In Praise of Totes: Learn How to Sew Your Own Tote

I collect totes. Don’t we all? It’s not that I even mean to amass them. I’m not a careful collector like our editor, Jennifer, who constantly grows her Japanese miniature food assortment, and I don’t seek out various depictions of toast, but without trying, I have quite the colorful array of totes in my bag rotation.

A collection of tiny Japanese objects and food

They might seem a dime a dozen, but then why do so many of us hold onto our totes? Why can’t I, for example, just decline that free bag that comes with purchase? Maybe it’s because I love the tote’s simplicity: the perfect way it fits over my shoulder, its lack of fussy zippers or deep pockets, and that it seems light and roomy when empty, but has the impressive ability to be stuffed with food, books, gym clothes, beach gear, yoga mats, and more. Is it just me or are totes the clown car of sacks?

Tote collection photo, featuring 6 different totes from San Francisco

I digress. I think the tote’s prevalence isn’t just because it’s useful, but because it’s a visual reminder of things past. Whenever I’m back in New York City and pass Flying A, I think of the first tote I ever used, which had the store’s iconic A with wings printed on it. And my Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market tote brings me back to my days hawking tomatoes. The tote is proof you were there. It’s a ticket stub that comes in a beautifully simple package.

To end my salute to totes everywhere, here’s a tote project from 1, 2, 3 Sew: Build Your Skills with 33 Simple Projects. Given the tote’s splendid simplicity, it’s no surprise that it’s the easiest of the three bag projects in the book. So here’s to fondly remembering a time when “totes” were for carrying and there was no shorter way to say “totally.”

The Market Tote

Excerpt from 1, 2, 3 Sew by Ellen Luckett Baker. Photographs by Laura Malek

Fully lined, the market tote is roomy with tucks at the bottom and has long straps so you can tote it over your shoulder or on your arm. The burlap gives it a simple durability and the patterned fabric allows you to add your own sense of style.

Finished dimensions: 22″ x 19″/56 cm x 48 cm

1/2 yd/50 cm burlap
1/2 yard/50 cm patterned fabric
1 yd/1 m cotton or canvas lining fabric
Matching thread
Fabric marker
Quilter’s square (optional)

Seam allowance: 1/2″/12 mm

Step 1: Cut fabric.
Print out the Market Tote templates here at 100% or use the tiled version available here. Cut out the templates and then cut out the burlap, outer, and lining fabrics according to the pattern templates. Sew an overcasting or zigzag stitch around the bottom and side edges of the burlap to prevent fraying.

Step 2: Sew outer bag pieces.
Pin and sew one burlap piece to a patterned fabric piece along the top long side, right sides together, as illustrated in figure A.

Sewing a tote: Figure A

Press the seams open. Repeat with the other matching pieces.

Step 3: Sew bag and lining.
Pin the lining pieces right sides together. Sew the top straps together, then sew along the bottom and sides, attaching the lining pieces to one another, stopping 1/2″/12 mm from the curve where the straps will begin. See figure B.

Sewing a tote: Figure B

Then repeat with the main bag pieces, being sure to align the seams. Press all seams open.

Step 4: Square bottoms.
Square off the bottom corners of the outer bag and the lining according to the instructions below, measuring 2″/5 cm from the tip of the corner.

Step 5: Press.
With the outer bag, press the outer edge of the straps (as indicated by the gray line in figure C) toward the wrong side of the fabric by 1/2″/12 mm. Repeat with the bag lining. This will prepare you for step 7.

Sewing a tote: Figure C

Step 6: Attach outer bag to lining.
Turn the outer bag fabric right sides out, but leave the lining wrong sides out. Insert the outer bag into the lining so that the right sides will be facing one another. Pin together, being sure to match the top seams at the handles. Sew along the inside curve, as illustrated in figure C. Notch the corners to ease the curve.

Step 7: Finish.
Turn the bag right sides out through an opening on the side. Push the lining into the outer bag. Press and pin the side strap openings together, adjusting if needed so that the fabric is aligned. Edge stitch along the outer edges of the handles on both sides.

How-to: Square Corners
This technique can be used in tote bags, purses, or other projects where you need extra room. The bottom corners of the bag are flattened and sewn down creating width and turning a plain flat bag into a three-dimensional one.

1. To prepare to square the corners of a bag, your bag should be sewn right sides together and the seams should be pressed open.

2. With the bag wrong sides out, take one corner in your hand and pull the corner open to form a 90-degree angle in the opposite direction. The seams should be aligned one on top of the other. Press flat to form a triangle. See figure A. You can pin this in place and look on the right sides of the bag to make sure that your seams will be perfectly aligned.

Sewing a tote: Figure A

3. With a quilter’s square or ruler, mark 2″/5 cm (or as directed) from the tip of the corner. Make a line straight across at this point, from fold to fold, as shown in figure A. Sew along this line.

4. Clip the excess triangle of fabric and sew over the raw edges with an overcasting stitch. See figure B. Repeat with the other corner.

Sewing a tote: Figure B

Lisa Tauber
Editorial Assistant



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