How to Make an Oversized Canvas Tote Bag

This simple-sew canvas bag is designed to be perfectly imperfect, so it's the perfect project for a beginner sewer! Upcycle a drop cloth or old blanket to keep it on the cheap.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Tools and Materials

  • sewing machine
  • scissors
  • yardstick
  • marker
  • pins
  • thread
  • fabrics

An extra large utility bag is great for toting beach and pool essentials, using as a laundry bag, carrying bed linens and pillows to camp, or for transporting stackable bins. Make a canvas tote any size you want and for whatever purpose you need by using this simple design. This large canvas bag features a few raw edges, zigzag stitching, hidden seams, comfortable straps, a pocket, and is embellished with handprinted or appliquéd designs.

Carmen and Meg load up the tall bag with activity bins. The utility bag will come in handy to transport bins of supplies to schools for environmental education programs.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Carmen and Meg load up the tall bag with activity bins. The utility bag will come in handy to transport bins of supplies to schools for environmental education programs.

The idea for making an extra large utility bag came from my favorite nature center. Staff members in the education and animal care departments at Ruffner Mountain needed bags to organize and carry lightweight but awkward bins. During a meeting about unrelated nature things, I noticed handprinted samples by Gregory Price hanging on the office idea board. Inspiration was sparked — make a canvas utility bag with a printed pocket.

I have plenty of large leftover pieces of canvas drop cloths from previous projects, so making the bags was a great way to recycle some of my fabric hoards. If you don’t have stacks of scraps like I do, you can use old curtains, tablecloths or cotton blankets.

It is nice to have a DIY project that requires no stress. For this design, there is no need for accurate measuring, precise cutting or straight stitching. You won’t have to serge the edges, and because of the no-fuss approach, the bag is assembled quickly. By using a French seam, a double seam that will enclose the raw edges, you’ll reinforce the seams and help give the bag rigid support. If you prefer to conceal all of the raw edges, use a 1/4” allowance on the first seam and 1/2” to 5/8” allowance on the second line of stitching. I like a little fray peeking out through the seam, so I use 1/2” allowance on both lines of stitching. Imperfections are desired in the making of this bag.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Before you begin, do a little prep work and gather supplies. Pick your thread, fill a few bobbins, get the ironing board ready and decide how big of a bag to make. Anytime I start a sewing project, if I think I will want to more bags later, I start by making a pattern. I make fabric patterns so they are easy to use without slipping or sliding. They pack away easily and last forever. Measure the width of the bottom panel first and the depth of the bag second, then figure out how long and wide to make the straps.

Using the pattern pieces, cut out all of your panels. If you make more than one, repeat this step, and keep your sets in separate stacks.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Prep and sew each of the components. Fold over top flaps for each of the side panels, iron, pin in place, and sew with a zigzag stitch. Prep the pocket by sewing the design with a zigzag stitch or hand paint or stamp a design onto the pocket piece. Sew the pockets onto the side panels. The pocket will be sturdier if you reinforce the stitching at the start and finish of the stitch line. Do this by running the stitch forward and backward several times.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Right-side in, pin and sew all sides together using a 1/2' seam allowance.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Pin and sew on the bottom panel. The trick to matching up the panels perfectly is, one side at a time, line up the edge of the bottom panel to the bottom edge of the side panel, pin from the center out to each end. Leave the corners free until all the sides are pinned, and then flatten the seams and pin the corners into place. As you sew around the bottom panel, round the corners instead of sewing a sharp corner.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Turn the bag right-side-out and pinch and press all of the bottom and side seams.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

To sew the French seams, first pinch, pin, and sew the bottom panel seams, and then sew a second line of stitching. Remember to sew forwards and backward a few stitches each time you start and finish sewing a line of stitches to ensure stitches are locked in. The stitch line will start and stop 5/8” to 1” from each corner.

Pinch, pin and sew the second line of stitching on the side panels. The lines will almost touch but not quite.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Prepare the handles by turning in the sides 1/4" and ironing flat. Fold and iron the straps in half to match the turned-in edges, and then pin and sew around the perimeter of the straps. Leave the ends raw.

Pin and sew on the bag handles. Use two bar tacks and an X to secure each end of the handles to help strengthen the attachment and help distribute the load when the bag is in use. Starting at the bottom, bar tack by tightening the stitch length on the machine and using a tight zigzag stitch. After you sew across the width of the strap, stop the zigzag stitch, lift the needle to a neutral position, and switch the machine dial to a straight stitch. Sew the diagonal arm of the X up to the opposite corner to sew the second bar tack. After the second bar tack, switch to a straight stitch again and sew the second arm of the X. Continue with the straight stitch to sew the parallel line between the two bar tacks. Stop and pivot to double back over the first arm of the X, sew the other parallel line, and then double back over the second arm of the X.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Launder the bag to soften and reveal frays, and trim any loose threads to finish.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

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