How to make a lunch bag tote

I know I keep mentioning that I hate and am terrible at sewing, but then I keep posting sewing tutorials, which I guess may seem odd. One thing I am slightly good at sewing, though, is bags and purses. That’s because I have a terrible time finding purses I like so I have to keep resorting to making my own. Well, I’m set for purses right now, but the other day the bag I’ve been toting my lunches in, some cheap little thing I got at Whole Foods, tore. It wasn’t really big enough to begin with, nor strong enough to carry the Pyrex bowls I take my lunch in (I will only microwave in glass). So this weekend I decided I was going to make a bag to carry my lunch in, and hey, that’s food-related, right? So I made a tutorial. I know several of you are waiting for the new bread bag tutorial I promised, and it’s coming, but I have to go to the fabric store first and I’m just not ready for that yet. (After a positively disastrous visit to JoAnn’s during President’s Day weekend, I sent my parents an email entitled My Black Heart Seethes with a Burning Hatred of JoAnn’s about my experience, which they seemed to find hilarious, but I have yet to recover.) In the meantime here is how I made a lunch bag.

Lunch Tote Bag

1/2 yard cotton fabric
1/2 yard another cotton fabric in a coordinating color
loop turner (optional)

Wash and press your fabrics. Cut two 14″ x 15″ pieces of each fabric (for a total of four squares). I prefer using a rotary cutter but regular scissors work just as well. (I cut both squares at the same time, on folded fabric.)

Cut two 2″ x 17″ strips of each fabric; these will become the handles.

Pin right sides together of one of the fabrics, leaving the top side open.

Sew the three sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance.

Open the seams near one bottom corner, then pull either side of the fabric away from each other and flatten. This is easier to show in a picture than describe:

Take a ruler and find the line that is 4″ across under the point of the corner, where the seam is at exactly 2″; use a pencil or fabric marker to draw this line. Again this is easier to show in a picture:

Sew the line you drew. Don’t forget to lock the stitches by sewing backwards for a few stitches at the beginning and end.

Trim the corner off about half an inch from the new seam.

Repeat with the other corner. You now have an inside-out bag.

Follow the above procedures with the other fabric. Turn the lining fabric right-side out …

… but leave the exterior fabric inside out.

Place the lining inside the exterior; right sides will be facing each other.

Next make the straps. There are two ways to make them. Since I hate ironing and have a loop turner, I will show you that way. I’ll also describe what to do if you don’t have a loop turner. This is what to do if you have a loop turner:

Pin one piece of the lining fabric to one piece of the exterior fabric, right sides together.

Sew both of the long sides, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. For the loop turner I have, I also have to sew one of the short sides.

I have a tube that I slid into the open side of the strap …

… and push it all the way to the end.

Then I push the rod through the tube …

… until it comes out the other end. Then pull it all the way through.

If you don’t have a loop turner, fold 1/2″ over on both long sides of all four strap pieces, so you end up with a 1″ wide strip, and press so it holds the creases. Place a pressed lining piece onto a pressed exterior piece, right sides out, so the folds are sandwiches inside. Pin.

Whichever method you used for the straps, edgestitch both sides; if you are using the second method of making the straps, you’ll actually be sewing the two sides together in this step. For turned straps, you are just flattening them and making them neat.

Next you will be attaching the straps to the bag. Position one strap so the exterior fabric is facing up and it makes a U, with the ends meeting the top of the bag. You are just positioning the strap, it will NOT be sewn as it is shown in this picture.

Move this strap INSIDE the top two layers of the bag: between the right side of the exterior fabric and the right side of the lining fabric (which are facing each other). Place each of the ends 2″ from the side seams. Pin.

Again, the strap is caught between the right sides of the inside and outside fabrics:

Pin the other three strap ends as well, then pin the rest of the top edge of the fabric. Most sewing machines have a removable area that makes the sewing surface smaller for sewing sleeves and the like. If yours does, remove this piece. Sew a seam almost all of the way around the top of the bag, sewing the straps in as you go, leaving a 1/2″ seam allowance. DO NOT FINISH THE SEAM! Leave a 3″ gap in the seam, which you will use to turn the bag right side out.

Here is the hole I left:

Pull the bag through the hole so you see the right sides of both fabrics. You’ll also pull the straps through.

Push the lining into the bag.

Pin the hole together, making sure the edges are turned under.

Edge stitch (stitch as close to the edge of the fabric as possible) all the way around the top of the bag, closing the hole in the process.

And that’s it!

Hey guess what – it’s reversible!

These are the Pyrex dishes I use, so the bag was sized to fit them.

Here is a prototype I made using cotton flannel. It’s slightly less wide.

I also made a bigger bag for toting library books and shopping for smaller, non-grocery items. It also has longer straps so I can use it as a shoulder bag.

The library tote was a bit difficult to photograph, even with the assistance of kittens.

Speaking of kittens, they aren’t kittens any longer. 🙁 Their first birthday was March 9 so I guess they are just the boring old cats now, but they’ll always be “the kittens” to me.


  1. Josiane Said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    I love the outside fabric you’ve chosen for your lunch bag.
    One of the reasons why I adore your sewing tutorials is precisely because you claim to be terrible at sewing (though I must say every single sewing project you’ve shown thus far has been lovely) – it makes your tutorials seem even more accessible to the badly out-of-practice (and not very good to begin with) seamstress that I am…

  2. radioactivegan Said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    This is a great tutorial! I’ve seen a lot of bags that don’t have “flat” bottoms. This looks way more useful for packing lunches or books. Thanks 🙂

  3. susan Said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Amazing. I think it’s really Martha Stewart doing this blog!

  4. Dawne Said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    Wow! I have been dreaming of making my own purse for years now and maybe starting out with a simple lunch bag will help me ease into it. Awesome fabric choices too! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jen L. Said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    Thanks so much for this tutorial! I think this is the best thing I’ve ever sewn, and I’m a pretty crappy sewer!

  6. Jordan Said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    Just finished this lunch bag for my daughter (she opted for emerald green and black) and it’s really lovely. Took all of two hours – this included fishing my 1890s Singer out of the loft – and a beautiful, elegant result for a seven year old’s lunch. Better than any of that ‘Hello Kitty’ guff! Thank you!

  7. renae Said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

    Jordan, glad you liked the tutorial! I’m jealous of your sewing machine. Since I made this post, I’ve acquired a 1948 Singer and I love it!

  8. Jordan Said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    Hope the 40s Singer is going well! I’ve come back to this tutorial to make some totes for ladies for Christmas as money is tight and the four people I’m thinking of will appreciate something useful! Thank you again for such a good post! And best of the holidays to you!

  9. Kellytodd Said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    Made one to night, first tutorial that had every step and understandable instructions thank you for a great pattern to follow

  10. Kellytodd Said,

    February 6, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    Made heaps for my family great post

  11. Anne Said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

    Thank you for your post and step by step instructions it made it so easy to sew and I am just starting.

  12. Shannon Dzikas Said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    I just made this in an hour with cute vintage fabrics. Now that I made one the only problem is that I want five more! It’s just the right size for lunch. I need one with pockets to use as a purse. Everyone I know is getting one for Christmas this year. Thank you!

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