The Sunday Go-to-Meetin’ Bag

I am blessed/cursed with several friends who have impeccable taste in clothes. They always sport nicely-done hair, beautifully coordinated outfits, cute shoes, stylish purses, and just the right accessories. Then I walk into church with my rip-stop vinyl messenger bag, the only childless woman  in the room who still looks like she’s toting a diaper bag.

Last week at the library I found a book on sewing slip covers. Right next to the slip cover books stood a book on making purses. I enjoy leafing through project books whether or not I make anything, so I picked it up. Then I saw a beautiful project on the internet that made me feel like sewing again (that’s you, Provincial Homemaker!). The next day I saw a pretty placemat at Target. On Saturday morning, I snagged a thrift store purse with just the right handles for $2. So on Saturday night, while Carl stayed late with a very ill patient, I waited up for him and sewed this. It isn’t from any one pattern in the book, but I picked up some basic ideas on purse construction from the text and added some of my own.

I grew up sewing a lot. Every good home schooled girl knows she’ll never ketch her a may-un if she cain’t sew her own denim jumpers. Heh. Sorry. Terrible insider home schooling joke. Anyhow, if you’re brand new to sewing, these guidelines may not be sufficient. Hopefully they’ll make sense to someone who’s comfortable around a sewing machine. It’s my first time writing a sewing tutorial, so feel free to say if something’s unclear. It’s a very basic three-step process:

1) Sew up the bag sides.

2) Add inverted pleats for a little extra style.

3) Sew on the handles.

You will need:

  • A placemat. You could also just use a placemat-sized piece of heavy material, hemmed, but I loved this fabric. The backing made for a convenient automatic lining and pre-sewn hems.
  • A pair of bamboo or wooden D or O-ring purse handles. They’re common on thrift store purses, or you can find new ones for $5 – $7 at a sewing/craft store.
  • 4 tapes to secure the handle rings to the bag, each about 2 inches long. You can use twill tape, folded over sturdy ribbon, or lengths of fabric stitched and turned inside out.
  • Thread, scissors, a sewing machine, seam ripper, pins, and a measuring tape.

Thanks to a gift card for the place mat, and the thrift store handles, my total cost came to $2.

First I ripped a few seams to take the handles off the old purse. As you can see, from the strap, it was filthy. Underneath, however, you can also see my “new” tablecloth from the 1950s, which makes me smile every time I walk past.

Fold the placemat in half along the long sides, right side in. To make the sides of the purse, stitch the two folded over place mat sides together on each side, stitching back and forth at the ends for strength. I just used the edge of the machine foot as a guide rather than measuring a hem width.

It will look like this. The fold will be the purse bottom, the two stitched lengths will be the sides, and the unjoined length will be the top. And I promise that righthand seam isn’t as wobbly as it looks – it’s just the light.


Turn the bag right side out.  Find the center of one of the top edges, and mark it with a pin. Fold the fabric over on either side into a pleat. My pleats are each 1 inch wide. You could make yours wider, narrower, or spaced farther apart. I played with different options until I found one I liked. Just make sure that your top edge ends up an inch or so longer than the width of your purse handles. These are the widest pleats I could get away with to have the handles still fit.

Pin the pleats in place.

Stitch back and forth across the very top of each pleat to secure it. My thread was virtually invisible, so I didn’t mind having a seam that showed through to the outside. If you’re worried about your thread showing, sew the pleats in place by hand.

Once stitched, it will look like this:

Flip the purse over and make an identical pleat on the other side.


Loop a tape length through each ring on one handle. Confession – the twill tapes holding the handle in place on the old thrift store purse were still in good shape, so I just cleaned them and re-used them. This may or may not have involved me impatiently drying them with a hair dryer so I could hurry up and finish the project. They showed no signs of unraveling, but if you’re worried about it you can zig-zag, fold over, or glue the tips of your straps however you like. I played around with a few handle positions. There’s no set rule. Personally, I didn’t like how the rings looked when fully visible, so I tucked them into the purse until they just peeked over the top, like this.

Make sure the handle is centered on the side of the purse, and stitch in place with a few back and forth runs (or a boxed X pattern) across the tapes. Again, I sewed right through the purse side with the machine and you can’t see it at all, but hand-stitching is a good idea if you’re worried about visibility.

Sew both ends of the handle in place this way, then flip the purse over and repeat the process for the handle on the other side. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to be able to sew the last tape in place with the rigid handles blocking the machine – I managed, but you may have to hand-sew the last tape depending on the size of your purse, your machine, and  the thickness of your handles.

Trim any hanging threads and there you have it: a cheery, vintage-style lined purse from a placemat in about an hour. One of the fashionable friends glimpsed it as I walked into church and exclaimed (in shock) “Look at you! Cute purse!” so there’s hope for me yet. Not that it takes a whole lot to improve on the diaper bag look. I’m afraid these low-light, low quality final pictures don’t do it justice, but it turned out quite nicely for so little effort.

There are countless ways to adapt and improve this basic idea. Round off the bottom corners, add a snap, change up the pleats, add a contrasting band around the top. In time, I’ll probably handstitch the edges of the rings to the top edge of the purse. The fabric is quite stiff for now, but I can picture it beginning to sag with age.


6 thoughts on “The Sunday Go-to-Meetin’ Bag

  1. Well won’t you look the part at church! Very snazzy indeed. Glad you were able to get back to your sewing. I love the result. How clever to think of using a placemat.

    I always admire those that are able to pull together their outfits – but the sad reality is that most days jeans ( I do make the effort for a skirt for church) and flat shoes and the same old handbag have to do. In fact, we went to Europe shortly after Ginger was born to see my in-laws and I took my ‘travel’ handbag and I was still using it until February this year when DH made some comment about what was I doing carrying that dodgy handbag about when I have much nicer ones.

    • Wish I could claim credit for the placemat idea, but I actually got it from the book. It’s certainly a nice tool for a speedy project.

      I’m also a jeans or shorts woman most days, with the exception of church. It was easier when I worked in an office because I had to be in dress slacks, starched shirts, or business skirts/suits each day. Remembering to put something nice together now that it’s not required takes some extra effort.

    • While it was fun to make, I can’t wait until I have a baby as an excuse to carry a practical bag. There’s no convincing anybody I need it to hold the pampers, cheerios cup, and spare onesie right now…

      The nice thing with this pattern is getting to enjoy the pretty fabric without having to spend $20 – $30 for a whole table’s worth of mats. And probably just as well, since a white placemat usually lasts about three minutes before the first food splatter around here…

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