½” in from each raw side edge. Pin the pocket in place.
- Re-thread the machine with the contrasting thread in the top and bobbin and slightly lengthen the stitch.
- Edgestitch the pocket in place on the front panel along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners. This seam seals the opening in the pocket used for turning.
NOTE: For a refresher on pocket-to-panel matching, check out our full tutorial.
Assemble the exterior panels and box the corners
- Place the front and back exterior panels right sides together, aligning all the raw edges all around. Pin along both sides and across the bottom.
- Re-thread the machine with thread to best match the main fabric in the top and bobbin and re-set the stitch length to normal.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
- With the sewn exterior still wrong side out, create 3″ box corners, which means your “box” will be half that size or 1½”. Measure a box at each corner.
- Cut out both boxes.
- Press open the seam allowances.
- Align the side and bottom seams, flattening each corner. Pin across the corner.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, double stitch across the corner.
NOTE: If you are new to this technique, check out our tutorial: How To Box Corners for more details.
- Turn the main bag right side out, push out the corners and press.
D-ring loops for longer, adjustable straps
- Find the two small loop rectangles. Fold each in half and pin in place.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch each tiny side seam. The ends remain raw and open.
- Trim back the seam allowances to ¼”.
- Turn right side out, roll the seam to the back, and press each loop flat.
- Find the front exterior panel with its pocket in place. Measure and mark for the D-rings loop and strap end placement. On this front panel, the D-rings are on the left and the strap end is on the right.
- Slip one loop through two D-rings. Align the raw edges. Place the loop 4″ in from the left side seam. Pin in place. The raw ends of the loop should be flush with the top raw edge of the exterior panel. The rings are hanging down.
- Find one 30″ length of webbing. Place one end of the webbing 4″ in from the right side seam. Pin in place. The raw end of the webbing should be flush with the top raw edge of the exterior panel.
- Machine baste the D-rings loop in place.
- And, machine baste the strap end in place.
- Our design is to have the D-rings line up and sewn-in straps line up front to back when assembled. This means the positioning on the back exterior panel is opposite from the front.
- Find the back exterior panel. Place it right side up and flat on your work surface.
- Place the other D-rings loop 4″ in from the right raw edge of the panel, then place the one end of the other 30″ length of webbing 4″ in from the left raw edge of the panel. Pin in place and then machine baste in place as you did on the front panel.
- We also ran a zig zag stitch across the free end of each strap to help prevent it from raveling. If you do this, make sure your machine is threaded with thread to match the webbing in the top and bobbin.
- For the small handles, both ends of the shorter lengths of webbing are sewn in place.
- Each end of the handle loop should sit 5½” in from a side seam.
- As above, the end of raw edge of the webbing is flush with the top raw edge of the panel. Make sure there are no twists in the loop prior to basting in place.
- Find the two lining panels and the two facing strips.
- Place a facing strip right sides together along the top of each lining panel. Pin in place.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch the facing in place.
- Press the facing, and its seam allowance, up and away from the lining panel.
- Find the remaining pocket. Place it on one lining panel. It should sit 4½” down from the top raw edge (the top of the facing band) and be centered side to side.
- As above, pin in place and then edgestitch in place along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners. We used the same contrasting thread as for the front pocket and again lengthened our stitch.
- Place the front and back lining panels right sides together, sandwiching the sewn pocket between the layers. Pin in place along both sides and across the bottom, leaving an 8″ opening along the bottom for the final turn right side out.
- Return to matching thread in the top and bobbin and re-set for a normal stitch length.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch along both sides and across the bottom. Remember to pivot at the corners and to lock your seam on either side of the 8″ opening.
- Following the same steps above as for the exterior, box both bottom corners of the lining. If you are new to this technique, remember to check out our tutorial: How To Box Corners for more details.
- With the lining wrong side out and the exterior right side out, slip the exterior inside the lining so the two are now right sides together. Align the side seams and the bottom boxed corners. Position the lining so its pocket is against the back of the exterior; you want the exterior and interior pockets to be opposite one another. In the photo below, we have pulled away the exterior from the lining to show the pocket position and also to show how the raw end of the strap is loose and out of the way between the layers.
- Pin together all around the top, making sure the raw edge of the facing aligns with the raw edge of the exterior. For the adjustable straps, you are sandwiching the D-rings and their tabs, as well as one end of each strap between the layers, but remember, the free ends of the straps are loose. For the short handles, both ends of both handles are sandwiched between the layers.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch all the way around the top edge. We used a standard presser foot.
- If you are making the version with the adjustable straps, you may want to switch to a Zipper foot in order to keep the seam consistent as you pass the D-rings.
- Turn the bag right side out through the opening in the bottom of the lining.
- Press the top seam flat and then push the lining down into position inside the exterior. Press again all around the top seam.
- In necessary, re-thread with the contrasting thread in the top and bobbin. Re-set for a longer stitch length. Edgestitch around the very top of the bag. We used the Janome Edge Guide foot.
- Run a second line of topstitching 1½” down from the upper edge. You could first measure and mark a guide line to follow, use markings on your machine’s throat plate, or as we did, use a quilt bar.
- With the raw edges folded in and aligned with the sewn seam, pin the opening in the bottom of the lining closed. Hand stitch or machine stitch to secure.
- For the optional bow we featured on the short-handled sample, make a simple tube.
- Find the 5″ x 27″ strip of lining fabric. Fold it in half, right sides together. Pin across each end and along the side, leaving a 3″ – 4″ opening along the side for turning.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch across each end and along the side. Remember to lock your seam at either side of the opening and to pivot at the corners.
- Clip the corners and press open the seam allowance.
- Turn right side out through the opening and press flat, pressing in the raw edges of the opening so they are flush with the sewn seam.
- Hand stitch the opening closed.
- Tie the bow at the base of one side of the front handle.
Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Debbie Guild
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Hi! I just finished my very first tote bag! Just a couple of things I’d change. First I think I’ll put the interfacing on both the outside and the interior. I think I’d also like a heavier bottom so it actually stays flat. That, I’m sure, is a whole new skill to learn! But I love it. Also, I’m not sure if my D-rings are too thick (I never saw weight options) but I had to make my d-ring tab a bit longer. Then I made them a bit too long. But i’m learning!
Hi Mary – Congrats! It sounds like you did a great job! Depending the fabric weights you end up using as well as the “stiffness” you want in your finished tote – yes – you might revise your interfacing choices. We used a pretty substantial canvas for the exterior of ours – plus we like a bit of slouch in our shoulder totes. We have a lot of bag projects that feature an inset base as well as some that have a separate insert that is placed in the base of the bag to flatten and stiffen. As you browse… Read more »