rock the tote: rightsizing

Sizing magic! The most impactful way to customize your tote is to adapt the size. This simple change takes the same shape from a tiny party favor bag to a large shopping sack. In this episode of Rock the Tote, I’ll show you a few size variations and provide you with easy equations to tweak your next tote to perfectly fit its contents.

All of these bags are adaptations of my Rock the Tote: Basic Recipe. Please refer there for the full instructions — only the modifications are outlined here.

this one went sideways

sideways coastal print tote

By simply swapping the height and width measurements on the body pieces (i.e., 15″x17″ rather than 17″x15″), you get a slightly shorter bag that opens wider. Easier to fish around for those bottom-dwellers! I especially prefer this shape for transporting crochet or knitting works-in-progress. ETA: For this width, move the straps in another inch (making the marks 3½” from each side seam).

I embellished it with an embroidered running stitch in place of the machine topstitching, on both the straps and the finished top edge. Tip: If you hand stitch the top edge like this, it’s helpful to do so before closing the gap in the lining. That way, you can insert the needle between the layers to hide the knotted ends.


innit cute
So many possibilities for these little ones! Party favor totes, just-the-right-size gift bags… They can even be used as tiny bucket organizers.

The one shown here is just about small enough to require the last few steps to be sewn entirely by hand. As it was, I was nowhere near able to use my machine’s free arm, and working my way around that top edge seam was lay-on-the-bed-to-zip-up-your-jeans tight. By the time I got to the topstitching, I just hand stitched it to avoid the calisthenics.

After that rockin’ sales pitch, if you still want to make this size… here are the specs:

  • Step 1: The finished size of this one is 5″x5″x1½”, so cut the body pieces 7¼”x6″. The finished handles are 5″ long x 1″ wide, so cut those pieces 7″x3″.
  • Step 2: Make the straps using a 1/2″ seam allowance when stitching up the long edge.
  • Step 3: Cut a 1″ square from the corners when constructing the box bottom. Then, when stitching across the corner, use a 1/4″ seam allowance. (This little bitty tote is the only time I depart from the process described in the corner square/depth notes at the end of this post. I did that just because I found a 1″ square easier to work with when lining up the seams and getting the corner straight.)
  • Step 4: Leave only a 2½” gap in the lining, ensuring it’s centered along the bottom edge.
  • Step 5: The mark for handle placement is 3/4″ from each side seam.


i meant to do that
During my prototyping for the original Rock the Tote, I made this one:

It may not look much different from the original, but it’s two inches narrower. I immediately felt it was too narrow for its height, but I finished it anyway. Then I used it to carry some books to a meeting, and I discovered that it was perfect for this function — any wider and the books would have shifted around too much. The only modification for this one is to the four body pieces, which measure 17″x13″.


not just window shopping
Finally, I present the Rock the Tote version of the big brown bag. Except not brown. And mine’s never been used at Bloomie’s. But whatever.

I designed the size of this bag to be as big as reasonable without dragging on the ground. To that end, I used short handles rather than shoulder straps. For reference, I’m 5’6″, so your mileage may vary. Ah, the beauty of sewing… customize your pants AND your bags to your height. Also, due to the size and intended purpose of this tote, I made an insert to help the bottom hold its shape (details below). I used an ultra-heavyweight interfacing for my insert, which I like because it’s durable, washable, and doesn’t add weight to the bag. You can use whatever you have on hand — plastic needlepoint canvas, cardboard, even thin plywood would work.

Want to know how to do the piping at the top edge? It will be fully described and photographed in the next episode of Rock the Tote — be sure to subscribe so you won’t miss it! Here are the other changes:

  • In step 1: The finished size of this one is 18″x24″x6″, so cut the body pieces 22½”x25″. The handles are 16″ long x 1½” wide when finished, so cut the handle pieces 18″x4½”.
  • If you want to add the structured bottom insert, cut two additional pieces from your lining fabric, 19¼”x7¼”. Also, cut two 18″x6″ pieces of ultra-heavyweight sew-in interfacing (such as Peltex 70). Stack the two pieces of interfacing and baste them together.
  • Step 3: Cut a 3″ square from the corners when constructing the box bottom.
  • Step 4: Leave a 6″ gap along the lining’s bottom edge.
  • Step 5: The mark for handle placement should be 6″ from each side seam. (If you’re using piping for your bag and don’t need no stinkin’ tutorial for it, make sure you baste on the piping before attaching the straps.)
  • Step 8: Make the bottom insert. Working with the insert pieces you cut from your lining fabric, press one short edge 1/2″ to the wrong side; repeat on the other insert piece. Place the pieces right sides together, with raw edges and pressed edges aligned. Stitch around three sides, leaving the pressed edge open. Turn right side out. Insert the double-thickness of interfacing. It’s a snug fit, I know, but it’ll go! Slipstitch or whipstitch the open end closed. Place insert into the bottom of your tote, tacking them together at the corners, if desired.


formula for success
It’s easy to calculate the size of pieces needed for your own custom tote using these formulas. I wish there was a way for me to explain it without math, but I’ll make it as painless as I can!

First, determine the following finished measurements:

  • a: height, excluding the straps
  • b: width (at bag top, side seam to side seam)
  • c: depth (at bag bottom, created by boxing the corners)
  • d: strap length
  • e: strap width

To calculate the size to cut for your tote’s body pieces, both exterior and lining:

a + (c/2) + 1½” = cut height

b + 1″ = cut width

To calculate the size to cut for your tote’s handles/straps:

d + 2″ = cut length

e x 3 = cut width

Keep these other changes in mind as you adjust the tote:

  • In Step 2, the seam allowance for stitching up the straps is half of the finished width (e/2).
  • For boxing the corners in steps 3 and 4, use a square whose sides are half of your desired depth (c/2), just as shown with the original and shopping totes. Then use a 1/2″ seam allowance to sew across the corners. I’m sure there are solid Pythagorean reasons why this works, but I couldn’t detail them even if I wanted to.
  • When constructing the lining in step 4, modify the length of the gap as necessary. This can change based on the size of your bag, the thickness of your fabric, your allergy to hand stitching, etc. I like to err on the side of a larger gap to make the turning easier.
  • As you make the strap placement marks in step 5, adapt to your liking based on your comfort, the width of the bag and how it hangs.

Let me know if you have questions or if any of this is unclear to you. Happy tote-making!

Comments 9

  • I’m definitely a tote fan/bag lady; never leave home without one. With any of these I would feel stylish indeed! However, I’m not quite yet at a happy-tote-making place…maybe soon.

  • That is some amazing stuff Susan!

  • I love your blog Susan! I am so inspired by you.

    Right back atcha :) ~Susan

  • Have made two different bags, two different sizes. I was always afraid to make one, but with your excellent instructions, it was a total success. Thank you for taking the time to photo and write these.

    Terri, you made my day! :~) I’m so glad they turned out well. I’d love to see a pic if you have one! ~Susan

  • I’d like to add a caveat – I discovered last night when using these calculations that if you’re making a bag that you basically want to be box-sized (as in you want the width at the top of the bag to stay the same as the width at the bottom of the bag) – you need the width of your pieces to be b+c+1.

    I wanted to make a bag that would hold the case for my Singer Featherweight, and using the calculations above to make a bag with a bottom that was 9 inches deep meant that my bag was only four inches wide at the bottom! I tried again with b+c+1 and it worked perfectly.

    So your calculations aren’t wrong, but they will yield a weird result if you want to make a very very deep-bottomed bag. ;) Thanks for the page, though, I wouldn’t have gotten a start at all without them. As usual for an accountant, I can’t create a process but can audit it!

  • I’m just starting to sew and making totes out of feed bags! If the sides of a tote bag are 6 inches what size square do I cut out to match the sides? I am sewing a 1/2 inch hem on the bottom of the bag. Should I cut 2 1/2 or 3 inch square? For a bag with 5 inch sides I cut a 2 inch square. I’m getting confused! LOL Thanks so much.

  • you forgot a serious step!!!!!! what about the top hems- for insides and outsides????
    i’m super new to sewing, ironing, rotary-ing, ect. but, i was following all your directions and getting so excited to finish….when i realized….raw edges- now what????
    was i suppose to hem tops for inside and outside bag?
    – mara

    • @Mara Berkner: I hope you figured out the answer to your question. If not, check out our lovely blogger’s previous/other posts in the series [“Rock the Tote”]. I am pretty new as well, but the instructions all put together make sense.

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