How to Make a Waxed Cotton Tote Bag

JUN 17, 2020

After sharing her reusable food wraps tutorial on the blog, Spoonflower designer and maker Robbi Lindeman (saltlabs in the Marketplace) realized she could use her fabric waxing knowledge on other handmade projects like tote bags used at the farmers market. Using a Lightweight Cotton Twill tote bag featuring her design Market Day, Robbi will show you how to wax a bag all while she shares her insider tips along the way. Ready to get started?

Robbi: I learned a lot about how to “wax” fabric while creating reusable food wraps last year. It inspired me to “recycle” some of that knowledge to write this waxing cotton DIY tutorial. If you’re familiar with the food wraps tutorial you’ll notice some of the concepts and steps are the same.

What is waxed cotton?

Simply put, waxed cotton is cotton permeated with wax. It’s generally made by melting wax wicking into cotton that’s been heated, coating the fibers. It’s best applied to densely woven cotton. Most modern wax formulas to treat cotton are varying parts paraffin wax to beeswax.

Why wax your fabric in the first place?

What is the point?”, you might be asking yourself.

First, a little context and some history. In the 15th century, when sailors noticed their wet sails caught and held the wind more efficiently, they started rubbing, originally fish oil, then eventually linseed oil (aka: flax seed oil), into their sails. Not only did this act to windproof them, the oiled sails also shed water, an important feature for life on the high seas. Intuitively, the seafarers began utilizing these scraps of oiled sails for their outer protective clothing.

By the mid-19th century, paraffin wax was discovered as a by-product of petroleum. For textile manufacturers, it became the better, cheaper substance for permeating cotton versus linseed oil which was less stable—hardening in the cold, melting in the heat and discoloring with age. Waxed cotton soon became the norm for outerwear fabric at the time.

Old Versus Now

Even in this era of modern, high-tech finishes and fabrics, waxed cotton holds its own for specific reasons. My main reason for waxing the cotton (that became my market bag) was for strength, durability and water-resistance. Groceries can be messy—containers can be heavy while fruits and/or vegetables are often wet. With sustainability in mind, we are all learning to carry our own cotton bags to the market so waxing them offers additional strength and protection. Waxed canvas is also an increasingly attractive material because it is considered eco-friendly and has a vintage charm beyond its functionality.

Featured design: Market Day by saltlabs

Testing, Testing, Testing

In my research, I have come across several different recipes and methods for waxing cotton and for this project I’ll introduce three Greenland Wax recipes.

After testing all the recipes, I’m recommending the 1:1 beeswax to paraffin formula because it has the highest percentage of beeswax. I prefer a natural ingredient over a petroleum-based one as well as a formula that’s a tad more environmentally-friendly.

Looking for a vegan alternative? While no Greenland wax recipe I found calls for carnauba wax, it has been suggested as a plant-based wax alternative to paraffin. I have not tested any recipe using carnauba.

Wax and Wane

The performance of each formula, though, might be best evaluated by: time of year, location and use of the item. One should tailor the mix accordingly (see wax melting point information below). Obviously overheated environments—like a hot car—are never good for either ingredient.

Three Greenland Wax Recipes

The below recipes suggest 12 oz will coat a yard of fabric.

  • 1:1 – 6 oz beeswax to 6 oz paraffinThis is the ratio I recommend.
  • 1:2 – 4 oz beeswax to 8 oz paraffin
  • 1:9 – 1 oz beeswax to 9 oz paraffin – This is the standard ratio used in most traditional waxing recipes.

Note: An advantage of modern waxed cotton over many synthetic materials is that it’s more difficult to ignite, less flammable, and doesn’t bead up or emit hazardous fumes. However, if sufficient heat is applied, it will burn but it is not considered a dangerously combustible material.

How to Make a Waxed Cotton Tote Bag

Wax Tote Bag Materials

  • 1 Cotton Market Bag
  • 6 oz beeswax (sold in raw or block form or pellets)
  • 6 oz paraffin (sold in raw or block form or pellets)
  • Old grater (raw beeswax is hard and can be difficult to grate, an alternative is beeswax pellets)
  • Old electric wok, pot, or stove-top, double boiler set-up for melting the ingredients
  • Wooden stir stick
  • 2″ – 4″ wide craft brush, medium-length bristle
  • Hair dryer or heat gun
  • Drying rack or pant hanger
  • Optional: Scale (best for accurate measurement}

Pro tip: Don’t wax your fabric before sewing as you don’t want wax on the sewing machine.

Tote Bag Tutorials

Featured design: Market Day by saltlabs

1. Prep Your Space

Prep your space by covering surfaces with kraft paper or a large, clean cloth like an old tablecloth.

2. Make the Wax Recipe

Measure out 6 ounces of beeswax and paraffin (grated pieces or pellets) and add to the wok or double boiler. Melt the ingredients together on a medium temperature. Stir using a wooden stick.

Caution must be taken in the melting process with these ingredients because they are flammable. Never leave the mixture unattended during the melting process. A low heat and careful attention are advisable. Beeswax has a melting point of approximately 145°F to 147°F (63°C to 64°C) and paraffin’s melting point is approximately 125°F – 133°F (52°C to 56°C).

3. Coat Your Bag with Wax

Starting at one corner of the bag, evenly brush the melted wax mixture with short strokes, covering small sections (6” square) at a time. Gradually cover the entire front and back sides of the bag. Apply well at the seams.

4. Ensure the Wax is Absorbed into the Fibers

Slowly run a hair dryer (or, with caution, a heat gun) over the entire bag. The wax mixture will slowly turn from a dull surface—to a shiny surface—and then back again to a dull surface once the wax has melted and been absorbed, coating the cotton fibers.

5. Let Your Bag Dry

Hang the bag and allow the wax to cure in a dry, warm area for 12–24 hours.

6. Clean Your Bag

Remove any excess waxy oils on the surface with a soft, clean cotton cloth, buffing lightly as you go.

Pro tip: Use alcohol to remove the waxy residue from your hands.

4 Rules for Caring for Waxed Cotton Tote Bag

  1. NEVER, ever wash your waxed cotton. Basically you will ruin it (and the washer) by putting it in a washing machine.
  2. Do NOT dry clean your waxed cotton. Chemicals will remove the wax.
  3. Do NOT store a waxed cotton product that is damp. Allow it to air dry before storing it.
  4. Do NOT store in a hot environment.

Waxed cotton will repel dirt, just as it repels water. If needed, soft-brush off any stubborn dirt or debris and spray or rinse the waxed surface with cold water. If you’re dealing with a tough dirt spot, add a small amount of mild soap (NOT alcohol-based detergent) to spot clean. Rinse and allow to air dry. Then re-wax the spot—or the entire bag if it needs a refresh (i.e., when it’s no longer water-resistant).

Wax and cotton are natural products that can degrade over time and potentially lose their effectiveness. To help preserve the fabric, it will need occasional re-waxing. Be assured though, with proper maintenance, it’ll give you many, many years of reliable use.

The best thing about it?
It only gets better with age.

What DIY projects are you ready to treat with wax? Let us know in the comments below and then find the perfect design for your project in the Marketplace.


About the Guest Author

Robbi Lindeman’s concern for crafting sustainable work has pushed her to explore and develop new product ideas for her map-inspired home goods line, Salt Labs. Her beeswax-infused textile products have, in turn, informed her DIYs for Spoonflowerinspired by the bee culture of the apple and cherry orchards around Arcadia, Michigan where Robbi and her husband rehab an old farmhouse. Look for her Market Day designs in her Spoonflower shop.

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    • Hi Emerald! So glad to hear you are planning on creating your own waxed cotton tote bag. You just need to wax the outside and we do not recommend waxing the inside.

      Best of luck with your project!
      Amy
      Spoonflower

  • Louise Strayhorn

    Hi. I’m curious about why you combine beeswax and paraffin. Why not 100% beeswax? What property does the paraffin add?
    thank you
    Louise Strayhorn

    • Hi Louise – I believe that adding paraffin prevents some of the problems encountered with 100% beeswax that many beeswax candlemakers often face. Beeswax contracts as it cools and the shrinkage can cause cracking. Beeswax candles are stickier than paraffin and do not slide out of the mold as easily. Beeswax also dries out and hardens over time.
      In this context – for waxing fabric – using 100% beeswax might make the fabric feel stiffer and stickier to the touch and crack more readily over time.
      Another factor for some might be the cost, paraffin is less expensive than beeswax.
      Hope this helps.
      Robbi of Salt Labs

  • Absolutely brilliant, and beautiful.
    Question, would this be sort of like old school oil cloth? I mean, could you do this, or would it be practical for placemats or a small dinette table? If you just wipe it clean?
    Or for shoes?
    Love the tote!!!!
    Thank you for the inspiration and instructions

    • Hi BeeBee – I did test a version of an old \”survivalist\” oil or tin cloth recipe that was a combination of beeswax, turpentine and linseed oil. I chose not to include it because it requires extreme caution in mixing, applying and curing the item – all best done outdoors due to the recipe\’s volatile, toxic ingredients and its extreme flammability. My interest in this exercise was to explore a greener, safer version and, for you, might be a better choice for fabric used around food and family.
      Thank you,
      Robbi of Salt Labs

  • Thrilled to find this. I’m an encaustic artist, so have the goods and now another way to use them. Think I’ll start with sandwich bags till I get the hang of it, but this is great!

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    Does the wax rub off on clothing after it\’s cured?