Here in New York, the fancy Madison Avenue boutiques are chock full of quilted bags, all delightful to look at and expensive to buy. Yet an open-top tote bag is one of the simplest possible sewing projects. It just takes some sturdy fabric and webbing for the handles.
I happen to love the look of quilted fabric (particularly if it has a border) but you can use any sturdy duck, canvas or sailcloth.
Any number of braids and webbings are available by the yard, including those made for upholstery and drapery trim. I'm particularly fond of the folkloric peasant braids and the multicolor stripes reminiscent of Gucci.
You can make your quilted bag in suitcase proportions or in a more tamed-down size that easily slips over your arm. To begin, simply cut two large ovals of sturdy fabric -- ours measured 28 inches long and 20 inches wide at the centerpoint, including a 5/8-inch seam allowance. You can use either the same or contrasting fabric since one will be the lining.
Choose pre-quilted fabrics or flowered upholstery fabric, add some batting and hand or machine-quilt around the edges of the flowers, using the design of the fabric as a quilting pattern.
Once the tote top is quilted, lay it right side down over the lining fabric and machine stitch the layers together all around, leaving an opening along one side. Trim the seam, clip the curves and pull the fabric right side out through the opening. Slip stitch the opening closed.
Now, pin on the webbing, starting at the center fold-line and work it up off the fabric to form the handle and down the other side, in an oval race-track shape. Meet at the starting point with a butted edge.
Stitch firmly in place with a small machine stitch. A double row or zigzag wouldn't hurt. Then simply fold your tote in half and machine stitch or hand stitch along the side edges, leaving the tote open at the top. You can attach a loop and add a pretty button closure or sew in some strips of Velcro or add a heavy duty zipper to completely close off the top. Any way you choose to do it, your bag is all set to go shopping, to the beach or to carry your sewing, knitting, embroidery or whatever.
Q. I once thought that doing gold work on linen was the ultimate challenge. Now that I've conquered that I'd like to try gold on velvet. But how do I trace my design on the velvet if I can't see through the fabric?
A. You've chosen the most difficult but one of the most satisfying fabrics to work with. When you transfer to velvet, the pile often shifts and the design is placed inaccurately. Because the pile flattens out irregularly when you stitch, you're limited to using couching, padded satin, laid and other stitches that lie smoothly on the pile. There is, however, a foolproof way to transfer your design: Overlay the velvet with fine net, tulle, or organdy with the design already traced on it. Embroider through both layers, then cut away the net closely all around. Although this method comes from the 14th century, there's a great 20th-century substitute for net called Stitch Witchery or Wonderunder. These trade names for a fine web from the Pellon Corp. which tears away easily around the stitched design -- no cutting at all!
Q. I've always been a "tight" knitter. How do I know if my needlework tension is correct?
A. Always pull your yarn smoothly and consistently, not so loose that the stitches look lumpy and not so tight they pull the canvas.