Originally published in Living Mosaic Magazine
Please note: The instructions here are complete, but the pictures are still on the way.
Naturally, you'll want to use a favorite old shirt or worn-out pants. There is enough fabric in most shirts for at least one, and usually two bags. Pants make one, but less often two bags. I like plaids for the convenience when measuring & cutting (and because that's what kind of old shirts I have). Corduroy is also a good choice for the same reasons, plus it is durable and attractive. Whatever you choose, make sure it is sturdy and medium-weight. Too thin, too thick, and stretchy fabrics do not work well--especially stretchy fabrics. Be warned!
Eventually, this'll be a photo of a plaid shirt, just in case you don't know what one looks like.
Preparing the Fabric
Begin by chopping apart clothing with sciscors, removing all seams, buttons, zippers, etc.. Don't bother carefully undoing the seams with a ripper or razor. You won't need every little scrap of fabric, and believe me, you'll never use the small or odd bits anyway.
When that's done, iron all the peices. It'll make measuring, cutting, and life in general much easier if you do.
Cutting out the Pattern
The basic dimensions for the pattern are as follows: One 14.5" x 34" rectangle for the bag, two 2.5" x 30" strips for the handles. You can adjust the size to your own personal preferences, of course, but remember that you must add two inches to the longest dimensions given above to make the bag or handles one inch longer. The finished product will be a medium-sized tote bag that can hold about the same amount as a plastic grocery bag and that can be carried on your sholder, leaving your hands free.
The pieces of fabric above have been cut out to form the bag (top set) and the two handles (bottom set) when sewn together.
The seam above has been double sewn, once with a straight stitch, then with zigzag stitch to prevent frayed edges.
Since you are re-using fabric, you'll inevitably have to patch the bag together out of smaller pieces. That will work fine; just remember to add length to the dimensions of the piece for each extra seam. (Add a half an inch onto one of the two peices to be joined.) Also remember to double sew each seam for durability, first with a straight stitch, then along the edge with a zigzag or gathering stitch to prevent fraying.
Using a straight edge (AKA ruler), draw lines on the fabric for the individual pieces of the project. I use an ordinary ballpoint pen, since the lines will not show in the finished product. A pencil also works fine, but the lines can be harder to see.
(Hint: With plaid or corduroy, there will be lines to follow on the fabric itself, which is very convenient and another good reason to choose them. They almost eliminate the need to actually draw lines.) It will probably be necessary to
This part is simple. Just sew together a rectangle of fabric for the bag itself. (Remember to double sew the seams!) If you've somehow miscalculated and have uneven edges, just trim them to be relatively straight. Again, the final dimensions of the rectangle should be about 14.5" wide by about 34" long (to produce a bag about 14" x 16").
Strips for a handle above are laid at a right angle and sewn across the bend. Excess fabric ("dog ears") is cut off.
Above, the finished diagonal handle seam.
Above, the three ironed folds on a handle strip, as seen from the end.
For the handles, it is possible to sew something readymade, such as an old belt, men's ties, or straps from an old backpack. Whatever.
To construct the handles out of your own fabric, piece together two long strips, each 2.5" wide by about 30" long (for 1" wide tote bag handles that will slip easily onto your sholder). The length can be as short as 16", depending on how much fabric is available, though shorter handles can only be held in your hands, not on your sholder.
When patching together handle pieces, for the sake of strength, it is best to make diagonal seams. To make them, lay the two pieces at a right angle, making an "L" shape. The seam should NOT go from the outside point of the "L" to the inside bend, but should instead go across the "L" from the corner of one piece to the corner of the other piece. Double sew the seam, then cut off the excess fabric at the point of the "L" (which look like two "dog ears").
Important Note: For each diagonal seam, add an extra 2.5" (that's two and a half inches) to the length of one of the pieces to be joined. Again, add 2.5" to the length for each diagonal seam.
When you have assembled the full length handle strips, fold one in half along the length and iron, forming a crease. Next, tuck in a quarter inch of the rough edges on the long sides and iron it down as you go. When those three folds are done and ironed, sew the open handle side with a straight stitch as close to the edge as you can, then repeat on the folded side of the handle. Repeat the folding, ironing, and edge sewing for the other handle. Your finished handles will have two long sewn sides and rough ends.
Above, the twice folded "border" on the short sides of the bag rectangle
Above, the handle has been folded into its final position and is being sewn in place at the same time that the top edge of the bag is sewn.
Above, an "X" to secure the handle
It works best to attach handles before the bag itself is finished. On the two short sides of the large fabric rectangle, fold down a quarter inch of the rough edge and iron as you go. Repeat this step, this time folding down about an inch of fabric. The resulting "border" could be on the inside or outside of the finished bag, depending on your preferences. In these photos, it is on the inside.
Under the folds of one "border," tuck both ends of one handle and position them about 5" apart. Pin the handle ends in place. Sew the open edge of the "border" with a straight stich, securing the handle ends underneath as you go.
Fold over the handle to its obvious finished position. Iron and pin it in place. Sew the folded edge of the "border" with a straight stitch, securing the handle in its correct position as you go. Sew an "X" across the handle & border intersection to secure the handle permanantly. Repeat the process for the other handle on the other end of the bag rectangle.
When handles are attached on both ends. Fold the large rectangular piece of fabric in half so that the handles are next to each other, and so that the finished sides are facing each other and rough sides are facing out. (In other words, the bag is essentially inside out.) The only remaining unsewn edges will be the sides of the bag. Sew them together with a straight stitch, starting at the "border" end and sewing towards the folded end. Go over seams again with a zigzag or gathering stitch.
When both sides are done, the bag is ready to use, but one more (optional) refinement can be added: the corners can be tucked to make a defined bottom to the bag. To do so, while the bag still inside out, pinch off the bottom corners to form "dog ears." (The side seams should be touching the bottom of the bag. The bag corners will NOT lie flat with these pinches.) Sew them pendicular to (across) the existing side seams, about two inches from the pointy tip.
Now turn the bag right side out. Iron the newly sewn sides flat, and it's all done!