The trunk of my 48 mpg Honda Civic Hybrid usually has about 6 unbleached cotton canvas shopping bags for those times when I actually drive (as opposed to walk or bike) to the grocery store. On the rare occasions when I forget a bag, or stop by the store on a whim unprepared, I cringe at the idea of having to choose between deforestation or oil wars. Never mind that the bags occasionally don't hold up from the checkout counter to the kitchen counter, but questions like "Paper or plastic?" aren't going to help us solve the environmental problems now and to come.

But as bad as my monthly mishap into taking a paper bag is, rather than beat myself up about my indiscretion, I thought it would be more productive to get other people into the habit of answering that ominous question with "Neither, thank you. I've brought my own."

To that end, here is my short tutorial on how you can make your very own canvas shopping tote bag. Though sticking with unbleached (organic) cotton is the most cost effective and environmentally responsible, I thought I'd spice things up a bit with a cute two tone tote that you'll love to show off at your neighborhood grocery store.


Step 1: Choose your materials.

The bottom and straps of the tote should be very durable, but the body can be a little less robust. Here I chose a solid green, super sturdy canvas for the base of my tote and a funkier Ikea print for the body. I got the materials at a cute vintage fabric shop in San Francisco called Urban Burp, at the corner of Columbus and Kearny.

Step 2: Cut out the patterns.

For the base, cut an 18'' by 12.5'' rectangle from the sturdier material. Then cut out a 2.5'' by 2.5'' square from each corner of the large rectangle. This will give a square base for the tote, which makes it easier to load with jars, cans, cereal, etc. The straps will connect all the way down to this part of the bag.
For the body, cut a 38'' by 11'' rectangle from the funky material.

Finally, cut two 40'' by 2'' pieces of the sturdy material for straps. This will make handles a bit above the bag. If you want to have a shoulder bag instead, then instead cut two 54'' by 2'' rectangles for the straps.

Step 3: Sew up the base.

Using a straight stitch, sew together each of the four inner corners of the base. Make sure to be consistent so that the seams are all on the same side. The measurements above account for a 1/2'' seam allowance. Since the base will take most of the weight, I went over these seams twice to make sure it would hold.

Step 4: Attach the body.

With the funky fabric still in a long rectangle, pin this piece to the base you've just created so that you see the inside of both pieces of fabric. Again, you should have a 1/2'' seam allowance, so try to pin where the seam will go. The two sides of the body will then be overlapping, so put a reminder pin to stop sewing about 3/4'' from either end of the body fabric. Once the pins are in place, stitch along the line you've made making sure to leave about 3/4'' before the end of each side of the body.
After that first lap of stitching for the base, hem together the two ends of the body with a 1/2' seam allowance. I double this hem to make it more sturdy. Now the bag should hold together on its own. Go back over the seam connecting the base to the body, doubling across the hemmed part of the body to make sure the binding is solid. Finally, hem the top of the bag to make it tidy.

Step 5: Attach the straps.

First prepare the straps by hemming the sides in so that they meet in the middle. I use contrasting thread for visual effect, but if you do this make sure you sew straight!
Lie the bag flat on a table, right side out, and pin the first strap in place. If you're making a shorter handle, then position the ends of the strap in line with the ends of the seams for the base, i.e. where the floor would be if the bag were upright. Be sure the ends of the straps run parallel up the bag, about 5'' apart. For a shoulder handle, position the ends of the strap 1/2'' beyond the middle of the base (the other strap will overlap this one later), and position the ends of the straps 6'' apart. Make sure not to put a möbius loop in your strap!
Once the strap is in place, sew the strap to the top of the tote. Either go over this a few times, or since I'm using contrasting thread, I used a decorative stitch pattern to reinforce the connection. Do the tops of both sides so as not to dislodge them. Then stitch down both sides of each strap. At the bottom, make another uber stitch, going over the area a few times or using a decorative stitch. Flip the bag over and repeat the process with the other strap.

Enjoy your new environmentally responsible tote bag!

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