Of all the things I have made for my shops, backpack lunch bags are probable the most popular – and no wonder, they are very useful. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to make one yourself. All you need is:
- a sewing machine
- an iron
- a pair of scissors, or even better, a rotary cutter and a cutting mat (which I’ll use here).
- 1/2 yard or meter of fabric (you’ll have some left over) – I use canvas because it’s sturdy, but you can use quilting cotton, linen, or any woven fabric.
- 2 x 37.5″ (95cm) of plaited cords – or ribbon or any sturdy string-like material, and
- less than one hour of your time
Ready? Here we go!
Step 1: Cut the fabric
Cut 2 pieces of fabric, 11″ x 11″ (43.5cm). You can make it larger or smaller if you like, but this is the size I normally use. It’s easy to cut the pieces accurately if you cut two layers of fabric at the same time, using a rotary cutter and a mat.
I often make two bags at a time, because you can get 4 11″ x 11″ pieces from one 11″ strip (using a 44″ wide fabric), and two bags come together very quickly if you make them at the same time. Plus, it’s good to have two — you’ll have a spare when one is in the wash.
Step 2: Overlock or zig-zag the 3 edges
For each piece of cut fabric, zig zag stitch around the two sides and bottom of the fabric (you don’t have to do the top edge) to prevent fraying. I use my overlocker here, but a zig zag stitch will do just fine.
Step 3: Sew the outline of the bag
Put the two pieces of fabric neatly together, with the printed side facing inside. Measure 2 1/4″ (5.7 cm) distance from the top edge, and on the right edge, mark the spot using a fabric marker or pencil. Do the same for the left edge. The marks won’t show when the bag is finished if you mark just a tiny bit. This is just so you know where to start and stop sewing.
Now, make sure the two pieces are exactly laying on top of the other, and are you ready to start sewing!
Sew the sides with a 1/2″ (1.3cm) seam allowance, at the point where the mark is (2 1/4″ from the top). It’s important not to skimp on the seam allowance here. Sew around the three sides of the bag, pivoting at the corners, and stopping where you find the other marked spot. Make sure you back-tack a few times at the start and end of this seam, to keep the bag from falling apart with repeated use.
As you see, I don’t use pins. Pins are unnecessary for little things like this and they only cause trouble. The trick is, you first anchor the needle down at the start of sewing and do the back-tack. And then you hold the two layers of fabric at the end of the seam together, holding them so they match up. Now gently pull the fabric towards you till the pieces are straight. Then sew down the seam, while holding down the end of the fabrics together.
Step 4: Sew the top side seams
Now you have the three sides sewn together, with the top 2 1/4 inches left unsewn. Press the side seams open, all the way to the top of the bag. Like this:
Then sew around the open edge at about 1/4″ (6mm) from the edges – like you’d sew a slit opening on a garment:
Can you see that at the short bottom seam, I sewed back and forward a couple of times to create a very strong seam?
Step 5: Finish the top of the bag
Fold and press a top raw edge of the bag about 3/8″ (1 cm) inward, then fold and press again at about 1″ (2.5cm).
Then sew along the edge – as close to the edge as you can. Repeat for the other side.
Again, no pins. But please make sure you really match up the end of the seam so it looks nice and clean when finished. Most natural woven fabrics have a little “give” or stretch, so sewing while gently stretching the fabrics works really well.
Now at this point, if you turn the fabric the right side out…. you have a simple drawstring bag done already! Well, all you need is to thread a cord. Yay! But not very long to go for a completed lunch bag, either, so hang in there.
Step 6: Thread the cords and prepare the gussets
At the bottom corners of the bag, mark little 1.5″ (3.8 cm) squares with a pen or pencil. It’s 1.5″ from the sewn lines – not the edge of the fabric.
You can use a ruler each time, but if you are making multiple bags, it’s handy to have a little paper template here. Then cut along the marking.
Your bag will look like the photo below. Now prepare the two cords. If you’ve followed the sizes I’ve mentioned precisely, you’ll need 2 cords each about 37.5″ (95cm) long. Otherwise, lay a doubled-up cord like this – a little longer than the edge of the gusset square – to measure how much you need. You’ll need two of these.
Thread the cords using a bodkin (a cheep and very handy thing to have, but you can use a safety pin if you don’t have a bodkin). Here are my bags all threaded:
Step 7: Sew the gussets
You are almost finished! Now, for each side, bring the two cord ends from the inside of the bag (the printed side), along the side seam, through the cut gusset opening. Tease the gusset edges open to form a straight sewing seam, and position the cord ends win the middle of the seam, like this:
This is one place you might want to use pins – use a pin for each cord end to secure it in the right position. Then, with about 3/8″ seam allowance, sew the gusset seam – making sure you sew over the two cord ends a couple of times, back and forth, to make a very secure seam. Repeat for the other gusset.
Trim the end cord bits sticking out, and overlock or zig zag finish the seams. And that’s it! Your bag is finished. Yay!
The gusset looks like this from the right side:
Now, if you’ve been making two bags at the same time, you’d be rewarded with not one but two pretty lunch bags. Very satisfying!