Tutorial: Grocery Tote Bags

Caveat:  Totes are not my thing.  I do clothes, not crafts.  That said, this isn’t rocket science.

Why sew your own totes when you can buy them for $1 at every grocery store?

  1. They’re more durable.  The stuff they’re using for the dollar-totes isn’t cloth.  I’m not sure what some of it is – it feels like paper.  I’ve gotten plasticish totes too, wow, those *really* didn’t last.  At any rate, the death-of-totes comes quickly, usually when it’s stuffed full of groceries.  Heavy fabric will last longer.
  2. You can wash them without fear of dissolving.  I don’t want to know what happens if you wash one of those paper totes.
  3. I have a lot of extra fabric.  Too small for clothes, not suitable for quilts.
  4. I’m bored of the color schemes in the bought totes.
  5. Maybe YOU want to practice some basic sewing skills.  This tutorial includes french seams, lots of practice sewing in a straight line, pressing your seams open, and changing direction with your needle.
  6. I’m giving them away as Christmas gifts.  Not a bad gift, really – especially as plastic bags go illegal sometime in 2015 here.

Where to get your fabric:  I have a lot of odd bits of fabric.  If you don’t, find a cheap fabric store and go to the back, where they keep their remnants.  You DO want inexpensive fabric with some heft to it – light denims, twills, heavy cottons, even heavy quilting cottons.  You do NOT want to go to the thrift store and buy old sheets for this one.  Nor do you want to use used fabric unless it’s very heavy.  Grocery bags get a lot of wear-and-tear.

Thread:  Just normal sewing thread.  Needle:  Either a universal needle or a denim needle.

Procedure:  First I took one of my bought-bags, and I had a good look and a bit of a measure.

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You’ll see just by looking that this is made up of three parts – sides, middle, and handles.  I measured… and with seam allowances, I decided to make my sides 13×13, my long middle piece 39×9, and my handles 3×22.  All of that is approximate, if you want to change it, it’s your grocery tote.  You’ll need two sides, one middle, and two handles per tote.  Iron your fabric before you mark and cut it.

Assembly:  I figured out where the middle of the long strip was, and matched the middle of the squares to it.   Sew.

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Because I wanted to have a finished product with some corners to it, I sewed a french seam – only in reverse.  Usually the seam goes on the inside – this time it went on the outside.  So.  You sew the first seam right sides together (see above picture) at 2/8″.  Then you trim the seams (see picture to your left) to about 1/8″ and press them open (see picture to the right).  You flip the seams inside out (so you’re looking at the right side of the fabric) and

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then you press the fabric yet again, making a nice sharp line with the seam on one side.  You then stitch it again, at about 3/8″.   (Pressing the seam open, as seen above, makes it possible to have this nice seam when you press it again).  Do that again on the opposite side.  Voila, you’ve sewn your sides to the bottom of the tote.

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Repeat the procedure above, sewing the sides up the bit of the tote left.  (This will be obvious, you know you’re making a cube minus a side).  I added a faux seam at the bottom where there wasn’t one, this is again pretty obvious, and it’s optional.

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Then turn the inside twice (once at 3/8″ and again at about 1″) and hem it.016

Next you do the straps.  I tried a couple of different ways to make straps… the easiest way is to press your strap fabric flat, then press in 3/8″ to each side, then press the strap in half lengthwise, so the 3/8″ are enclosed.  Pin it if you like, sew it down.  Press up a small hem on the back of the strap, and then sew it to the bag.

You want a very securely sewn strap, so here’s where you get to practice turning your needle while sewing.  First sew an X through the strap where you want it attached (mind your handle doesn’t twist), and then sew a box ’round the X.  When you sew the box, pivot your needle at the corners.

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And now you have a grocery tote bag.  Hooray!

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No, it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, but I feel confident in its ability to carry milk, eggs, and lettuce without breaking, which is more than I can say for the ones I buy.  Plus we have used up some fabric that’s been in stash for longer than I’ve been alive!  (My mom showed up with this fabric three days after I decided to do this project.  Thanks, Mom).

ETA:  I made a bag and “oopsed” and put the french seams where they’d normally be, to the inside, and I decided I liked that better.  Here’s what it looks like, choose your own.  😀

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