DIY | The Bookish Girl Tote Bag

I love tote bags. When I run a race or attend a conference, one of the highlights is a good, solid canvas tote bag. It’s one of my favorite pieces of swag, not only because they’re usually pretty, but because they serve a wonderful purpose (of helping me carry the vast amounts of junk I tote along with me – I do not pack light) and because they usually represent something I’ve been excited to be part of. When I went to City Lights Bookstore on my San Francisco trip, I passed up the t-shirt and went for the tote bag instead. It’s now my book bag because everyone needs a respectable bag for their books. (Also helpful if you can keep the cat hair, onion skins, and vegetable dirt out of it, which is the fate that all my other tote bags have come to.)

One of my favorite craft projects I’ve done in recent history is for a book bag. When the contributors of Book Riot did a Holiday Armadillo gift exchange this year, I was super excited to be able to send a handmade book tote to my fellow contributor, Nikki, and when she asked me for a tutorial, I told her I would definitely get right to it, and here we are two months later, and it’s finally happening.

These bags are easy, but they do require just a little bit of time. I bought the bags themselves in bulk from a seller on Etsy. Fabric paint came from Joann’s fabrics. And the stencil is from blogger Pieces by Polly, who made this stencil and put it onto onesies and t-shirts (read her post – her finished projects are adorable). These bags make a great gift for bookish children and adults alike, and as Pieces by Polly shows, you’re not limited to using this stencil on bags.


  • One canvas tote bag (washed, dried, and ironed)
  • Fabric paint
  • Freezer paper
  • Xacto knife
  • Cutting mat (I use the self-healing cutting mat that I use for sewing)
  • Sponge/paint brush
  • Iron
  • Paper plate (for paint)
  • Scrap fabric (you could use an old t-shirt or any old fabric scraps you have lying around)
  • Cardboard, poster board, or newspaper


Start by printing the stencil from Pieces by Polly on freezer paper. You will want it to print rightly on the smooth (non-sticky) side of the paper.

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Using your Xacto knife, cut out the shaded areas of the stencil first (spine of the book, the shadows between pages, the shading between the girl’s face and hair), and then cut the girl and her book away from the paper (you’ll have her face/shoulders, her hair, and her book, three pieces). After that, cut along the heart outline, which will give you a fourth piece of paper.

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Orient the pieces on the bag, using the original image as a guide. Iron them into place, and take your time here. You don’t want any loose edges for paint to seep under.

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Put a piece of cardboard, poster board, or newspaper inside the bag to prevent the paint from bleeding through. Using a sponge or paint brush, paint the canvas, making sure that it’s all even. Let the paint dry 4-6 hours, or even overnight.

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When the paint is completely dry, carefully peel away the freezer paper. You may need to bring out the Xacto knife again to help you pry up the edges.

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Lay a piece of scrap fabric over the painted image, and iron for a few minutes. This helps the paint set in.

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And voila! You’re done! You’ve got a perfect bag for going to the bookstore, the library, or when the rest of the country thaws out, a nice picnic where you can read outside in the sunshine.

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10 thoughts on “DIY | The Bookish Girl Tote Bag

  1. This is lovely. Great job! Probably less work/expense than uploading your images to a site like Cafe Press (which I’ve done a few times). I collect tote bags too. And have the same cat hair issue. One time I was getting one out at the grocery store and noticed one of her toys, a chewed-up something, in the bottom of the bag. Scared me at first. Ugh.

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