How to Turn Your Tote Bag Into a Backpack

DEC 9, 2020 updated Jul 13, 2021
A variety of backpacks made with different colorful fabrics.

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This past summer we asked Spoonflower employees to test out our newest fabric, Belgian Linen™ and use the instructions for our popular Everyday Tote Bag tutorial to create a one-of-a-kind bag. Additions like hidden zippered pockets, studded handles and embroidery embellishments showed each maker’s individual style, and Belgian Linen quickly became a staff favorite for its luxurious texture and durable nature.

Ace L. from our Durham sewing team transformed her tote into a backpack, and if you are wondering how she hacked it, you’re in luck! She is sharing her entire process to create a unique and impressive carryall.


How to Make the Everyday Tote Bag Backpack

Materials

  • 1 yard of Belgian Linen*
  • 66” (168cm) long piece of 1” (2.5cm) wide strapping; we’re using leather straps, but you can work with your preferred strapping material for this project
  • 1″ (2.5cm) plastic buckle
  • Sewing machine
  • Rotary blade or fabric shears
  • Quilting ruler
  • Pins/clips
  • Iron

*For this project we don’t recommend pre-washing your fabric.

An overhead view of the materials for the backpack tutorial

Featured design: soft blue and cream map by aftermyart


1. Cut Out Your Pattern Pieces

Fold your fabric in half lengthwise (bottom to top) and cut out the following pieces on the fold:

  • Outer Fabric: (1) 19″ wide x 18″ long piece (48 x 46cm)
  • Interior Lining: (1) 19″ wide x 18″ piece (48 x 46cm)
  • Bag Pocket: (1) 10.5″ wide x 8″ long piece (27 x 20cm)
  • Backpack Straps: (2) 2” wide x 18” long (5 X 18cm)

Using one layer of the leftover material, cut out the following buckle strap pieces: 

  • Buckle Strap A: 1.5” (4cm) wide x 10” (4 X 25cm)
  • Buckle Strap B: 1.5” x 7” (4 X 18cm)
  • Hanger Strap*: 2” x 6” (5 X 15cm)

*The hanger strap refers to the loop at the top of the bag that is used to hang your backpack on a hook

Illustration showing the measurements for the pattern

The white illustrations are the wrong side of the fabric and the filled illustrations are the printed side of the fabric.

Note: If you are using a 1” (2.5cm) buckle, make all straps 2” (5cm) wide instead of 1.5” (4cm) wide.


2. Make Your Straps

Collect your fabric strips, the two 36” (91cm) ones for the backpack straps, the 6” (15cm) one for the hanger strap, and the 10” (25cm) and 7” (18cm) ones for your buckle.

Cut 4” (10cm) off the end of each 36” (91cm) long strap, so now you have two 32” (81cm) long straps.

Mark the center of the strap fabric, and then fold both sides toward the center line. Unfold the strap and like making bias tape, fold the outside edges to the center crease line to make the finished outside edges of the strap. Iron flat.

Ace folds the strap fabric towards the center and creases it with her fingers

Cool trick: Use a narrow hair straightening iron to easily create crisp straps or go with your trusty steam iron!

Topstitch your backpack straps. With wrong sides together, line up the end of the leather with the end of the fabric strap you just ironed. Topstitch as close to the edge as you can along the perimeter of the leather (a large rectangle). Remember you are only topstitching the perimeter of the leather, not going on to the excess fabric strip.

Ace sews the leather and fabric together to create a strap.

Make the hanger strap by using the same topstitching process as you
used for the shoulder straps. Topstitch the 6” Belgian linen strap onto
your 6” leather strap. The Belgian linen will not be hanging off this time.

Ironed straps for the backpack

3. Attach the Buckles

Loop each of the two buckle straps through a half of the buckle – it doesn’t matter which buckle strap is threaded through each buckle piece but the right sides of the fabric should face out.

Topstitch a rectangle on each of these straps, sewing the two halves together. Get as close to the buckle as you can.

The 2 buckle strap pieces are shown

3. Attach the Hanger Loop to the Bag Back

Pin the shorter buckle strap (buckle strap B) and the hanger strap to the inside back piece, right sides facing. Follow this symmetrical diagram and stay-stitch about ¼” (0.6cm) from the edge. Make sure that the buckle strap and both ends of the hanger strap hang off about an inch.

Illustration - Inside back piece is shown right side up, with design oriented top up. The buckle strap centered on top of it. 1
Strap and buckle are sewn to the bag

4. Assemble the Outside Pieces

Align your backpack straps with the bag back so the leather end is even with the bag end and the printed side of the bag pack is touching the leather side of the straps. Pin in place.

Illustration - Straps are fabric side up. Outside piece, right side up, design oriented upside-down. Straps are shown stay stitched 1/4
Pins attaching straps to back of bag

After the tops have been secured, find the centerline of the “outside piece.” Mark the centerline by sticking pins in the fabric at the top and bottom of the line (marking with heat-sensitive disappearing ink would also work). Place another pin 13.5″ (34cm) down this centerline from the top. From this point, measure 7.5” (19cm) both to the right and to the left at right angles. These two points will be the upper inside corners of the sections of the strap that will be sewn down. 


The bottoms of the back straps, which are now loose, should have 2″ (5cm) of fabric hanging off from the leather. If you measure 2″ up from the bottom of the leather piece, that will be the top of what gets sewn down (see the close-up part of the diagram below). The reason there will be some hanging off is just in case the placement of the leather isn’t long enough to be caught in the gusset.


Once you have aligned the bottoms of the straps as shown in the close-up diagram above, pin the fabric ends down so they are parallel with the long edges of the outer piece. Topstitch the bottom of the pack as shown by the red thread in the close up diagram below.

Illustration - Outside piece is right side up, design oriented upside down. Strap is attached to the bottom.

5. Attach the Other Half of the Buckle to the Front Bag

Place the front piece of your backpack on top of the back piece, wrong sides facing. Click the bottom piece of your buckle into the top piece and let it fall to its natural resting position. Pin the bottom buckle in place, making sure to tuck the unfinished edge under to hide the unfinished edge. Sew a square to secure the bottom buckle piece and then release the buckle. 

Illustration- 1. Line up - on top: The outside layer, facing up and with design oriented correctly (on the opposite end of the backpack straps). On the bottom - back interior piece facing up, design oriented correctly. 2. Click and pin - Click the bottom piece in. Let it fall to it’s natural place. Pin it there, tuck the unfinished part under, and sew a square. Release buckle after sewing.

6. Complete the Backpack

From this point on, one could just follow the Everyday Tote Bag tutorial starting at the “sew the bag interior together” step. Here are some notes for the remaining steps:

  • When you square the bottom of the outside of the bag, just double check to make sure you are catching the bottom of the leather strap that has been stitched down. The excess is there to be forgiving if you sew the strap a little too high or too low.
  • With the addition of straps and a thicker fabric like Belgian Linen, a 3” (8cm) opening is too small. Leave at least a 6” (15 cm) opening.
  • When you first put the outside piece within the inside piece, Just make sure to line up the back straps so they are about evenly spaced around the hanger strap.

Create a matching face mask with our DIY mask kit!


Optional Hacks

I used these in my backpack that I made for the original Belgian Linen DIY tote, but I did not include in the example above.

25 Ways to Customize The Everyday Tote Bag Featuring Belgian Linen™ | Spoonflower Blog

Optional Hack 1: Add a pencil pocket in the back of the interior.

After making all your cuts in step 1, you are left with an extra 10” x 10.5” (25 x 27cm) piece. I just took this piece, folded it in half hotdog-style, and used the exact same steps you use in the other pocket for this backpack tutorial to make a pocket on the back in the inside. It is the PERFECT size for pens and pencils! I sewed the pocket during step 3.

Optional Hack 2: Use sew-in magnets to keep the pockets closed.

Colorful Tote Bag Backpacks on a wooden table

Inspired to customize your Everyday Tote Bag? Check out the original tutorial and how other Spoonflower employees personalized their bags.

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  • Hi, Well, THIS is the project that I needed to snap me out of my sewing funk! Depression has crept into my life lately, sucking out my desire to do anything I love because, you know, 2020. Thank you for this free pattern; I very much hope to be sharing a picture of my back-tote in the near future!

  • Georgine Hartenfels

    I have been sitting here over an hour trying to figure out the instructions for these straps. You can’t say repeat step 4 when you do not have the steps numbered in the first place. When making the first strap what is the point of folding the ends to the center if you are then going to unfold and redo? The materials called for a 66” piece of strapping but there are no instructions for the sizes to cut. The strapping is going to be longer then the 32” strap but how much longer?

    • Hi Georgine,

      Thank you for your questions! We’ve updated the post for more clarity based on your feedback and hope it helps. I also checked in with Ace for some additional details below that might help further with the strap measurements. Best of luck with your project!

      -Amy

      “For the hanger strap and the two shoulder straps, you will be topstitching the Belgian linen you pressed earlier on top of your lengths of leather strapping.

      You start off with 66” length of leather, which you then cut down into three pieces: a 6” piece for the hanger strap and two 30” pieces for the two shoulder straps.

      To make the shoulder straps, you use the two longest lengths of the Belgian linen that you pressed earlier. Cut them each down to 32.” When you topstitch a 32” piece of Belgian linen on top of a 30” piece of leather, you will get a shoulder strap that is flush on the top end (shoulder end) and has 2” of Belgian linen hanging off the bottom end (end that attaches to the bottom of the bag).

      Knowing the strap’s top from bottom is only important if your design has the potential of being accidentally oriented upside-down. If your design is fine when oriented in any direction, it doesn’t matter which end hangs off the leather for the shoulder straps.

      For the hanger strap, both the leather and Belgian linen are the same length so nothing with be hanging off of either end. Orientation also doesn’t matter here.”

  • Well, THIS is the project that I needed to snap me out of my sewing funk! Depression has crept into my life lately, sucking out my desire to do anything I love because, you know, 2020. Thank you for this free pattern; I very much hope to be sharing a picture of my back-tote in the near future!

    • Hi Anne, You are very welcome for the free pattern! Best of luck with the project and we can’t wait to see how it turns out.

      Take care,
      Amy
      Spoonflower

  • Yes! What a great combination tote bag and bookbag. I could have really used this when I was looking for a diaper bag when my son was born. My husband prefers a tote, but I prefer the hands free option of a bookbag.