Leather is incredibly durable and classically appealing. A well made leather bag will last years and still look great. This leather tote bag is surprisingly easy to make and works great as a purse or shopper.
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Leather 2ft x 3ft or 60cm x 90cm
Straight edge blade (rotary or x-acto style cutters)
Cotton twill tape ⅜”/1cm wide
Optional but handy: lightweight clips
Optional for study bottom: Chipboard (and paste glue to hold multiple layers together if needed)
1) Building the Pattern
A simple tote bag patterns is easy to make. If there is a specific item you wish to carry, the bag should be larger than the item or built around the dimensions of the item. Determine the size the bottom of the bag first as everything will be built around those dimensions.
The bottom of the bag should be a rectangle (or square) piece. The width and depth of the bag bottom should reflect the needs of what you are carrying. However, I would recommend making the depth of the bag bottom no less than 2”/5cm. It has been my experience that if the bag is narrower than 2”/5cm it doesn’t hold very much and it can be difficult finding things in the bag or putting things into the bag.
The 2 side panels of the bag will be the same size and shape. The width of the side panels is equal to the measurement of the long side (a) plus the measurement of the short side of the bottom of the bag (1/2b x 2). The height of the side panel is up to you – whatever your needs are. Look at the shape of the bag side panel to determine if the proportions look good before continuing.
A shoulder strap also needs to be patterned. The shoulder straps should connect to the side panels of the bag in a placement that helps the bag balance. If the straps are too close together the bag will twist; too far apart and the center of the bag will sag from lack of support. Dividing the top edge of the bag side panel into 1/3rds is a good starting point for placement. Again, look at the placement and evaluate for balance. If they look too close together or too far apart make the adjustment to the pattern piece before cutting.
The length of the bag strap is up to you. If you like the strap on a bag you already own, measure the strap to find out how long you need to make the strap. To determine bag strap length the easiest and most effective method I use is to place a soft measuring tape over your shoulder, pretend the measuring tape is the strap, and find the measurement for a comfortable bag strap. Add 4”/10cm to the length of the strap so the strap can overlap onto the bag side panel by 2”/5cm at each connection point.
The width of the strap should make sense with the size of the bag. A narrow strap should be used for smaller bags, a wider strap for larger bags. Remember that the weight of everything in the bag will be placed on the straps and those straps on your shoulder/arm. No one likes it when bags dig into the shoulder.
As I have discussed in previous leatherworking projects, I strongly believe planning the stitching lines and pre-punching the leather is the easiest way to sew consistent and even stitches and helps pieces to align properly.
Add a seam allowance to the pieces that will sew together. For this bag a seam allowance should be added to all sides of the bag bottom, and to the bottom and side seams of the bag side panel pieces. The top edge of the bag side panel piece does not require a seam allowance as it does not sew to anything and it is not hemmed. A seam allowance of ½”/1.25cm is a good amount. You could use a narrower seam allowance for a smaller bag.
2) Preparing the Leather
Using weights instead of pins to hold pattern pieces in place, lay out the pattern on the back/rough side of the leather. Mark the pattern pieces on the back/rough side of the leather with a pen/Sharpie.
Use a straight edge blade and a ruler to cut out the pattern pieces being very careful to leave a perfect cut smooth edge for what will be the top of the bag. Cut out all the pieces.
Place the leather on a soft surface like a cork panel. Place the appropriate pattern piece on the leather and use an awl to pre-punch the stitching lines. Use the rawhide mallet to tap the end of the awl to assist punching the holes.
When punching the bag straps, align the 2 pieces of leather which will be sewn together with wrong sides touching and punch both layers at the same time.
Step 3) Side Panel Construction
Sew the two side panels together at the bag sides. Place right sides (smooth, finished side) together. Stitch a strip of twill tape in with the line of stitching.
Gather a wooden block wider than the rawhide mallet and the mallet.
Place the wooden block under the bag sides with the sewn seam on the block.
Hammer the seam open from the wrong side of the pieces. Do this to both seams.
Add barge cement under the seam allowance on one side of the seam.
Hammer the seam with barge cement in place.
After the first seam has set, place a line of barge cement under the twill tape on the other side of the seam to glue the twill tape to the leather. Let the glue set up.
Glue the other side of the twill tape down. Glue the remaining leather seam allowance down and hammer in place.
Step 4) Sew the Bag Bottom in Place
Find the center point of the short side of the bag bottom piece. With right/finished sides together, align the center of the bag bottom with the side seam of the bag. Sew the bag bottom to the bag sides together while incorporating twill tape.
Tighten the threads as you work around.
Work all the way around the bag bottom and work the filling stitches also.
Glue the seam allowance to the bag sides in the same way you glued the sides. Trim the corners of the bag bottom.
Apply barge cement to the seam and hammer to the bottom of the bag.
Hammer the seam flat from the outside of the bag.
Step 5) Constructing the Bag Straps
Place 2 bag strap pieces together with wrong sides touching. Begin sewing the length of the bag strap together 20 stitches or 3”/7cm from the end. Work to the opposite end and leave the last 20 stitches or 3”/7cm unstitched for now. Also sew the filling stitches for a clean finished look.
After sewing both bag straps, it is time to attach them to the bag.
It can be helpful to use straight pins to align the bag straps and the matching sewing marks on the bag. A clip helps hold things in place.
Sew the strap to the bag by sewing through all the layers. Add a dab of barge cement between the wrong side of the leather and the leather strap for a bit of extra security.
Complete the filling stitches for a smooth look.
Step 6) Creating the Structured Bottom
Depending on the leather you are using, the bottom of the bag might be soft and sag. If you don’t like the look or if you want more structure it is easy to add a sturdy bottom.
For the leather tote bag, I used the same technique as for the Tote Bag Bottom project. Chipboard is a sturdy and easy to use/cut material for building a bottom for the bag. Cut 1 more piece the same size/shape as the bag bottom from leather. Cut 2 pieces of chipboard that are ¼” smaller than the bag bottom. I ended up trimming the chipboard bottom to a smaller size than that but it is a good starting point.
Test the fit of the chipboard bottom in the bag, trim to make the fit just right. Position the chipboard in the bottom of the bag.
Trim the corners out of the inside bag bottom.
Apply barge cement to one long edge of the inside bag bottom piece.
Position the inside bag bottom piece to cover and secure the chipboard. Carefully hammer the glued leather.
Carefully apply barge cement to the other long edge of the inside bag bottom piece and hammer the glued leather to secure the bottom of the bag. Do the same for the short ends.
And that’s it. You have a beautiful, classically styled bag that is well constructed and should last a very long time.