Monday, July 18, 2016

Sew Your Own Insulated Grocery Tote Bags

This month's DIY posts are all about trying to curb waste through swapping reuseable bags into our routine in lieu of plastic.  Today's how-to is only a touch more complicated that our basic tote, but is insulated for your chilled and frozen foods.  We have a heavy-duty carry-bag for pedestrian shopping and mesh produce bags still to come, so stay tuned!

To make your own insulated tote, you will need heavy-duty washable fabric, coordinating thread, washable insulating batting such as Legacy insulative fleece or Insul-Bright (available at local sewing stores and online), scissors (a cutter is also handy but not required), an iron and ironing board, and basic sewing equipment. The steps/photos shown are for a fully lined insulated bag with velcro closure - sturdy, hard-wearing, and attractive too!  You can double-layer the insulative batting or layer with standard batting if you want extra insulation or padding. If you are adamantly plastic free and dislike the idea of using a polyester-based insulative batting even in a reusable bag, you can work with a basic cotton or bamboo batting - it won't be as insulative but will still be an improvement over a standard bag.  You can also leave the bag without a closure (although it helps with insulating) or adapt to use a zipper or snap closure instead, if you prefer.  Tip: If you are planning to make multiples, make a prototype bag first to ensure you're happy with size, shape, structure, ruggedness, comfort, etc, then you can confidently "assembly line" bulk cut and sew a whole set. 

  • Cut fabric(s) to size. For a lined bag made from two panels (suitable for plain or non-directional pattern - see our basic tote for directional) you will need:
    • Two identical large rectangles (one for the outside, one for the inner/lining) at the desired bag width by twice the desired height + seam allowances and extra on each end for the top fold.
    • One large rectangle of insulative batting at the desired bag width by twice the desired height + seam allowances without any extra for the top fold. Manufacturer recommendations for sewing insulated fleece batting can vary, so double check and adjust the instructions below if/as needed to suit your materials.  Remember that not to iron when you are prepping (melty polyester!).
    • Two long narrow rectangular strips (standard: double the desired width, thick: quadruple the desired width) + seam allowances at the desired length plus extra to attach.
Preparing the inner liner layer of the bag:
  • Fold the fabric for your inner lining into half, right-side-in, and iron to crease. This crease marks the bottom centre for the finished lining.  Fold width-wise and iron to crease.  Divide the distance between this center line and the inside of your seam allowance into even increments of your choice and, using this center crease as a reference point, mark with creases and/or chalk.  These will will be your marker/guide lines for quilting the insulation to the lining.
  • Layer the insulative batting on the wrong side of the liner fabric, centered, without covering the allowances for the top fold.  Pin at the center line (bottom crease) and corners. Sew a width-wise seam along this bottom center line. Starting from this seam and working from the middle out, sew lengthwise from the center to the edge of the fleece along each of your quilting marker/guide lines.
  • Fold the liner into half, right-side-in, along the bottom crease/seam. Sew the sides together at the seam allowance, through all layers. Do not sew the top. Recommended: Repeat a second row of stitching between the seam allowance and edge for added strength.  Place the liner aside while you prepare the outer bag.
Preparing the outer layer of the bag:
  • Fold the fabric for your outer bag into half, right-side-in, and iron to crease. This crease marks the bottom centre for the finished bag. Sew the sides together at the seam allowance. Do not sew the top. Recommended: Repeat a second row of stitching between the seam allowance and edge for added strength. 
Boxing the bottom corners to add shape to the bags: 
  • Double check to ensure your bag layers equal size. If you need to amke adjustments, it is far easier to do this now, before you box the corners.  Trim any loose threads.
  • Box all of the bottom corners to give the bag added shape.  To box a corner, measure an equal distance in both directions from where the side seam meets the bottom seam and draw a square. Repeat on both sides. Pull the corner into a point, seams flat (ironing recommended for fabric, but you will need to work without ironing for the insulated layer) so that the lines from your back/front square meet on the diagonal across the corner.  Sew along the diagonal line, taking care to ensure seams are held flat.  Optional: Repeat a second row of stitching between the seam and corner for added strength.  Trim excess.
Preparing and adding handles:
  • Fold an even extra wide seam allowance along the top of each bag. Pin the insulated lining layer but do not iron. Iron to crease the outer fabric bag layer. Inverse the outer bags to right-side-out. Place the inner liner wrong-side-out inside the outer, and double check that everything is equal and snug. Place aside while you prepare the handles.  Tip: Before sewing and attaching handles, safety pin the bag and temporary handles together and check for comfort, etc.  If the width right?  The length?  The spacing? 
  • Fold each handle strip along the mid-line into half and iron to crease. Fold a seam allowance along the edge of each handle strip, and iron to crease. The handles shown are basic double layer - you can also go full quadruple or add interfacing. Sew a narrow seam along the open edge, ensuring that you capture the folded edge underneath.  Repeat at the same distance from the fold on the closed edge.
  • Remove the inner/liner from the outer.  Sew a seam around the top so that the fold is securely in place without pins as working over the fleece can be somewhat unwieldy.
  • Pin the handles into position on the outside (wrong side) of the liner. Sew the handle to the bag using a crossed box, just below the raw edge of the folded top.  You can skip this step if you wish and just secure when you sew through when joining hem the top, but this method will be stronger - important for heavy groceries. Tip: You can measure and align so that the velcro below covers your boxes, if you wish.
Adding a velcro closure:
  • Position your velcro from seam to seam just below the raw edge of the folded top. Sew securely into place. Optional: I don't like it when velcro goes completely to the seam of a bag - I find it fights to re-close itself, which is not what I want for a grocery bag. This is why I prefer to add the velcro after joining the sides instead of before and sewing through. In addition, I added a simple little cover flap at the corners (small strip folded to center and hemmed at raw edges), which hides my boxed seams on the velvro (yes!), but more importantly, helps keep my corners open and velcro apart when the bag is opened. Tip: Struggling with velcro and pins? You can use self-adhesive velcro or simply use double-sided tape to hold until you sew.
Joining the inner liner and outer layers.
  • Place the inner/liner back inside the outer bag.  Ensure that the side seams are aligned and the the folded top edges are flush.  Sew together.  Optional: Repeat a second row of stitching between the seam allowance and edge for added strength. Tip: Start a few centimeters from a side seam.  Although you have measured and checked for equal sizing above, if you have a tiny mismatch (no worries - it happens to us all!) you can make a small pleat at that side seam as you close the loop to "hide" the excess.


  1. This is exactly what I want for walking from the market without everything melting. If I understand the instructions its like making a normal bag except you quilt insulation to the liner?

    1. Hi Jennifer! Yes, it's really that simple. :) You can adapt any tote bag pattern you wish. Since this isn't meant to be reversible, you can easily keep it easy and simple with a plain quilted liner but then jazz up the exterior if you wish. Have fun and I'd love to see what you make if you feel like sharing. :)

    2. TY for the quick reply sounds like something even I could manage. :-) I am going to wait for your next post to see what the heavy-duty bag you mentioned looks like then maybe try to make something that's good for walking with heavy stuff and insulated.

  2. This is an excellent idea and a great master class! I am not sure we have these insulation materials here, but I am sure I can find something else.

    1. Thanks, Eugenie! :) If you can't find thermal batting (or want to avoid synthetics to make your bag even more eco-friendly), you can use a standard quilting batting. It just won't be quite as insulative as the thermal batting.


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