Commuter Tote Bag

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Commuter Tote Bag

I used to envy those people who show up at the beach with nothing more than a towel and a book, whereas our party of two adults and one very happy child couldn't seem to survive the experience without a mountain of gear. Now that I'm working full time and commuting via bus and train, I envy the numerous women I see venturing forth with nothing more than an attractive shoulder bag. But not enough to quit bringing my assorted bulky items with me.

Naturally when I first started making my daily 2-hour excursion (round trip) I found that I did not have a single bag well suited to my new needs. Having plenty (PLENTY) of time to consider the situation on a daily basis, I came up with some characteristics the Ideal Commuter Bag would have. First it would need to be roomy enough to accommodate whatever surprises the day might have in store, but not so bulky that it would still take up a lot of room even when half empty. It would need an across-the-shoulder strap to facilitate my love of speed-walking without constantly slipping off my shoulder as shoulder-bags inevitably do. And of course it would need easily accessible pockets for quickly retrieving and tucking away reading materials, transit cards, keys and hats/gloves/etc. I went shopping, and found a few close calls (messenger bags: too flat; backpacks: too difficult to access in tight spaces; standard totes: no shoulder strap), but in the end decided to just quit wandering forlornly among bag displays and get to work sewing already.

For a first attempt, the results were acceptable, if not great. Somehow, despite having made full sized paper pattern pieces and having based my dimensions off existing bags, I was surprised by how big it turned out. Really too big for the average day. However most of the practical features worked out quite well, and I feel like I've cut down a lot on the fumbling and juggling I used to have to do with the bags I tried in the past. So it will do until I have time to make version 2.

My favorite innovation is the key ring. This is just a simple ring of fabric sewn in a circle around the strap. My keys clip onto it using a carabiner clip. Unlike those long key straps you see on purses, this arrangement doesn't allow the keys too dangle too deeply inside, so it's easy to get them out. But because the ring is free to slide up and down the shoulder strap, I can unlock doors without removing the key or taking off the bag, then just let go and have it fall back to safety. Nice.

Commuter Tote Bag

On the front is a large pocket for temporarily stuffing winter-gear with a covering flap. The flap has an exterior zipper-pocket. I keep my transit card safely inside, and can activate the turnstiles without even removing it just by bumping the bag up against the scanning area. When I do need to remove it to pay bus fare, the front pocket makes it easily accessible.

The rear has a shallow zipper pocket that extends the length of the bag where I keep my phone and ID cards. A flat open pocket, divided into two sections, is just below. This I use for storing reading material.

Inside the main compartment, there is an umbrella sleeve along the interior of one side and a couple of less useful small open/flat pockets.

The bag tapers a bit towards the top to minimize the chances of things spilling out when it is set down. I thought about having a zipper closure up top, but in the end I thought it was more important to have easy access to the interior.

Of course being made all of cotton means that on rainy days I have to carry a few plastic bags in which to wrap books, phones and other things that shouldn't get wet. That doesn't bother me too much, but unfortunately I didn't think things through when I installed the rear zipper. I made it open left to right, same as the front zipper, not realizing that that would put the zipper head towards my back, and hence I have to do some contortions to reach that far back to pull it open. I hope to eventually add some chunky zipper pulls, and that should help with that problem at least a little. And it could also use a moveable shoulder padding addition to the strap.

Commuter Tote Bag

I made the bag in 6 pieces: a front, a back, two sides, a bottom and a strap. I completed the individual pieces separately (inside and out), and then joined them together. First the sides bottom and strap were joined into a big circle, and then the front and back where joined to them. Then I bound the raw edges, which were inside the bag, with strips of fabric.

The front, back and bottom are basically little mini-quilts. I didn't add batting to the sides so that they could collapse easily. The sides started out as rectangular pieces, but they are pleated at the top and joined to a separate little piece of fabric so that the overall shape becomes trapezoidal.

I seriously underestimated how much fabric I would need initially, so there is rather more patch-work than I had originally intended, and I had to go back for an extra yard of fabric. I ended up using 4 yards of quilters' cotton, plus a yard of thin iron-in batting and some regular interface scraps I had for the flap.

Here are some in-progress images for reference:

Begin the front flap:

Add batting and interior pocket (not shown, add back fabric)

Flap done.

Flap sewn into front of bag. (not shown: add batting and lining)

Front pocket (which is a long rectangle, accordion folded to create the shape)

View of the finished front panel.

Another view of the finished front panel.

Front of back panel; I did not have enough of the main fabric to make it all one color as intended, so I had to piece the bottom half where it would be hidden by the flat pocket.

Reverse of back panel, with internal pocket being installed behind zipper opening.

Flat pocket, ready to be installed on top of back panel.

Completed back panel with flat pocket in place.

Another view of the back panel. Later I ended up sewing a line down the middle to divide it into two pockets, as it was gaping a bit much in the finished product.

Side panels attached to strap.

Reverse of one of the side panels, showing the umbrella sleeve.

All the pieces, ready to be joined.

Close up of internal edge binding.

Finished bag.

- Victoria, 2013-01-23

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