How to Make an Upcycled Tote Bag

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Design student and Teva intern Kate Benzian teaches us how to make a tote bag from upcycled fabric scraps. Words by Kate Benzian. Photos by Kelly Yu.

I’ve always been interested in art. I’ve been DIY-ing things since I was little: dolls made from scraps, books with illustrated horses, and flip flops from duct tape and toilet paper. My mom noticed my proclivity for sewing in middle school after I learned at summer camp, and bought me my first sewing machine for Christmas. 

At first, I did simple projects like hemming or making small bags. I was inspired to start sewing clothes after watching the documentary “The True Cost,” which opened my eyes to the cruelty and destructive nature of fast fashion. I vowed to stop shopping from fast fashion brands, and learned to upcycle pieces I owned.

Design student and Teva intern Kate Benzian.

I love how creating from scraps challenges my creativity. Designing traditionally starts with sketching the garment and then finding the fabric that suits your vision. When it comes to upcycling, the reverse is true. I often have to let the fabric inspire me, and that’s a fun (but difficult) process! It means patch-working smaller pieces of fabric together in order to create larger textiles. It’s not easy, but I like the challenge.

I created the Instagram account Artistry The Label as a way to share the pieces I made for my own closet, and eventually for my friends. I started selling pieces on Depop, and this past year I took the step of launching a website. Since starting my brand, I’ve gotten to know a lot more about how clothes are made and it has really informed the way I shop (and don’t shop). 

Midform Universal sandals.

I’m currently a design major focusing on fashion and sustainability at the University of Southern California. I wanted to get a broader sense of what it’s like working in the fashion industry, so this summer I interned in the materials department with Teva. It taught me a lot about how a company like Teva runs and strives for sustainability.

Kate wandering with her upcycled tote,

During my internship, I was working in the materials library to clear out old fabrics to make room for more sustainable options. That meant discarding a lot of old fabric. I had one of those light bulb moments where I realized they could be made into something new. There were a lot of canvas, mesh, and performance fabric scraps, which had limited applications for the type of clothing I often create, but they made a lot of sense for something like a tote bag. I sketched a design using webbing (the material that makes straps on sandals) for the handles to incorporate Teva’s signature brand style. An upcycled tote was born. 

Midform Universal sandals.

Kate wears the Midform Universal sandals in Bright Retro Multi.

My advice for anyone who wants to make their closet more sustainable is: start with your own closet! The most sustainable option really is to make use of what you already have. Beyond this, my biggest tip is to think about the versatility of items in relation to your own personal style. Shop second hand or from sustainable brands when you need something new. 

I buy pieces that I know I’ll get a lot of use out of and have learned to take care of my clothes to give them as long of a life as possible. I think of clothes as an investment. If they cost $3 at the thrift store, or more from a sustainable brand, they should be treated with respect. Learning to sew and mend also helps! It’s a lot easier than you’d think.

With that, here’s how to make your own upcycled tote bag.

How to make and upcycled tote bag.

How To Make an Upcycled Tote Bag

MATERIALS

  • Fabric scraps
  • Sewing machine
  • Scissors
  • Iron
  • At least 26” of webbing for straps (or excess fabric)
Getting fabrics ready to sew.

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Cut the pieces of fabric into rectangles (mine were 6×8 inches) to get them into the perfect shape and ready for use. (I save all scraps for other uses.)

2. I use an overlocker to serge all the edges of the canvas so they don’t fray. Don’t forget to tuck the serger tails in. If you don’t have an overlocker you have a few options: (a) cut the edges with pinking shears. (b) Use the zig zag stitch on your sewing machine. (c) Add a lining to hide the fraying.

3. Separate the pieces into piles that go together and map out how you want to sew them together.

Kate lays out the color pattern of her bag.
Iron your fabric before sewing.

4. Sew them together! I sewed in two sections: one side of three horizontally placed pieces, and another side of two vertically placed pieces. Once those pieces were sewn I pressed their seams flat, sewed them together to form one side of the bag, and then repeated the steps for the other side.

5. Trim any excess and serge the top of the bag, and topstitch to create a nice finish. For those without an overlocker, create a double rolled hem by folding the top over twice and stitching it in place.

6. Attach the straps.

7. I made tags from scrap muslin, and last but not least, I sewed them on! Get creative and make your own tag.

Shop earth-friendly footwear at Teva.com!

Shop the newest earth-friendly Flatform and Midform Universal sandals at Teva.com!

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