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A Brand New Bag




Tote bags always live up to their name, whether they're taking towels to the beach, fruit from the farmers' market, or gardening supplies to and from the shed. But there's no reason these humble helpers need to look humble. The addition of a bold initial or vivid pattern can make a canvas bag newly stylish -- and unique to its owner.

Start with a plain canvas bag from a crafts store, and approach it just as you would (suitably enough) a blank canvas. Do you want to add a modern design? Pretty labels? Handy pockets? The ideas here are just a beginning.

Many bags can be transformed with one easy technique: ironing on a design. Vary the art or lettering you affix, and you can customize totes for different family members or specific activities. (Try our Book and Knitting templates (available below), scan art from books, or download from the Web.)

Other add-ons involve only simple stitching. Create inside dividers with one quick trick: Sew in a row of pockets from a children's apron. Or fashion outer pockets from fabric. You can spruce up handles, too. Line them with ribbon or replace them with twill tape.

Your tote will hold new appeal -- and not just because of what it's holding.


  • 12 1/2-by-19-inch canvas
  • 2 plain canvas tote bags
  • Seam ripper
  • Scissors
  • Fabric for pocket
  • Measuring tape
  • Thread
  • Fabric glue or pins
  • Children's apron with pockets
  • Iron-on transfer paper (available at office-supply and crafts stores)
  • Iron
  • Twill tape or grosgrain ribbon
  • Book template
  • Knitting template


  1. Step 1

    Cut around images cleanly to avoid making jagged edges. Following transfer-paper manufacturer's instructions, print images on transfer paper in black or in color and cut them out.

  2. Step 2

    Arrange images on bag, face up, for a preview (keeping in mind this is a mirror image of final design). When you're ready to iron, place images face down. Iron over images, starting at edges of each and using even pressure so the image doesn't slide.

  3. Step 3

    When iron-ons have cooled, remove backing paper. Replace bag handles with colorful twill tape or cover them with ribbon, if desired.

  4. Step 4

    Remove existing handles with a seam ripper.

  5. Step 5

    Cut two pieces of fabric 6 inches narrower than width of bag. Cut one of these pieces 2 inches shorter than height of bag. Cut remaining piece 5 inches shorter. Fold over top 1/4 inch of each; hem. Stack small piece onto large piece, aligning at bottom. Center on bag; glue or pin into place. Machine-stitch bottom.

  6. Step 6

    For handles, cut two pieces of 1 1/4-inch-wide twill tape twice the height of the bag plus 20 inches. Attach with glue or pins, covering sides of pocket. Attach other handle. Stitch along both sides of each tape. Reinforce handles at top and bottom of bag.

  7. Step 7

    Cut off apron top. Glue or pin lower portion in place. Fold over top edge by 1/4 inch; stitch into place.

Martha Stewart Living, June 2005



Reviews (16)

  • zalymex 13 Mar, 2013

    These tote bags look great but I was wondering, how would you make a bag to keep board games. I always have my games in the car to go to cafes or picnics but the games come in boxes and take a lot of space and are difficult to move around. Any suggestions? I picture a bag with a lot of pockets inside and out to put all the game pieces. Think of scrabble, monopoly, rummy, uno, etc.

  • Sewsirius 23 Sep, 2012

    I make my totes from scratch using strong muslin or canvas. I particularly like to add embroidery to them which is infinitely easier if they are made from scratch and you're embroidering on a simple rectangle. I like the idea for pockets...something else to try!

  • lbuser 21 Feb, 2011

    This is such a good idea, I am surprised there are no comments since 2008. ALL the supplies you need are now very inexpensive and very available - like at Wal-Mart. Also, this is something that can be done with or for kids. If you have a computer program that does images or letters, it will also mirror image them. My 8 yr old grandson wants to learn to sew on my sewing machine - this is something I can do with him. Thanks for the ideas.

  • tknb 3 Nov, 2008

    Something for a baby girl: eyelet sewn on the top and paint with acrylic a simple bunny or cat holding a balloon (woodstock style). For the boys: rick rack with a painting of trains full of zoo animals. (tyco style) [hot glue]

  • jessmethot 3 Sep, 2008

    Unfortunately, the laserjet transfer paper for color printers is very difficult to find and is not readily available in office supply stores (but can be found online). I hope these comments help anyone who plans to do this project! It ends up being worthwhile, but expect it to take longer than you originally thought!

  • jessmethot 3 Sep, 2008

    Continued: If you have enough patience to get past this part, then you must pay close attention to what kind of transfer paper you need. There are several different kinds: for inkjet printers, for laserjet printers, for color printers, and ones that can only be used on copiers, NOT printers. If you use the wrong kind, your printer can be ruined. Also, you have to make sure it can be ironed on, and is not solely for a heat press.

  • jessmethot 3 Sep, 2008

    I saw this project and thought it would be a great idea for my bridesmaids. However, once I began the process, I realized that it is more difficult than the instructions imply, and there are many more things that need to be taken into consideration. First, once you have designed your monogram, you must make a mirror image of it. Some transfer paper packets come with a software to do this, but it is not very intuitive to use. See next comment for more...

  • Belen75-Hernandez08 2 Sep, 2008

    It`s a great idea I use may Kraf paper to do some gift's bags and decoreted wuit gliter or some pieces of gift paper. But this ideas are great to recicle the t-shirts. I love the idea and you can use the t-shirts of your kids too to do some bags for them.

  • AFvet 27 Jul, 2008

    Ribbons! what a good idea! I've been wondering what to do with my good designs from old shirts. I've wanted to cut them out or make them into bags but putting them ON the bag is so much better. Now why didn't I think of that!?

  • BeccaCreates 24 Jul, 2008

    I have so many totes, but there never seem to be enough for all the different projects. I also love to give them as gifts. I love the old sweatshirt idea. I think you could also use a t-shirt if you used a stabilizer first.

  • Pablena 15 Jul, 2008

    Great idea Ribbons for recycling old sweatshirts!
    Thanks! I have some old sweatshirts I can do that with!

  • Ribbons 11 Apr, 2008

    I have beloved old sweatshirts that have worn out. The designs on them, however, are still in perfect condition. I cut the sweatshirts apart and serge around the design. Then I can swing the freearm open on my sewing machine, take a plain old tote and voila', I have a great memory in a new use. If you don't sew, use a good fabric glue or ironon double-sided craft goods found in most sewing/craft stores.
    Great way to go green! Connie

  • indy-quilter 7 Mar, 2008

    Another quick idea....I have seen totes very expensive done by fabric artists. What I do is find the fabric on a website....print out a picture...on my light box-- trace and outline and then transfer that outline to the tote and paint it in...or use fabric painting pens/markers. It can be pretty dynamic. Even a collecion of dots, yes just dots different sizes or the same size, color coordinated to match an outfit....try it! Have don't have to be an artist.

  • indy-quilter 7 Mar, 2008

    As a crafter and quilter....I have cross-stiched quilt blocks on aida cloth and appliqued them on the bag. Great for carrying any project. I have one with a lady bug that says "Don't bug me--I'm cross-stitching" ...cross-stitched on the Aida cloth. Little ones love the small ones with their name on it...possible some buttons sewn on or painted flowers with button centers....and on and on and on

  • mrsdish 1 Mar, 2008

    Bringing your own bags is such an easy way to be a little Greener. I edited pictures of food in PhotoShop with the stamp tool and transferred the images onto our canvas grocery bags.

    TIP: As you shop, and bag your groceries, take the time to teach kids the names of food, food groups, colors, counting, shapes, etcn n n n n n . On the way home, talk about what you can make out of what youn n n n n n ve purchased, and have them help with dinner. The Bonus; kids are more likely to eat what theyn n n n n n ve helped make!

  • CraftTestDummies 27 Feb, 2008

    Ways to dress up your tote: cover with hand-made yo-yos; applique your favorite t-shirt logo onto it; stencil on your initial; sew ribbons down each side and add little decorative buttons; use photo transfers of your kids, grands, or pets; add pockets from recycled denim jeans; top-stitch men's neckties and let the points dangle down on for cool retro-chic; color with wax crayons, layer with freezer paper, and iron for a unique effect. (Put the wax side down, and peel it off when cool.)