I like to carry reusable tote bags to avoid bringing home wasteful plastic bags from the store. But the reusable bags sold at the grocery are flimsy and fall apart after a few uses, while sturdier tote bags with fun designs are great but cost an obscene amount. The solution? I make my own tote bags from t-shirts I find on sale at thrift stores or that I get tired of wearing. It would also be the perfect way to upcycle a favorite t-shirt your child has outgrown.
When buying t-shirts, I look for great images that I think would make an awesome tote bag. I am careful to make sure the image sits low on the shirt. If it is too close to the top, I will either have to cut off part of the design or have very short handles on the tote.
I have found that children's t-shirts are best for making totes. Look for specimens that are particularly strong and suitable, and beware of cutesy t-shirts (usually girls’, unfortunately) that are made of thinner fabric and won't stand up to a bunch of canned goods. These are still fine for holding produce from the farmers market or a knitting project. Large adult t-shirts are awkward to use for grocery shopping but are perfect for beach bags. Got a few shirts at the ready? Here we go!
» permanent marker or chalk
» thread and needle
» sewing machine (optional; you can sew your tote by hand)
» buttons, lace, pins, old earrings, et cetera for decoration (optional)
WHAT TO DO
1. Lay out your t-shirt, aligning the hems so everything lies flat. Some shirts will hang crooked, and you may have to tug and pull a bit to get the seams lined up, but doing so will give you a better tote bag.
2. Look at your t-shirt and envision your tote bag. Are you looking for something to sling over your shoulder? If so, you'll need longer straps than if you just want a tote to hold in your hand. Evaluate the design of the t-shirt. You want to make sure you’re not cutting off a good part of the design and, optimally, that you’re framing the print and making it stand out. Following along the collar and sleeves of your t-shirt, draw tentative lines marking where you want your handles. Start conservatively. You can always cut in farther than you initially drew, but if you draw them in too small, you'll be left with marks on your tote.
3. Cut along your lines at the collar and sleeves. Sling the shirt over your shoulder or hold it at your side. Do you like how it hangs? If it’s too tight, draw new lines and cut again.
4. Once you have the handles how you like them, look at the bottom of the t-shirt. Many women's shirts flare out at the bottom. These look funny once sewn, so you would want to trim the edges so that they curve in. For children's t-shirts, you can usually just sew along the bottom seam, and it will be fine. Cut the bottom to an appropriate length. If this will be a hand tote, hold it at your side. Does it hang too close to the ground? If so, cut the bottom higher for a shorter bag.
6. Holding the bottom of the tote in one hand and one handle in the other, gently tug at the handle. This will stretch out the hem slightly and help curl under the unhemmed edges. Repeat on the second handle. (You don't have to hem the handles if you use t-shirt material, as it will not fray.)
7. If you’d like, you can decorate the tote. You might sew on buttons in a complementary color or add lace trim to the handles. You can even fasten on an earring that lost its mate or an old button or pin that matches the theme of the tote. If you have a plain colored tote, you could add a patch or draw on it with permanent markers.
And there you have it: stylish, sturdy, and upcycled! Below, photos of a couple of finished tote bags, both empty and full.
Got a question for Cynthia? Or another use for old t-shirts? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling! As long as you’ve got a needle and thread handy, you might give Lindsey’s 101 on repurposing wool sweaters a gander (just try to resist her adorable wool piggy). You might also check out Cynthia’s other 101s, on roasting coffee, making dandelion coffee, and smart uses for bacon grease, apples, and stale bread. You can always find more things to make, craft, plant, grow, cook, preserve, and hem in the HOMEGROWN 101 Library.
ALL PHOTOS: CYNTHIA