The first time I visited New York City, I was warned not to use a backpack, especially on the metro as that would just invite thieves to help themselves. I didn’t want to carry a purse either, as that just screamed, “Take me! I have money inside!” So…what do you do? You can make your own travel bag!
Six years ago, I made my own cloth tote bag. I designed it with straps long enough to wear over my shoulder but short enough to make it impossible for anyone else to reach in. I added pockets to help me organize and zippers to contain. And I used that tote bag as my go-to travel bag for all of my travels. Here’s a picture of me holding it in Nimes, France.
Well, after six years of constant use, that bag is very worn. I decided I want to make a new one, and this time I would modify a few things. I wanted to add some padding in the shoulder straps, a key clip inside the bag, and a place I could put a water bottle without it turning upside-down in my bag. I liked my zippered pocket inside for money and passport, so I kept that feature. I also wanted to use stiffer interfacing so the bag could stand on its on and keep a nicer shape. And I reinforced the outer pocket.
A comparable bag would probably cost up to $50-$60 (or more!), so making it myself was an economical option. I spent $11.00 on fabric and interfacing. A couple more dollars for a zipper and a hook, plus some thread and a little cotton batting I already had. Total? Under $20. Here are some comparable travel bags I found online:
So now I’m going to show you how to make your own travel bag.
You will need:
1 yard each of two contrasting fabrics (Fabric A and Fabric B),
1.5 yards of extra-firm interfacing (like Pellon),
One 7″ zipper,
1.5 yards of matching 1″ wide webbing (the easiest way to make handles) or just use your fabric scraps like I did,
Thin cotton batting if you want to pad your fabric handles,
Plus matching thread, scissors, and a sewing machine.
If you want any extra attachments like the swivel hook I used, you can pick those up in the purse accessories aisle of your fabric store. They also carry magnetic snaps, D-rings, and “frog” fasteners if you’d like to customize your bag further.
2. Prep Work
Cut two pieces of the fabric for the outside of your bag (Fabric A), 19″ x 19″
Cut two pieces of contrasting fabric for the inside lining of your bag (Fabric B), 19″ x 19″
Cut two pieces of stiff interfacing, 19″ x 19″
For the zipper pocket, I cut one piece of Fabric A, 9″ wide x 12″ tall, plus a piece of interfacing the same size.
For the divided pocket, I cut one piece of Fabric A, 11″ wide x 10″ tall, plus a piece of interfacing the same size.
For the outside pouch pocket, I cut two pieces of Fabric B, 12″ wide x 13″ tall, plus one piece of interfacing the same size.
For the fabric straps, I cut two pieces of Fabric B, 5″ wide x 24″ tall, plus two pieces of interfacing 1.5″ wide x 24″ tall and two pieces of thin cotton batting, 1.5″ wide x 24″ tall.
(Click on any photo to enlarge for better view)
3. Create your pockets
I started by creating the pockets I wanted so they’d be ready to attach to the bag.
First, the zipper pocket:
With the 9″ x 12″ piece of Fabric A and coordinating piece of interfacing lined up, cut across 2.5″ from the top, and sew those pieces back together with a loose stitch (1/2″ seam allowance). Press open the seam and place your zipper underneath. Sew the zipper in place. Remove loose stitches from the first seam. Now the two pieces of fabric with interfacing will be attached by a zipper. Trim interfacing to be 1/4″ shorter than Fabric A and fold Fabric A around the interfacing to create a finished edge and stitch. If zipper isn’t quite as wide as the pocket, you may want to add some zig-zag stitching at both ends of the zipper to close the gap.
Now, the divided pocket:
Use Fabric A piece that is 11″ wide x 10″ tall, plus its coordinating piece of interfacing. Lay interfacing on wrong side of Fabric A and trim 1/4 around the edges. Fold edges of Fabric A around interfacing and stitch for a finished edge. Mark with chalk the sewing line where you want to divide your pocket. (I chose to divide my pocket about 4.5″ from the left side, making one pocket the right size to hold a bottle of water, and the right-hand pocket a little larger).
And now, the outer pocket (I use this for papers, maps, etc.)
Use two pieces of Fabric B that are 12″ wide x 13″ tall. Stitch together around all sides (1/4″ seam allowance), leaving an opening of about 9-10″ at the narrower end. Trim the corners, turn right side out and slide piece of coordinating interfacing (may need to trim this a bit) into the opening. Pin opening closed, and topstitch around the entire rectangle.
4. Construct the bag
For this part of the instructions, assume each piece of Fabric A that is 19″ x 19″, will have a coordinating piece of interfacing behind it. You can baste them together if you prefer, but I did not.
Center the outside pocket on right side of one 19″ x 19″ piece of Fabric A. Place it no more than 2.5″ from the top edge. Pin in place and topstitch on sides and bottom. Reinforce corners as shown in illustration.
Now, sew the two pieces of 19″ x 19″ Fabric A, with right sides together, down both sides and across the bottom (5/8″ seam allowance). Trim interfacing along seams. Mark with a pencil a 3″ square in both corners and cut out with scissors.
This might be the trickiest part of the entire bag, and yet it is not hard at all.
Press open the seams of the two Fabric A pieces you have just sewn together. Open up that 3″ square notch and pin right sides together–the bottom seam with the side seam. It will create a boxy corner at the bottom of the bag. Stitch with a 5/8″ seam allowance. Repeat on the other corner. Be sure to sew twice across this section to reinforce it.
Turn the bag right-side out — now you can really see the bag coming to life!
5. Construct the bag lining
Add the pockets first. Topstitch the zipper pocket to one piece of 19″ x 19″ Fabric B, centered and about 3.5″ from the top. Topstitch the divided pocket to the other piece of 19″ x 19″ Fabric B along the sides and bottom. Stitch along the chalk line you drew to divide the pocket into two sections. Reinforce (backstitch) at the top edges of the pocket, so it can’t tear loose from the lining of the bag.
Now you will assemble the lining. This part is easy. It’s almost exactly what we just did to create the outer bag, only there won’t be any interfacing to deal with. Just slap those two 19″ x 19″ pieces of Fabric B together, sew a 5/8″ seam allowance down the sides and bottom (BUT THIS TIME, leave an opening along the bottom of about 10″–you’ll need this later in order to turn the bag right side out), cut out 3″ squares in the corners again, and create the same boxy corners again by stitching the bottom seams to the side seams at the 3″ square notch. Do NOT turn the lining right-side out.
If you want to add a swivel hook to hold keys, like I did, take a piece of fabric 1.5″ wide. Fold it in half lengthwise and stitch close to the edge. Using a crochet hook, turn it inside out. Put the strip of fabric through the opening on the swivel hook and fold (cut to the length you want). Stitch to the bag lining along one of the seams at the height you desire and be sure to reinforce that stitching. I stitched it “upside down” so when the hook fell down over the stitching, it would hide it.
6. Attach the handles
If you’re going for super easy, just cut that 1 1/2-yard piece of 1″ webbing in half. Pin each handle in place about 4.5-5.5″ from each side of the outer bag piece (Fabric A). Line up the handles on both sides of the bag so they look uniform.
If you want to make your own fabric handles, take each 5″ x 24″ piece of fabric (I used Fabric B) and lay the strips of interfacing and batting down the middle. Finish one long side of each handle by turning under 1/4″ and stitching. Fold raw edge over facing/batting; then overlap finished edge over that and stitch down the middle of the handle from one end to the other. (Mine didn’t end up being right down the middle, so I ran another line of stitching, just to make it look better). Pin these handles to the right side of the outer bag (Fabric A) as in the photo. Baste into place. Put the outer bag inside the bag lining (Fabric B), being sure to keep handles tucked inside. Pin together. Stitch along the top side (5/8″ seam allowance) through all thickness of fabric, handles, interfacing, etc., all the way around. Trim interfacing close to stitching.
Now your bag is almost completely finished!
7. Finishing touches
Through that opening in the bag lining you left, reach through and pull out the outer bag. Hand-stitch the opening shut with a blind-stitch. You could use a slip-stitch as well. It doesn’t really matter because you won’t see it inside your bag. Push the bag lining back into the outer bag. Now the zipper pocket and divided pocket will be inside the bag. Topstitch along the top edge of the bag to make it look nicer and lay better.
Now that you know how to make your own travel bag, you can show it off on your next trip…or use it for everyday shopping! The nice thing about this bag is that it’s lightweight, roomy, and difficult for anyone else to get to when it’s on your shoulder and tucked under your arm. If someone were to slash the bottom of the bag, you wouldn’t lose the valuables you’d stowed in the zipper pocket!
Want to know what I keep in my bag when I’m traveling? My passport and money goes in the zipper pocket. The divided pocket holds a comb, pencils/pens, and a water bottle. In the bottom of the bag, I might have a pair of flats and a lightweight sweater, plus a folding umbrella for rain. I’d probably have a few granola bars or other snacks, and my travel journal. In the outside pocket, I would stash postcards and stamps, maps or printed confirmations, and anything I wanted to grab in a hurry like a metro pass.
What do you carry with you when you’re traveling? What can you not be without?
If I left you wishing you could make more travel-related craft projects, you might want to check out these articles: