Isn’t materialism lovely? I’ve saved labels and scraps from America’s surplus of stuff, and used them to make a shopping bag… to buy more stuff! There’s a “Made in USA” label sticking out of the side, and the words stamped on the handles celebrate all things excessive.
The bag is made entirely of scrounged materials (and, of course, thread). In addition to the obvious clothing labels, the body and lining of the bag is made of the offcuts from an upholstery shop. The handles are upholstery scraps and pieces of plastic strapping that were used to hold cartons and pallets together for shipping.
Let me take a minute to tell you where I’m coming from with the design of the tote. I read the Little House on the Prairie books when I was younger, and I was really impacted by how few things the family owned. It was a very big deal when they bought… not a new dress, but fabric to MAKE a new dress. And then they had to take the fabric home and sew every seam and buttonhole by hand. They valued things because they were so hard to get, and because they had so little. These days, it’s easy to get stuff… and easy to throw it away.
I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to get rid of all their stuff, grow a beard (even the women) and live in the woods. I just think that everyone would benefit from being mindful of what we use and discard, and how… and why.
This bag is an art project, a statement about a throw-away society, and an exercise in re-using things that are easily overlooked and discarded. This is not a tutorial about the quickest, easiest way to make a tote bag… but it could be, if you just ignore every step that involves saving, ironing, and painstakingly stitching down hundreds of clothing labels. In fact, the tote itself is a very nice beginner sewing project. I hope you give it a try, and decorate it to make a statement that’s all your own.
You will need two large rectangles of fabric, one for the bag and one for the lining. Typically, the bag and handles are made of a fairly thick, stiff fabric, to give the tote some shape and durability, and the lining is thinner. If the bag and lining fabrics are both thin, the bag will be floppy like a pillowcase. But feel free to use whatever fabric you’d like. (That’s kind of the point of making your own stuff, after all… it looks the way you want it to look!) If you have a thinner fabric that you want to use, you can use three or even four layers of cloth to make the bag stiffer, but overall it does work best to choose a fabric with some body to it for the outside of the bag and the handles.
I’m using the dark fabric for the outside of the bag, and the cream piece for the lining. If you cover your bag with labels, the outer bag fabric will not be seen. So you can use the ugly piece Aunt Milda has left over from making her curtains, if you want (mine are scraps from an upholsterer). The size of the fabric depends on how large you want your tote bag to be. The pieces I used were each 18″ by 24″ (45 cm by 60 cm). The fabric will be folded in half to construct the bag, the corners will be boxed, and you will lose some size to seam allowances, so fold your fabric in half, and then plan on the bag being about 5 inches narrower and 3 inches shorter than that. (From my 18″ by 24″ rectangle, I ended up with a tote that was 13″ wide by 9″ tall by 3″ deep.)
The handles are each made from 5″ by 18″ rectangles of fabric. They will also be folded, and they end up about a third as wide as they started out. Again, you can change the length or width of the fabric to suit your taste and what you want your handles to look like. The basic construction techniques remain the same.
I punctuated the handles by attaching plastic straps that originally were used to hold pallets or cartons of stuff together for shipping. They say “sold by carton only”, and I thought they worked well with the statement I was trying to make. Some other fun ideas for the handles would be to use ribbons on top, or a contrasting fabric, or braided fabric strips, or anything else you think would look neat.
You will also need a bunch of clothing labels, if you wish to decorate your bag like I have. If you get some clothes and take a look at the labels, you will see that some labels have the text embroidered on them, and some have it printed on. You can tell more easily which is which by looking at the back. Printed tags have a blank reverse side, and embroidered tags have words on the back, but the words are backwards and in reverse colors. Check out the pictures to see an example of the difference I’m talking about. The embroidered ones are more durable, and the words won’t fade or rub off like the printed ones will, so I chose to use only the embroidered tags on my bag. I want it to last a long time and be well-used.
You need thread as well. I chose to use a matching all-purpose thread for the actual construction of the bag, but clear monofilament nylon to attach the labels and pallet straps, and for the final topstitching. I didn’t want the thread to show up and draw your eye to the stitching lines instead of the labels and straps that make the bag what it is.
You will want to iron your materials before you begin. Most of the tags will have a crease where they were folded in half. Clothing tags never say what the actual tag is made out of, so I wasn’t sure what setting on the iron to use… from what I could tell, most of them looked like they were polyester. I ended up using the perm press setting, which worked fine for me. If your tags are curling, you most likely have the heat too high.
When I ironed the plastic pallet straps for the handles, I put them between two pieces of paper to protect my iron and ironing board in case they melted, and kept pushing the temperature higher to see how much heat they could take. It turns out they did best on perm press, too, and I melted one pretty badly when I got the temp higher than that. Good thing I had a few extra pieces to use.
I laid the labels out on the fabric as I pressed them, to see if I had enough. I didn’t worry about arranging them too nicely yet, I was just getting a visual estimate of how many I would need. (And yes, I know I laid them out on the lining fabric. It doesn’t matter. Both pieces of fabric are the same size. :p)
When you have a good amount of tags pressed and ready, start to place the different colors and shapes wherever you think they look best. You will notice that some labels have edges that don’t fray, and some will have two edges that fray, and two that don’t. Try to place a non-fraying edge over a fraying edge, so that all of the fraying edges are covered up neatly. Check the pictures to see my method. If you sew yourself into a corner, don’t worry about it. You can always fold under the fraying edge of the tag and stitch it down. Or save a few tags that have all four edges that don’t fray, and go back to cover up any messy edges later with a second layer. I actually did this to cover up the side seams…. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
When you have a few laid out that you’re happy with, attach the labels to the outer bag fabric by zigzagging around the edges. I used a clear monofilament nylon thread, so that all the thread wouldn’t distract your eye from seeing the labels themselves. The bobbin thread was just typical cotton or polyester sewing thread… I used up small amounts I had left over on bobbins from other sewing projects.
When you’re done attaching the labels, iron the bag. If you have used clear nylon thread like I did, you have to be careful not to melt it. The thread I had said to use a “warm iron”, which isn’t very specific. I chose to iron from the back side, once again using the perm press setting. (The back side actually looks kind of neat all by itself, now that I think about it.) But it is a good idea to make a test scrap first, so you can see how your thread holds up to the heat of the iron.
Fold the lining fabric in half, right sides together, so that the folded piece measures 12″ by 18″. Using a matching sewing thread and a 3/4″ seam allowance, stitch along the two 12″ sides. Press the seam allowances so that they stay open.
Now line up one of the side seams with the bottom fold in the fabric. You will make a little triangle, like in the picture. Mark a dot 2″ from the corner on each edge, and then connect the dots to make a line across the corner. Stitch on the line you drew, and trim off the extra triangle of fabric. This is called “boxing” the corners. It gives the bag a three-dimensional shape, and more structure, so it can stand up by itself.
Do the same thing with the outer bag fabric, but use a 5/8″ seam allowance. Using a wider seam allowance on the lining makes the lining slightly smaller than the bag, so that it fits inside more smoothly.
I also included a “Made in USA” tag in the side seam of the bag, so that it would stick out like a real label would. It was part of the statement I was trying to make with the bag… I love America, but as a whole, we really know how to do the materialism thing.
I chose to use extra labels to cover up the side seams of the bag, because I didn’t like the way the seams looked. Just add more labels on top and zigzag around the edges with clear thread until you’re happy with the way it looks.
Take the rectangles of fabric for the handles, and fold them in half lengthwise with the right sides together. Stitch them into a tube using matching thread.
Iron the seam allowances open, and then turn the tubes right-side out.
I glued the pallet straps to the middle of the handles using fabric glue, and then topstitched them down with clear nylon thread and an applique stitch to make sure they wouldn’t go anywhere. But of course you can decorate the handles with ribbons, or smaller tubes of contrasting fabric, or just leave them plain if you’d like.
Flip the bag right-side out, so that it has the seams on the inside, and make sure the lining still has the seams on the outside. Do a dry fit by putting the lining inside the bag, just to make sure you don’t have any wonky edges or anything else that needs to be corrected. Now take the lining back out of the bag again. This is your last chance to add any labels over spots on the bag that don’t look the way you want them to.
Fold the top edges of the bag and lining to their wrong sides, folding the lining down 1″, and the bag 3/4″. (Folding the lining down more makes it fit inside the bag better, just like how we used a wider seam allowance on the lining earlier.) Now gently iron the folds in place. I used a press cloth over the nylon thread so I would be sure not to melt it.
Pin the handles to the inside of the bag like I’ve shown in the picture. Make sure the straps aren’t twisted, then add the lining. Match up the side seams of the lining with the side seams of the bag, and pin everything together.
Topstitch around the whole top edge, through all of the layers, removing the pins as you get to them. Attach the handles extra securely by backstitching over the handles twice when you come to them. I did three rows of topstitching in total, but that part is up to you.
That’s it!!! Now you can create a bag that makes whatever statement YOU want to make, and have fun getting a lot of use out of it.