We work mostly in fabric here at Sew4Home, but we also work with words, and we enjoy bringing not only clarity but also a bit of levity to our project introductions as well as our instructions. When I first saw the title of this new bag (Compact Messenger Bag), I immediately envisioned a very small person delivering equally small pieces of mail. Although a delightfully amusing image, it is not really the true mission of this tote. Instead, you have a chance to make a great messenger brief in a slightly smaller size: 15" wide x 10" high with a 2" base. There’s an inset zipper top, a front zippered pocket, and standard pockets along the back and in the lining. Lots of excellent options for storage … for tiny pieces of mail, and so much more!
Part of the beauty of the bag is the great tropical themed fabric. Our thanks to our friends at Robert Kaufman Fabrics for supplying both the amazing quilting cottons from the Island Paradise collection by Sevenberry as well as the rich indigo denim from their Canyon Colored Denim Collection. We always know we can count on the quality of Robert Kaufman as well as their wide selection and amazing variety of substrates. In fact, the Island Paradise Collection is now available in barkcloth and in canvas.
This project is a bit more advanced than many we have here at Sew4Home, but we've included a substantial number of in-progress photos along with our famous step-by-step directions. There are also links to more in-depth tutorials on the featured techniques for inset zippers, adjustable straps, and magnetic snaps. You should never be afraid to tackle a S4H project – even if you're brand new to sewing. Just read through everything once or twice, then give it a go. You’ll be impressed at your results!
The inset zippered top keeps the main center compartment secure. Slip in a sleek laptop or iPad as well as additional papers, pads, and pens.
There are generous full pockets on both the front and back exterior plus an extra zippered pocket in the front. We’ve also added a magnetic snap to the main front pocket, leaving the back pocket open for easier access — but you could certainly add another snap to the back.
We give you exact lengths for both zippers, but also show you how to cut a longer zipper to size if you have trouble finding just what you need. This is what we did. You’ll also like our fun fussy cut on the inset zipper tabs, which features a retro hula girl at each end.
Winter is clinging on with a death grip here in the Pacific Northwest, so we were chuckling a bit during our photo shoot when we dressed our model in a down jacket then handed her a bag that featured Sevenberry’s tropical florals, hula dances, surfers, and palm trees. We can dream can’t we?! It’s also a wonderful example of how you can take a traditional business bag and inject a bit of fun with your fabric.
As mentioned above, this messenger brief finishes at approximately 15" wide x 10" high with a 2" base. The shoulder strap adjusts to fit any height and can even be lengthened to wear the bag crossbody.
Sewing Tools You Need
- Sewing Machine and standard presser foot
- Zipper foot; optional; we used our regular presser foot – if you are new to zipper insertion, use a Zipper foot
- Quarter Inch Seam foot; optional for precise edgestitching
- Walking or Even Feed foot; optional for finish stitching – you can also engage your machine’s built-in fabric feeding system, such as the AcuFeed™ Flex system on many of our Janome studio machines
Fabric and Other Supplies
- 1 yard of 44"+ wide quilting weight cotton for the main bag exterior and the front of all the straps; we used Swirling Flora in Navy from the Island Paradise collection by Sevenberry for Robert Kaufman
- 1¼ yard of 44"+ wide quilting weight cotton for the bag lining, the exterior pocket linings, and the zipper tabs; we used Hula Girls in Blue from the Island Paradise collection by Sevenberry for Robert Kaufman
- 1 yard of 44”+ wide lightweight denim or similar for the exterior side panels, inset zipper trim, the back of all the straps, and the D-ring tabs; we used 6oz Indigo Denim from the Canyon Colored Denim collection by Robert Kaufman
- 1½ yards of 20"+ wide lightweight fusible interfacing; we used Pellon Shir-Tailor
- ½ yard of 45”+" wide one-sided fusible fleece; we used Pellon Thermolam Plus
- ONE 10"+ zipper; we used a plastic YKK zipper in teal with a metal pull, cut to size
- ONE 14"+; we used a plastic YKK zipper in teal with a metal pull, cut to size
NOTE: The two zippers should match.
- TWO 1" swivel hooks; we used Dritz® Fashion Swivel Hooks in Antique Brass
- TWO 1" D-rings; we used Dritz® Fashion D-rings in Antique Brass
- ONE 1" slider: we used a Dritz® Fashion Slider in Antique Brass
- ONE ½” magnetic purse snap; we used a Dritz® magnetic snap
- All-purpose sewing thread to match fabric
- Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
- Iron and ironing board
- See-through ruler
- Seam gauge
- Seam ripper
- Straight pins
- From the fabric for the exterior side panels, inset zipper trim, the back of all straps, and the D-ring tabs (the Indigo Denim in our sample) cut the following:
TWO 2" x WOF (width of fabric) strips for the adjustable strap
NOTE: You need 60” total; if your fabric is especially wide, you can cut one 2” x 60” strip.
TWO 2” x 10” strips for the handles
TWO 3” x 3½” strips for the D-ring loops
FOUR 4½" x 12" rectangles for the side panels
FOUR 1½" x 16" strips for the inset zipper trim
TWO 2" x 18" strips for the facings
- From the fabric for the bag lining, the exterior pocket linings, and the zipper tabs (Hula Girls in our sample), cut the following:
TWO 18" wide x 11" high rectangles
ONE 10" wide x 14" high rectangle for the interior pocket
TWO 11" wide x 9½" high rectangles for the front and back large pocket linings
ONE 11" x 11" square for the zippered pocket lining
TWO 4" wide x 2½" high rectangles for the zipper tabs; we carefully fussy cut a hula girl to center on each tab
- From the fabric for the main bag exterior and the front of all the straps (Swirling Floral in our sample) cut the following:
TWO 2" x WOF strips for the adjustable strap
NOTE: You need 60” total; if your fabric is especially wide, you can cut one 2” x 60” strip.
TWO 11" wide x 12" high rectangles for the center panels
ONE 11" wide x 9½" high rectangle for the back exterior pocket
ONE 11" wide x 6½" high rectangle for zipper pocket 1
ONE 11" wide x 3" high rectangle for zipper pocket 2
TWO 2” x 10” strips for the handles
- From the fusible interfacing, cut the following
THREE 1" x WOF strips (you need a total length of apx. 60”)
TWO 1” x 10” strips for the handles
TWO 11" x 12" rectangles for the center panels
ONE 11" x 9½" rectangle for the back exterior pocket
ONE 11" x 6½" for zipper pocket 1
ONE 11" x 3" for zipper pocket 2
FOUR 4½" x 12" rectangles for the side panels
TWO 4" x 2½" rectangles for the zipper tabs
- From the fusible fleece; cut TWO 18" x 12" rectangles.
At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board
Create inset zipper unit
- Find the 14" zipper (or one of the longer zippers – remember, in our sample, we cut two longer zippers to size), the four 1½" x 16" zipper trim strips, the two 4" x 2½" zipper tabs, and the zipper tab interfacing.
- On each zipper trim strip, fold back each end ½" and press in place.
- Place one trim strip right side up on your work surface. Place the zipper right side up on top of the trim strip. The trim strip should be centered on the zipper so one folded end is exactly in line with the top zipper pull and the opposite folded end is in line with the bottom zipper stop. If you are cutting a longer zipper to size, the excess bottom end of the zipper can simple extend beyond the end of the tab.The raw edge of the strip should be flush with the edge of the zipper tape. Pin in place.
- Repeat with a second trim strip, but place this trim strip wrong side up. You have sandwiched the top side of the zipper between the two strips.
NOTE: We used our regular presser foot and shifted our needle position as close to the zipper teeth as possible. You could also use a Zipper foot, but with the "chunkier" sport-type zipper, we wanted to be a bit farther away from the teeth than with a standard zipper and found using the edge of our regular presser foot was a good guide to run along the edge of the zipper teeth.
- As with most zipper insertions, remember to start with the zipper about half way open. Stitch to the middle, where you're approaching the zipper pull. Stop with your needle in the down position. Lift up your presser foot. Twist your fabric around slightly in order to be able to carefully close the zipper. Re-position your fabric and finish sewing to the end.
- Fold the two trim pieces away from the zipper teeth so the two trim pieces are now wrong sides together. The remaining long raw edges should be flush as should the folded-in ends. Pin the folded ends together. Press.
- Edgestitch up one end.
Pivot, edgestitch along the zipper seam.
- Pivot again and edgestitch down the opposite end.
- Repeat to attach the remaining two zipper trim strips to the opposite side of the zipper in the same manner. Take care to make sure the ends of this second set of trim strips are exactly aligned with the first set. The zipper and both trim "wings" should measure 3" across when finished. If necessary, trim equal amounts from each side in order to get to the 3" width.
- If necessary, trim away the excess zipper at the tail end, leaving approximately ½” in order to create a wrapped zipper tab that will match the head end. You will also want to trim out the zipper teeth to make stitching across the teeth easier.
Find the zipper tab pieces and their matching interfacing pieces.
- Place an interfacing rectangle on the wrong side of each zipper tab. Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse in place.
- Fold back each 2½" end ½". Press well.
- Fold in the sides so they meet in the middle. Press well.
- Place a tab wrong sides together with the head end tabs of the zipper. The folded end of the tab should be just above where the fabric facing panels attach to the zipper. Pin in place.
Fold the tab in half so all its folded edges are flush. Pin in place.
Edgestitch around all four sides of the tab to secure.
- Repeat to attach the remaining tab to the head ends of the zipper. Set the inset zipper unit aside.
NOTE: We have summarized the inset zipper steps throughout this project to keep the instructional length manageable. If you are brand new to this technique, check out our full step-by-step tutorial on Making an Inset Zipper Unit.
Create the front zippered pocket panel
- Find two 4½" x 12" side panels, one 11" x 12" center panel, the 11" x 6½" zipper pocket 1 panel, the 11" x 3" zipper pocket 2 panel, the 11" x 11" zipper pocket lining, one 11" x 9½" pocket lining, the second zipper (the 10” zipper if not cutting to size), and the fusible interfacing for the side panels, center panel and zipper pockets 1 and 2.
- Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse the appropriately-sized interfacing to the wrong side of the center panel, the two side panels, and the two zipper pocket panels.
- Place zipper pocket 1 right side up on your work surface.
- Lay the zipper upside down on top of the top edge (teeth facing down on the right side of the fabric). The edge of the zipper tape should be even with the fabric's raw horizontal edge. Make sure the zipper is centered between the left and right sides of the panel. The zipper tabs will extend beyond the raw edges of the panel. If you are cutting your zipper to size, the top zipper tabs should extend beyond the right side edge of the panel approximately ½” and the excess bottom of the zipper will all extend beyond the left side edge of the panel.
- Pin in place, being careful to pin through just the top of the zipper. You need to be able to open and close the zipper; you can't do that if you've pinned through the whole thing.
Place the lining right side down on top of the zipper. Re-pin through all the layers.
- Using a regular presser foot with your needle in the left-most position as we did or a Zipper foot, stitch as close to the zipper as the foot will allow, removing the pins as you sew.
- Go slowly. As you did above with the inset zipper, when you get to the middle, where you can start to feel you're approaching the zipper pull, stop with your needle in the down position. Twist your fabric around slightly and carefully close the zipper. Re-position your fabric and finish sewing to the end. Be very careful and go slowly; you want your seam line to be super-duper straight.
- Press each layer (exterior and lining) away from the zipper teeth. The remaining raw edge of the zipper will be free between the two layers.
- Fold the fold layers down into position so they are now wrong sides together. Press again.
- Edgestitch along the seam to hold the layers in place. We used a Janome Quarter Inch Seam foot to keep a precise stitch line.
Flip the pocket so it is lining side up. Fold up the bottom raw edge of the lining to meet the remaining top raw edge of the zipper. Pin in place. The photo below shows this step from the lining side.
- But you should then flip and re-pin from the exterior side.
Place the zipper pocket 2 panel right sides together along that same remaining raw edge of the zipper, creating another "zipper sandwich.” Re-pin through all the layers.
- Stitch through all the layers (the folded up lining, the exterior, the zipper tape, and the zipper pocket 2 panel), maintaining the same distance from the zipper teeth as you did for the first side. We used our regular presser foot with the needle moved all the way to the left. You could also use a Zipper foot.
- Press zipper pocket 2 up and away from the zipper teeth.
- Edgestitching along the zipper teeth, matching the distance and look of the first line of edgestitching.
- Find the 11" x 9½" pocket lining piece. Place it right sides together with the pocket unit, aligning the top raw edge of the pocket lining piece with the top raw edge of zipper pocket 2. Pin across the top.
- Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch across the top.
- Press the seam flat.
- Fold the lining down into place so the lining and the zipper panel unit are wrong sides together. Edgestitch across the top to help hold the layers in place.
- Find the fused center panel and place it right side up on your work surface. Place the completed zipper panel right side up on top of the center panel, aligning the sides and bottom edges of the two layers. Pin in place.
Find the two side panels. Pin one to each side of the center panel, right sides together, through all the layers.
- Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch each side panel in place. In the photo below, you can see our excess zipper is still extending to the side.
- If necessary, trim away the excess zipper, cutting it flush with the seam allowance.
- As described above with the zipper tabs, we also recommend cutting out the teeth in order to make the topstitching easier.
- On both sides, press the seam allowance toward the side panel and topstitch close to the seam through all layers.
- With the front panel right side up, mark or the magnetic snap.The closure should be centered 1" from the upper edge of the pocket.
- Following manufacturer's instructions (or our own dandy step-by-step tutorial), insert each half of the magnetic snap.
- Remember for the back half, you are working between the layers of the pockets to encase the back prongs of the clasp.
- This gives you nicely finished insertion for both halves.
Create the plain pocket panel
- Find the two remaining 4½" x 12" side panels, the one remaining 11" x 12" center panel, the 11" x 9½" plain exterior pocket, the remaining 11" x 9½" pocket lining, and the remaining fusible interfacing for the center panel, the two side panels, and the plain pocket.
- Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse the appropriately-sized interfacing to the wrong side of the center panel, side panels, and the plain pocket.
- The plain back pocket panel is created using the same steps as above but without all the zipper steps.
- To summarize: simply stitch the pocket and the lining pieces right sides together along the top edges. Fold wrong sides together and press flat. Place the lined pocket panel right side up on the right side of the center panel. Attach the side panels.
- You now have the two finished front and back panels.
Create the handles, adjustable strap, and D-ring tabs
- Find the front and back strips for the adjustable strap as well as the two handles along with the 1” strips of fusible interfacing, and the two 3” x 3½” denim cuts for the D-ring tabs.
- Join the long fabric strips for the strap with a diagonal seam, as if making a binding strip, using a ½" seam allowance then trimming that seam back to ¼”.
Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse the interfacing strips down the center of the wrong side of the cotton strip, very slightly overlapping the ends (just a fraction of an inch) to cover the entire 60” of the strap piece.
- Repeat to center the interfacing on the cotton layer of the handle strips. The strap interfacing should be a single strip for each.
- On all the strips, fold in each raw edge ½” so they will meet in the middle.
- Repeat for both layers of the handles and the strap.
- Place each pair of strips wrong sides together, aligning the folded edges (the ends are raw, but should also be aligned). Pin in place.
- Edgestitch along both long sides of all three strips (the two handles and the one, long adjustable strap).
- For the two denim D-ring tabs, fold back each longer side ½”, then fold in half aligning those folded edges and creating two 1” x 3½” folded tabs. Edgestitch along the folded sides to secure.
Apply the fusible fleece interfacing, place the handles and D-rings, box the corners
- Find the two panels of fusible fleece. Place a fusible fleece panel on the wrong side of each completed front and back panel. It should sit ½” down the upper raw edge of each panel. Following manufacturer’s instructions, fuse in place.
- Find the two handle strips. Position a handle length at the center of the top raw edge of each panel. The raw ends of the webbing should be flush with the raw edge of the panel with the loop hanging down.
- The sides of the handle are 2" in from each side panel seam. Pin in place.
- Fin the two D-rings. Loop a finished tab through each D-ring and fold so the raw ends are flush with one another. Place the loop 1½“ in from the right-most edge of each panel. Pin place.
NOTE: Make sure you are placing your loops on the right edge on each panel, looking at that panel right side up. Done correctly, when the bag is assembled and turned right side out, the rings will then be opposite one another to attach the shoulder strap with proper balance – as shown in the drawing below.
- Machine baste the handle and loops in place.
- Place the front and back panels right sides together. Pin along both sides and across the bottom.
Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
- Create 2" box corners, which means you are starting with a 1” measurement from each corner.
- If you are new to this technique, check out our tutorial: How To Box Corners.
Create lining and attach the inset zipper unit
- Find the two 18" x 11" main lining pieces, the 10" x 14" lining pocket, the two 2" x 18" facing strips, and the inset zipper unit you completed above.
- The lining pocket is a simple panel pocket. Fold the fabric piece in half so it is now 10” x 7”, right sides together, matching all the raw edges. Pin in place.
Using a ½" seam allowance, sew both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners and leaving a 3” opening along the bottom for turning. Clip the corners and turn the pocket right side out through the bottom opening. Push out the corners so they are nice and sharp. A chopstick, long knitting needle or point turner works well for this. Fold in the raw edges of the opening so they are flush with the sewn seam. Press flat.
- Position the pocket on one main lining piece. The pocket should be centered side to side, and the bottom seamed edge should be 2½" up from the bottom raw edge of the fabric panel. Pin the pocket in place along both sides and across the bottom.
- Edgestitch the pocket in place along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners and with a generous backstitch at the beginning and end of the seam, ie. at the pocket top. This is a stress point for the pocket and it's smart to secure the seam well.
- Center the inset zipper unit, right side up, along the upper edge of the lining/pocket panel. The right side of the lining should be against the wrong side of the zipper, and the raw edge of the lining panel should be flush with the zipper unit's top facing. Pin in place.
Place a facing strip over these layers, again keeping the top raw edges flush. Re-pin in place through all the layers. The facing and the lining panels are right sides together.
- Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch through all the layers. Press the seam allowance up towards the facing.
Repeat to attach the remaining lining panel and facing strip to the opposite side of the inset zipper unit .
- Open the zipper.
- Fold the lining/facing unit right sides together, aligning the sides and the bottom, and matching up the facing seams. Pin in place.
- Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
- As you did above for the exterior, create 2" box corners in the lining. Remember, if you are new to this technique, you can review our tutorial: How To Box Corners.
Assemble lining and exterior
- Pin the zipper tabs toward the zipper to keep them out of the way for the next steps.
- Along the upper raw edge of the exterior and the lining, fold down the raw edge ½" and press well.
With the lining wrong side out and the exterior right side out, slip the lining inside the exterior so the two layers are now wrong sides together. Align the upper folded edge of the lining's facing with the upper folded edge of the exterior. Also make sure the side seams are aligned and the boxed corners are flat against one another.
- Pin in place all around the upper edge of the bag.
- Working from the inside, edgestitch all the way around the upper edge through all the layers. Be careful to keep the handles and D-rings up and away from the seam.
- Again making sure the lining is smoothed all the way down to the inside, edgestitch along the lower edge of the facing, starting and stopping at the zipper tabs. With the thicker layers, we opted to use the Janome built-in AcuFeed™ Flex fabric feeding system for these last two lines of edgestitching. You could also switch to a standard Walking or Even Feed foot.
NOTE: As mentioned above, we have summarized the inset zipper steps throughout this project to keep the instructional length manageable. If you are brand new to this technique, check out our full step-by-step tutorial on Making an Inset Zipper Unit.
Finish the adjustable strap
- Find the finished adjustable strap, the slider, and the two swivel clips.
- Turn under one end of the finished strap ½”. Loop this folded in through the slider as shown below. Edgestitch the folded end to secure the slider in place.
- With the strap laying back side up (denim side up in our sample), find the opposite raw end of the strap. Thread this raw end, bottom up, through one of the swivel clips.
- Thread the raw end back through the slider, right side facing up, going up and over the folded end. This creates your adjusting loop.
- Turn under the remaining raw end of the strap ½" and loop it through the remaining swivel clip. Fold the end back onto itself and edgestitch in place, just as you did to secure the first swivel clip. Before stitching, do a quick check to make sure there are no twists in your strap.
- Clip the strap to the tote's D-rings on the tote. Adjust the strap to your desired length.
NOTE: Again, steps are summarized to keep the instructional length manageable. If you are new to creating an adjustable strap, click through to review our full step-by-step tutorial on this techique.
Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Debbie Guild