How to make a Tote Bag from Scratch

Published/Updated on:
September 13, 2023
Ever wondered how tote bags are made? Taking you through the steps and processes required to create a handmade tote bag with Italian bag master, Matteo Bastiani.

Have you ever experienced the immense satisfaction of hand making your own tote bag? Well, I have!  I am Nicole from Marketing and I was lucky enough to be able to join the tote bag making class. 

History of Tote Bag

Before we delve into my experience in the Tote Bag class, let's learn a little bit about the history of the Tote Bag! Although it's difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the tote bag, the earliest documented mention of bag making comes from Italy in the twelfth century. The term "tote" itself means "to carry by hand" or, in other words, "to lug." 

Definition from Cambridge Dictionary

Initially designed to be lightweight, durable, and easy to carry, the tote bag gained popularity as a stylish item in the 1930s when it was made from fabrics like raffia or straw.

However, it was in the 1940s that the tote bag became mainstream. The US outdoor label L.L. Bean introduced an "ICE BAG" designed to carry large volumes of ice, but people quickly realized its everyday practicality and began using it regularly. This marked a turning point in the popularity and widespread use of the tote bag.

About Trainer Matteo Bastiani

Meet Matteo, the visionary designer and head of the bag department at Arsutoria. Hailing from Milan, Matteo is making his debut collaboration with, an exciting opportunity that has brought him all the way to Singapore. Moving his studio to Milan eight months ago, he transformed everyday materials into extraordinary designs. His creativity thrived during the pandemic, where everyone was stuck at home and he used only organic materials such as real shoe boxes and packaging to create authentic bags. Being interested in street culture, Matteo crafted bags from repurposed coffee bags, oreo packaging, delivery packaging, the bags went viral  leading to interviews and features on prestigious platforms like Business Insider, Vogue and MetalMagazine. You can view his Instagram, LinkedIn or view his bag tutorials to find out more. 

Making a tote bag from leather: how do you do it? 

Day 1

“Learning about how bags are manufactured, cutting out leather bag paper pattern templates, arranging it and cut it out on leather, trying out machines.” 

For Day 1, it was more of going through slides and learning the process of manufacturing a bag. 

Manufacturing a bag involves a series of steps, starting from the initial sketch to the final product on the shop shelves.The process typically begins with the selection of materials and color finishing. These materials are then sent to the factory, which can either be a part of the brand or an external manufacturer. The factory creates the first prototype of the bag based on the provided specifications.Once the prototype is ready, a pattern maker checks the proportions and makes necessary adjustments if needed, usually within a range of 1-3 centimeters. This feedback is then relayed to the factory, which produces another prototype incorporating the changes. After finalizing the design, the factory proceeds to create samples of the bag in various colors and sizes.

Here’s a sample tote bag from Matteo that we were supposed to replicate! 

Process of making a Tote Bag 

Making a tote bag involves a series of steps from pattern development to quality check. 

After learning how a bag is theoretically made, we had hands on and glued the paper template with cardboard and cut the pattern template.

After cutting the template, we used the template to cut out the pieces of leather and lining. 

One thing about cutting is that my hands were so tired after that! From cutting the cardboard to the leather which I was afraid that it would be tough to cut. But thankfully, I learnt the right way to hold a penknife and cut off the penknife blade so that I can cut properly. 

Surprisingly, cutting up the pieces of paper was therapeutic and fun rather than boring.We also had a go at trying the Splitting machine,Skiving machine and Industrial Cylinder Bed Sewing Machine! 

The Splitting machine splits the leather to the correct and uniform thickness as per the paper pattern and the Skiving machine to reduce the area pre-determined to reduce the overall thickness. Not pictured below in the middle gif, the splitting machine separates the material and there will be another waste layer of leather produced.  

Day 2 

“Using the splitting machine,skiving machine and creating the handles of the tote bag” 

After trying out the machines the day before, it was time to do it for ourselves. Because the thickness of the leather, microfiber and bonded leather is too thick, we had to use the splitting machine. A leather splitter is a tool used to reduce leather to a uniform thickness using a very sharp blade in the machine. The minimum width that this machine can split is 0.3mm but according to Matteo, there is actually no minimum thickness for a piece of leather to be sturdy; it actually depends on the leather quality. The leather was originally 1.3mm and after splitting it is 0.9mm! 

The Leather piece was supposed to be split from 1.3mm -> 0.9mm

The Microfibre piece was supposed to be split from 1.4mm -> 0.8mm 

After splitting the material into its various thickness, we had to glue these 4 pieces together. 

After gluing, we had to cut it out into 2 separate pieces of handle. This part was a little bit tough as now we are cutting 4 layers! My cut was not perfect, but trainer Matteo’s one was! 

After cutting the leather, it was time to smoothen everything out and make it look good! The technique we use is edge painting to style and protect the edge and improve the appearance of the leather.

Day 3

“Sewing the handle layers together, cutting out pockets, gluing pocket to the lining and stitching the pockets in” 

Day 3 was set out for sewing the inner lining and pockets together as well as sewing the handle piece together as it was only held on by glue on the previous day. We are free to choose what size of pockets we want, and where we want to place the pockets! I find that very freeing as I actually have the autonomy to choose where I want my pockets to be. But even me being fascinated with that, I still chose to put it both on the inside lining (to hide my bad sewing skills on the pockets so no one can see it). 

After that, we cut out the lining using the paper pattern, glued the leather piece together, glued the YKK zipper to the lining, and sewed the leather to the lining. 

These are 2 types of pockets we sewed! One has a zipper, while one consists of two open pockets. I chose to put both my pockets on the inner lining. Some of the students put their pockets facing the outside! 

We also skived the two base top. The main purpose of this is so that the bonded leather and handle part can actually be folded in and stitched in. Bonded leather is the cheapest form of leather, made up of shavings/dust which are leftover of the hide.

Day 4

“Gluing and stitching the lining base and faces together” 

For day 4, we had to finish up the faces and base of the tote bag. 

We poked holes in the template using an awl and drew lines with a silver pen to measure where the bonded leather was supposed to go and then glued it in place. 

After drawing the lines, we glued the base and 2 faces together for both the lining and leather. 

After that we stitched the inside lining with the T construction.

After gluing and stitching the bases with the faces, it was time to sew the edges of the tote bag together! The hard part of sewing is  the T construction, the part where the edges meet the base, as we were sewing downwards first, then to the T-shape. It was crucial to be very focused and careful. Finally the tote bag is starting to take shape! 

Day 5 - Final Product! 

“ Folding the top face down to secure the handles and stitching the lining and leather pieces together.”

We did the same stitching before with the lining to the leather material,and after that gluing the handles on. Stitching the leather was even more challenging as once the leather material is pierced, it will be shown on the outside of the bag. It was very rewarding looking at the shape of the tote bag! 

Finally the finishing touches! We had to glue the two pieces together; the lining and the leather. Hit it with a hammer and finally stitch it together! 

And after 5 days...the tote bag is finally finished! 

Of course we had a mandatory class shot with everyone showing off their brand new tote bags! 

Personal thoughts 

Crafting a tote bag under Matteo's guidance was a truly memorable experience! Matteo’s knowledge and expertise were evident as he patiently answered everyone’s questions, and walked around helping students who required help. He even helped me personally hold the penknife as I was struggling with cutting straight clean lines. Throughout the 5 day class. he took the time to repeat instructions and inspect everyone’s work. I left the experience not only with a beautifully crafted tote bag but also with a newfound passion for crafting and a deep appreciation for the artistry that goes into handmade items.

Want to make a bag for yourself? Take our Tote Bags, Hobo Bags or Duffle Bag classes or call 60118066 to find out more! 

Nicole Toh

Hi! I'm Nicole. I am a Junior Marketing Executive in Look forward to more blogs and content coming up from me! I love a good cup of tea, some light exercise and listening to music! I am always open to a thought provoking conversation, so hit me up if you've something you want to debate on! 

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