How to make a canvas bag

posted by Mike on November 12th, 2005

Forget about “Paper or plastic?” It’s time to make your own canvas shopping bag.

Materials: We used unbleached cotton canvas, which you can buy or order at your local fabric store. Organic cotton would be even cooler. We used oil-based ink, because we wanted to make bags that people could machine-wash. Non-toxic ink would be even cooler.


  1. Cutting the cloth: The cloth comes folded in half. Cut a 23″ wide piece of the folded cloth. Cut a 4″x5.5″ rectangle out of each of the two corners of the cloth that are along the fold. The 5.5″ side of the rectangle is parallel to the fold.

    Now, unfold the cloth.

  2. Printing your design: We used a linoleum block.

  3. After the printed image has dried, fold the cloth “inside out,” so that the image is not visible.

  4. Sew the edges together that will be the sides of the bag. Don’t sew the part where you cut out the little rectangles. I used a flat-felled seam (howto sew it) with a 1/2″ seam allowance.

  5. Turn the bag right-side out. There will be three holes: one at the top, and two in what should be the bottom. Pin the cloth of each bottom hole together and sew. I used a 1/4″ seam allowance. (In the first picture I’ve added some small pleats to make the two sides line up properly.)

  6. Turn the bag inside out. Push out the bottom as much as you can. Sew along what were the holes, again. I used a 3/8″ seam allowance. The raw edge will be hidden inside this seam.

  7. The top edge of the bag should be the finished edge of the cloth, so you don’t have to hem it. But I did. Fold the top over 1″, pin, and sew to make a simple hem.

  8. From your bolt of folded-over cloth, cut a 4″ width. Cut this in half by length to make two pieces, each 4″x?”.
  9. Fold each of these in half by width. Press the crease with your fingers. You could pin it, but you don’t have to. Sew the two edges together to make a tube. I used a 1/4″ seam allowance.

  10. Turn each tube inside-out. This may take a minute. Press flat with your fingers. Sew along the first seam. I used a 1/4″ seam allowance. This will keep the tube flat.

  11. The two tubes are the two handles of the bag. I folded one end of the tube about 1″, then sewed it inside the bag, stitching a big square with an X inside. Then I sewed on the other side of the handle. If you don’t like where you sewed on the handle, you can remove the stitches and try again.

Now you have a canvas bag.

Mike Baxter once wrote:

Liberals say: “Hey! The homeless aren’t being fed. Let’s march on City Hall.” Radicals say, “The homeless aren’t being fed. Let’s feed them.”

Liberals say: There are too many plastic bags, so let’s tax them. Radicals say: There are too many plastic bags, so let’s make a bunch of cloth bags and give them away.

Our friends helped us make dozens of bags, and we held a bag giveaway at our local supermarket. We had to contact people up the store’s corporate ladder to get permission, but they were all enthusiastic about the idea. The local paper ran a short article annoucing the giveaway, and people showed up that morning brandishing the article.

Several people who took a bag told us: “Everyone in Europe uses cloth bags.” I look forward to the day that people can say the same thing about Worcester.

Customer Robert F. Kelly and Big Y employee Julianne Thomas display a bag.

Mary Wernholme.

See also: How to Knit a Plastic Bag

If you found part of this “howto” confusing, please post a comment, and I’ll clarify the step.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

58 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On November 12, 2005 at 17:44 David Gardner said:

    Those are beutiful, it would be interesting to do a howto on the silk screening process.

    David Gardner
    Los Angeles Catholic Worker

  2. On November 13, 2005 at 22:21 the Other michael said:

    Those look great!

    Mike B — if you’ve got any left, tell me what the house needs in trade and we’ll excahnge for Xmas.

    Lookin’ good!

  3. On January 25, 2006 at 13:19 xradiographer said:

    I got one for Christmas from Mr. B, and it is excellent. Not only that, but I get a $0.03 discount every time I use it.

    Everything adds up.

  4. On April 4, 2006 at 08:53 JoAnn said:

    Thanks, now, what do I use to give the bottom of the bag body?I don’t want everything falling together in one spot.i’d like a square bottom.
    Thanks for your reply

  5. On December 16, 2006 at 05:36 theresa said:

    i find the steps so confusing can you please send me on my e-mail the more clarify and less complicated steps on how to make it.i really like that kind of bag and i want to make a different designs of it.

    thank you in advance.

  6. On January 31, 2007 at 17:38 wix said:

    This is great! I’ve already made several bags for myself through the years, but I have a lot of scrap fabric that I’m about to turn into bags, and I found this entry while looking for a different pattern to try. I’m making a few small, simple, rectangle-to-rectangle drawstring bags, too, for produce, as well as a few bigger bags to give to friends who have admired mine.

    To the person who wanted a sturdier/flatter bottom on the bag, you can topstitch (sewing on the outside/’right side’ of the bag once it’s been built) all around the bottom of the bag, and that will add a bit of body, probably enough to keep your goods from lumping together in the middle (the way the bag is filled can also prevent this). The heavier the fabric, too, the sturdier the bottom, and you can also cut a piece of cardboard to line the bottom with (and if you’re really inspired, you could cover the cardboard with fabric).

    And to the person who asked about the printing–this isn’t screenprinting (more complicated and requiring more equipment), but rather block printing, which is described pretty well at

  7. On March 20, 2007 at 03:57 GreenBeing Nancy said:

    I hope you do not mind my including this link on my blog. The Buddhist Society in my neighborhood will find it a very useful idea for their earth day trip for the kids in April.

  8. On April 10, 2007 at 04:08 Kate said:

    I will be buying canvas off a roll so need to know how deep to make the bag. I assume the 23″ refers to its width. Thanks.

  9. On April 10, 2007 at 09:30 Mike (Worcester) said:

    Yes, it is 23 inches wide. The cloth comes off the roll folded in half. I’d guess the unfolded cloth is around 40″ long. There’s probably some standard side for bolts of cloth, but I don’t know it.

  10. On April 21, 2007 at 13:39 Lia said:

    I also find the instructions a bit confusing, would you mind emailing me a more detailed instruction? I am looking forward to making these to give away in our community as well. I have a seven month old baby, and I need something to clear my mind, while he is napping..this would be perfect.



  11. On April 22, 2007 at 14:49 Andrew Marksun said:

    I too find the instructions a bit confusing, would you mind emailing me a more detailed instruction? I would gladly love to make these and hand them out for free at our Walmart store along with detailed instructions on how to make them. I just found out that there are so many plastic bags floating in the Atlantic ocean that it is the size of TEXAS and growing! Good God, please everybody vote for new government and get the republican cronies and oil barons out of office!!! Thank you so much and peace for the planet.

  12. On April 22, 2007 at 21:10 Mike (Worcester) said:

    These are the most detailed instructions I have. If you can point out the step where you start to get confused, I can rewrite that step with more details.

  13. On June 28, 2007 at 23:42 Ms. Rack Estiller-Corpuz said:

    Dear Sir/ Madam,

    Congratulations for the great idea it help the enveronment to reduce the use of plastic bags, may i request for clear pattern of canvas bag and pictures or drawing of how to sew, i will teach Filipino Deaf community to have livelihood through making canvas bag
    thank you very much

  14. On July 12, 2007 at 07:34 Tara said:

    Thanks for the instructions! While a little confusing to me (I am lucky I know how to turn the sewing maching on), they are about the best I’ve found for this type of bag. I plan on making several out of an old canvas couch cover that still has life left in it; added bonus of reusing!

  15. On July 28, 2007 at 00:04 Lorena said:

    Thank you for doing this! Have you seen

  16. On December 2, 2007 at 17:19 Jennifer said:

    LOVE IT! What kind of paint did you use to hold up in the wash? Has anyone tried this with used clothing (e.g. old khakis, jeans, etc.)?

  17. On December 3, 2007 at 10:44 Mike said:

    I think the paint is an old-based ink. The staff at your local art supply store can give you tips.

  18. On December 21, 2007 at 14:18 Liz said:

    Awesome, but I’m confused at step 5 — are we to sew along both sides of the cut out, with the bag laying flat as it’s shown in the first pic under step 4? Or are we supposed to pin it together in another configuration?

  19. On December 21, 2007 at 16:15 Mike said:

    The seams in step 5 are perpendicular to the ones previously sewn. I’ll think of a better way to show this.

  20. On December 28, 2007 at 13:16 Christina said:

    I made your bag from the instructions. I used a ‘normal’ size 54 in bolt of bargin bin linen with an embroidered edge. The bag is large and very useful!! Thank you so much for your website – I will not be using plastic bags anymore.
    -Christina from Madison WI

  21. On January 4, 2008 at 15:56 sharon perry said:

    Wonderful to see your using canvas to make bags, We are a industrial fabric wholesaler and carry a wide variety of natural canvas fabric that can be used for tote bags, if your interested, it is usually available in 36,48,60,72 inch widths, for more information please give us a call 510-786-1666. We are located in Hayward, California.

  22. On January 5, 2008 at 10:46 Joe said:

    I recently purchased some canvas to sell from my store from and i was out of stock in just 4 days. I am going to buy more now.

    Be Green :)

  23. On January 11, 2008 at 17:08 Hejdi McLean said:

    So glad to have found this site. With its easy to follow instructions I’m inspired to attempt making my first bag as soon as possible. Thank you for taking the time to set up this web site and pass on your skills and knowledge. I’ll let you know how I succeed.

  24. On February 13, 2008 at 04:39 Sam said:

    Here’s a place you can buy all the components to make your own wine, gift or tote bag. Though you can buy a bag outright, at you can build your own inspiration! Tote bags, wine bags and more you can pick your own fabrics and create your own personalized gift.

    For more details go here: or email them at

  25. On February 21, 2008 at 22:13 Jill said:

    These are awesome! Great looking and for a GREAT cause! Very very cool

  26. On February 21, 2008 at 22:14 Jill said:

    I am going to make some of these! Good idea!

    Lexington, KY

  27. On April 25, 2008 at 12:57 Susan said:

    Could you please send me directions to my email address.. these look like what I have been looking for thank you so much…

  28. On April 27, 2008 at 16:44 Denise said:

    Thank you for the instructions. I just changed the drapes in my living room. The old ones are cat-snagged all over, and so unusuable as drapes,but they the insulated type. I plan to make shopping bags out of them, figuring that they would be great for frozen groceries. Literally COOL.

  29. On May 12, 2008 at 14:20 Shirley said:

    You list how wide to cut the cloth but how long is the cloth? Thanks!

    Cutting the cloth: The cloth comes folded in half. Cut a 23″ wide piece of the folded cloth.

  30. On May 25, 2008 at 23:11 Kathy said:

    I found the instructions a little hard to follow. Could you please, e-mail me a more detailed set. I am beginning to sew and would love to give these to the teachers at my grand daughters elementary school. Thanks Kathy

  31. On May 27, 2008 at 21:04 Valerie Simonton said:

    Well, you can tell Mike Baxter that this liberal really appreciates your “how to” instructions, and plan to make several bags.

    Valerie in Los Angeles, CA

  32. On June 13, 2008 at 18:08 Shonta said:

    Hello Mike,

    Thanks for the detailed info. Blessings!

    Step 5, I don’t really get the way that you sew the square patches (holes, rather). Do you sew them square as they are…please clarify.

    I await your comment.


  33. On June 23, 2008 at 23:18 Louise Byron said:

    I’ve been preparing to make some cotton canvas bag for myself and friends. I regularly buy fabric and am familiar with the rising costs. I purchased a cotton canvas drop cloth (the type to cover the floor &/or furniture) at a home imporvement store for around $22.00. There’s a ton of fabric, great quality and very econimical.

  34. On July 24, 2008 at 16:21 sarahelizabeth said:

    this is awesome! thanks so much. i’m opening a gallery/store soon and wanted to have handmade canvas bags!! thanks again, sarah from wisconsin

  35. On September 16, 2008 at 14:50 Lilly said:

    Hi, finally I found a usefull website. I really appreciate all your info, could you please tell me how to o the actual printing , I want to do a couple of bags for my daughters school as a fundraiser.

  36. On October 28, 2008 at 16:42 Laura - WI said:

    Thank you for a helpful website. I am going to make about 16 bags for Christmas and use them as gift bags and then they will be part of the gift as well.

    GO GREEN!!!

  37. On November 18, 2008 at 20:10 Minde said:

    I absolutely love these bags, how can I get one?? I love the block print! Will someone tell me where I can get one of these specific bags?

  38. On December 11, 2008 at 15:53 IamSusie said:

    People are funny that they want you to email them specific instructions when you already wrote out the whole thing with photographs and everything! Thanks for posting this. I have some drapery fabric that I hope to make into a nice stash of reusable bags for a Christmas gift. I better get started sewing!

  39. On March 28, 2009 at 00:53 Sandy Crissman said:

    You can use plastic canvas in the bottom of the bag,,,,it lets the bag stay open and stand up. I always make a pocket of the material and cut the plastic canvas just a little smaller slip in the pocket,so up the open end and lay in the bottom of the bag.

  40. On April 9, 2009 at 16:22 Jan Bennett-Collier said:

    To make the bottom of the bag stiffer: I was recently shown a grand idea, a section of plastic slat window blind like the long, 4-6″ wide ones that hang vertically over patio doors. The slats can often be found as castoffs or trash, are usually white/ecru, and are stiff enough, yet easy enough to cut-to-fit the bottom of any bag or purse. They can be covered; sewn in; removable; whatever you want to do with them. A great, cheap fix for the ’sloppy bag’ problem!

  41. On April 26, 2009 at 18:42 Cathy Jo said:

    How do you make a Linoleum Block for Printing?

  42. On April 26, 2009 at 21:35 Mike said:

    Re: Linoleum block. This is something you can buy at a craft store. You draw your pattern on the block, then cut it into the block with a sharp knife.

  43. On November 10, 2009 at 02:29 pamela said:

    am uganda we use alot of plactic and its ugly

  44. On March 11, 2010 at 16:22 Kristin said:

    Love it! Yes, these are the easiest instructions I’ve found for bags online. I used a thriftstore table cloth. So there were lots of finished edges to make it really easy. Thanks for keeping it simple!

  45. On April 3, 2010 at 15:40 delano jules said:

    i am a native of panama. i think that this is a great idea. we do have a ” non admited” problem with plastic bags all over our city. i think that this will be a great incentive to help since we dont have an in-place recycle plan for plastic bags.

  46. On May 3, 2010 at 21:45 Jess said:

    So I was thinking of sewing some canvas totes for my out of town guests for my upcoming wedding and I came across your website. I couldn’t stop laughing with excitement because I won a coloring contest with the Big Y grocery chain in Northampton, MA when I was 6 years old. And I won a canvas gym bag that I still have to this day! No joke, it was an Easter coloring contest. You are doing such a wonderful thing, and I’m proud to say that I spent many wonderful summers in beautiful Monson. God bless and keep up your efforts, they are not done in vain!

  47. On May 8, 2010 at 00:39 Lisa L said:

    I think it would be helpful if you had a few more pictures to show how to sew up the bottom corners of the bag. I was a little confused as to how to sew up those corners. Great bag design, by the way. From Honolulu, Hawaii…

  48. On June 7, 2010 at 15:49 eulane said:

    Even for someone with a little “experience” I did find the instructions a little confusing. I think what threw me off was that I had such wide canvas to start with. Perhaps if you gave a simple drawing of your pattern it would be really helpful. That’s what I wound up doing and it worked like a charm. Or maybe, I’m just of the old school and that’s the only way I know how to sew! Anyway, thanks so much! I just finished my first one for my daughter in California and I’m on my way to mail it.

  49. On July 31, 2010 at 10:48 Tracy J said:

    I thought it a little confusing at first, too. So I read it again and looked at the photos, trying to visualize it. It made sense. Cutting while folded is just like when you place your pattern along the fold and have to cut 1 – and the depth of the bag depends on whether your fabric is 36″(bag will be 16″ deep), 45″ (20.5″ deep) or 55″ (25.5″ deep). I plan on picking up some fabric this afternoon to make several of these today. If I am wrong on the depth, I’ll add another comment, but, I think I understood it.
    I have also seen handles where you fold them in half, press. Then fold the edges in toward the crease and press again. Finally topstitch it closed. Those who struggle with turning the tube rightside-out, or want thinner straps may find this easier.

  50. On October 2, 2011 at 16:24 Mutter said:

    I got confused at sewing the bottom where the holes were cut.

  51. On April 10, 2012 at 16:42 lilith said:

    take your bags to Target and you get $.05 off for every bag you use…

  52. On April 29, 2013 at 01:52 Melissa said:

    Instead of cutting the long side of the rectangle cut-out at 5.5″, if you cut it at 4.75″ the sides of the bottom match up perfectly without having to make pleats.

    Thanks for the directions, fun and easy to make!

  53. On May 1, 2015 at 03:40 — said:

    New rules to dramatically reduce use of environment-damaging bags get all-clear in the European Union, with speech in the European Parliament by the Reverend Margrete Auken MEP.

  54. On June 4, 2015 at 01:35 PALLAVI CHILAPUR said:

    I am housewife started work steching bags at home I am searching canvas cloth for doing for bags, can you help for doing the sam.e

  55. On June 20, 2015 at 12:35 MKEgal said:

    I think this is an excellent and mostly very clearly-written tutorial.

    For the people confused about the bottom corners…
    The sides (perpendicular to the folded bottom) are sewn first.

    Then fold it the other direction, so the (outside of the) bottom fold (which will now be open) lines up along (the outside of) that side seam you just sewed. (The outside of the bag is on the inside of your work in progress.)
    If you’ve cut the pieces out of the bottom to be a 4″ square, instead of the rectangle the directions say, this should match up exactly.

    Sew that short seam, on both sides. (No, you probably don’t want to pin them both at once, though it’s possible to do.)
    This becomes the depth of your bag. For a 4″ square, you’ll probably end up with a 7″ deep bag.

  56. On June 20, 2015 at 12:47 MKEgal said:

    Also, I’ve found it easier to sew the handles on with the fabric flat, before starting the side seams.

    Mark the middle of the top edge (just put a pin there), measure an equal distance toward both sides (maybe 4″ to the outside of the straps? play with it) & a couple inches down, then mark where to put the straps & sew them on.
    Definitely make a box & an X for strength.
    That shouldn’t interfere with the side seams, because the handles poke out the top of the bag.

    A different way to do the straps (instead of sewing the long side & turning them) is to press to find the center (as described), then fold the edges in – could go to the center to make it easy (but then your straps will only be 1″, so start with a wider cut) or you could just fold them under 0.5″. Sew the open side.

  57. On June 20, 2015 at 12:50 MKEgal said:

    Sorry, not a 4″ square. 4″ x 4.5″ (4.5″ parallel to the fold), with a 0.5″ seam allowance would end up with a 4″ square hole.

  58. On August 4, 2015 at 12:18 Kez said:

    Anyone who’s still confused about the bottom corners, if you google “how to box the bottom of a bag”, there’s a load of drawn, written and video tutorials that will explain it to you. If you don’t get it with the first one you look at, keep looking – once the penny drops and you understand it, it’s very simple.

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