Sewing 101: Project Time!

By now, you’ve had plenty of time to get to know your sewing machine. For our first project, I have chosen something simple and practical –  shopping bags! There are a lot of options in the fabric store for making beautiful, fancy bags, but my favorites are the simple, lightweight nylon bags that fold up small enough to fit in a pocket or a purse. They make a great project for easing your way into machine sewing because you only have to deal with straight lines, and if it doesn’t come out absolutely perfect, who cares? It’s a grocery bag, not an accessory.

I based my pattern on my favorite fold-up bag, which is about 17″ square. You can fit a surprising amount of stuff into it, but not so much that it gets uncomfortably heavy. We’ll be using rip-stop nylon, which is fairly inexpensive, durable and water-resistant. It’s also easy to cut and sew straight, because it has guidelines woven into it.

It’s hard to see, but the heavier threads that stop tears in the fabric also make great guides for cutting and sewing.

First, we have to do a little math. When figuring out how much fabric you need, you have to include a seam allowance. This is the extra fabric that lives on the inside of the project and keeps the seams from falling apart. Traditional patterns use a 5/8″ seam allowance, but I almost always round that down to a 1/2″. It’s easier for me to do the math, and that missing 1/8″ has never caused me any problems. So, to make a bag that is 17″x17″, with a shoulder strap, you need one piece of fabric that is 18″x36″ for the bag, and one that is 5″x34″ for the strap. Since rip-stop usually comes in 59″ widths, you can easily get two bags out of one yard of fabric.

My diagram isn’t to scale, but you get the idea.

Why use one piece of long fabric instead of two smaller pieces sewn together? A seam, even a good strong seam, is a weak point. Since most of the strain will be on the bottom of the bag, I think they are stronger if you don’t have a seam there. It also means less sewing, yay! Once your fabric is cut, set the strap pieces aside and lay out one of the bag pieces. Fold it in half length-wise and pin the sides together.

I always sew side-seams from the top down, that way I know the top edge stays clean and even. Even pinned together, fabric pieces can slip while you are sewing and I hate it when my edges get uneven. So, sew straight down both sides, 1/2″ away from the edge of the fabric, with a smallish stitch length. It doesn’t have to be a super-fine stitch, but you want it to be small enough to be strong; I wouldn’t go any larger than a 2.

Ta-da, you have a bag!

Now, I find it easier to load up a grocery bag if it has a flat bottom. Making a flat bottom is easy to do, but hard to describe. Hopefully this will make sense. With the bag still inside out, you need to flatten out the bottom corner of the bag into a triangle, with the side seam running perpendicular to the line you will be sewing. Sew straight across the triangle, about 2″ down from the point, then do the same thing on the other side. Now when you lay the bag out, it should have a flat bottom.

Sew across…
Ta-da! Flat bottom.

Next, we make the top edge pretty. We could just fold over the top half-inch, sew it down and call it done, but then we would have a raw, stringy edge right up at the top. Instead, we will fold over once, and then fold over again and pin. Normally, you could iron the hems to make this step easier. Unfortunately, ironing a synthetic like nylon without melting it is a dicey proposition. I skip the ironing and use the grid in the fabric to make sure I am staying straight. Once it is pinned into place, sew around the top of the bag, about 3/8″ in from the edge.

Nice, clean edges.

Now, set your pretty bag aside and get out a strap piece. We’re going to do the same thing to the sides of the strap that we did with the top hem of the bag; fold over twice, pin and sew. Easy peasey, lemon squeezy. We’re almost done!

And sewn.
See those loopy bits there? I should have tightened up my tension a little before sewing this part.

To attach the strap to the bag, pin it over the side seams on the outside of the bag, with about three inches of overlap on either side. To make these conections nice and strong, sew a big square across the top, down the side, across the bottom and back up to the top. Then sew a diagonal to the bottom corner, back across the bottom, diagonal back up to the top and back across the top one more time. To change direction mid-seam, stop just short of where you need to turn. Make sure the needle is in the fabric, so it doesn’t slide while you turn, lift the foot, turn the fabric, lower the foot and sew on in your new direction. When you are done, you should have a square with an “X” inside it and a double line of stitches across the top and bottom. Ain’t nothin’ going to make that strap fall off. Do the same to the other side, and you are done!

If you want to get extra fancy, hand-sew a hair elastic to a corner of the bag so you can fold it up, slide the elastic over it and make a neat little bundle to drop in your purse.

Viola, it’s a cute little bundle of bag.

If anything doesn’t make sense, or if you feel I forgot something, you can let me know in the comments or e-mail me at

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at if you're interested in checking it out.

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