Try This: How to Make a Handbag from Recycled Jeans

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Photo Courtesy John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Transform a pair (or two) of jeans into a simple but refined carry-all with this easy sewing project for a recycled denim handbag.

Reinventing everyday materials into remarkable items of beauty and utility for the modern home and family will excite new and experienced sewers alike. In Reinvention: Sewing with Rescued Materials (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2012), award-winning blogger Maya Donenfeld offers a guide to working with her favorite recycled materials, such as linen, burlap and wool. Learn how to make a handbag from recycled jeans with this easy DIY denim handbag project from Chapter 8, “Denim.”  

Working with Recycled Denim

Comfortable, strong, and durable—denim has always been the unpretentious fabric of choice for work clothes and blue jeans. When I was growing up in San Francisco, Levi Strauss, the founding father of blue jeans, was a household name. I remember well my first pair of “Levis 501 blues.” They were a rite of passage for all eighth graders. We’d head down to the only place in the city that carried our size. It was called The Gap. It was the very first one and would become the next big name in the story of jeans. And that pair of 501’s…they were also one of my first sewing machine successes—I pegged the legs; a precursor to skinny jeans.

History of Denim 

Denim first gained popularity during the California Gold Rush when Levi Strauss used it to make “waist overalls” for miners. In the 1930s cowboys and western movies added to the appeal of Levi’s jeans. During World War II, American servicemen took their favorite jeans along and spread their popularity overseas. In the 1950s and ‘60s, TV, film, and the protest movement changed the image of jeans once again to represent youth, rebellion, and individuality. With the advent of “designer jeans” in the 1980s, denim became a high fashion fabric. Today denim has the ability to wear many hats.


Begin the search in your own closet. For small projects, children’s outgrown jeans might be just right. In fact, the oven mitt on page 116 was created with my son’s old jeans. For larger designs, such as the hammock or tote bag, seek out pants with the most fabric possible. Long, widelegged ones are very desirable. For reinventing, don’t think skinny jeans…the bigger the better. The racks of thrift stores and consignment shops are always overflowing with cast-off jeans.


• Turn any pair of jeans inside out and you’ll notice the diagonal weave of contrasting threads; the signature of denim. This reverse side has a softer and more subtle palette that I utilize in many of my repurposed designs. It elevates an otherwise ordinary material and lends a bit of sophistication.

• Working with jeans requires cleverness and the ability to make the most of what you have. Large pieces of usable fabric are possible with patch-working, and smaller projects are determined by the length and width of the legs.

• Jeans are designed to fit the form of your body, therefore the front and back of each leg are sized differently.

• Cut off the bottom hem of each leg. Open up the seam on the outer thigh with a seam ripper. The seam along the inner thigh tends to be topstitched and has to be cut away or incorporated into projects.

• Take measurements at the widest section of the leg to see its sizing potential.

• Although a rotary cutter and ruler cut straight lines, keep in mind that certain parts of the leg are shaped on the bias and this affects your denim strip, potentially adding some unwanted curves.

• Another option is to use the rip technique I enjoy so much. Cut a small snip into the bottom of the leg where the hem was removed. Tear at the snip, and the denim should easily make a clean, straight rip directly up the leg. Continue to make snips equally spaced from one another all along the bottom of the leg. Cut each strip off just below the pocket. This gives you a nice supply of denim strips.


• A universal sewing needle works with most pairs of jeans, but a specialized denim needle might be helpful with a very thick pair.

• Sew slowly over bulky seams in denim. I turn my wheel by hand if I think a particular seam will be a challenge.

Environmental Impact 

Jeans, just like t-shirts, are a wardrobe staple all over the world. If everyone knew the true price of a single pair of jeans, many would think twice before purchasing. The same cotton issues highlighted in the “Jersey” chapter apply to jeans, except you can add 1,500 gallons of water needed to produce only one pair. When we think of denim, we think blue, but jeans are actually white until dyed with heavy metals and toxins that end up flooding the water systems and contaminating the soil adjacent to the manufacturing plants that are predominantly located in third-world countries. It’s important to know the origins of our clothing so that our choices are compatible with our beliefs.

How to Make a Handbag from Recycled Jeans

Finished Dimensions: 21″ × 15″

This will be your go-to bag when heading out on your next adventure. Tough and rugged denim, utilized for its strength and easy care, is just what’s needed on a trek to the beach or a bike ride to the farmer’s market. Transform a pair (or two) of jeans into a simple but refined carry-all. The familiar and common become fresh and unique by using the “wrong side” of the denim as the exterior. The paler weave is highlighted and creates a wonderful foil for contrasting thread.


1–2 pairs of jeans with matching interior weaves
Contrasting thread (red or orange work nicely)
Pillow case or 1/2 yard of other lightweight cotton that coordinates with the contrasting thread
Zipper foot (optional)
Tailor’s chalk

Note: To create this tote, you need one to two pairs of jeans, depending on their size. The legs provide long continuous strips of material that are sewn together to create a large piece of fabric. Because jeans have been designed to conform to the shape of bodies, they are cut with curves in the legs. This is a straight and boxy tote, so it’s important to establish the grain line of the strips. The simplest method is ripwork: Tear the legs into equal vertical strips beginning at the hemline. Ripping is quick and satisfying and the result is the perfectly straight pieces necessary for the structure of this particular bag. Although the exact dimensions are provided, feel free to improvise a new size using the denim that you have on hand.

Preparing the Strips 

1. Cut the hem off of the pant legs. Make a vertical snip parallel to the outer leg seam. Rip all the way up to the pocket. Measure 4″ over and make another vertical snip. Rip and repeat.

2. Continue until there are enough strips to cut 12 4″ x 10″ lengths. You need 6 for each side of the bag.

3. Prepare the bag’s base by cutting a 12″ × 22″ section of a jean leg. Set this rectangle aside.

4. Rip two 2″ × 22″ pieces for the top bands of the bag.

5. Rip two 6″ × 30″ pieces to make the handles. Press each strip in half lengthwise with the blue jean side in. Open the strips and fold each end to the center crease mark. Fold in half again and press. Edge stitch down the length of both sides. Set the straps aside.

NOTE: In these instructions the inside of the denim is called the right side, and the outside of the jeans is refereed to as denim.

Assemble the Exterior of the Bag 

1. Take two 4″ × 10″ strips and place the denim sides together. Pin and sew a 1/4″ seam down the length of one side. Connect a total of six strips in this manner. Set this six-strip piece aside and repeat the same steps with the other six 4″ × 10″ strips for the other side of the bag (see Slideshow).

2. Press all selvedges of the seams to the right side. Flip the piece over to the right side and use your contrasting thread to topstitch 1/8″ directly to the left of the seam. This strengthens each seam, keeps the selvedge/seam allowance tidy, and adds sophistication to the outside of the bag. A zipper foot works wonderfully to guide the needle straight down the seam, but it isn’t necessary (see Slideshow).

3. Repeat this topstitching for every seam to create two patch-worked pieces that measure approximately 10″ x 22″. Together these pieces are used for the main body of the bag (see Slideshow).

4. Put it all together: Pin the 12″ × 22″ rectangle to one 22″ edge of each patch-worked piece with the denim sides facing. Sew with 1/4″ seam allowance (see Slideshow).

5. Press the seam allowances away from the patch-worked sides. Flip to the outside and topstitch 1/8″ from the seam onto the bottom of the bag (not on the patch-worked pieces), (see Slideshow).

6. Place one top band (the 2″ × 22″ strips) along each loose edge of the patch-worked pieces with the denim sides facing. Sew using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

7. Press the seam allowance toward the band. Flip over and topstitch 1/8″ from the seam directly onto the band. You have successfully created a large piece of fabric out of rescued jeans!

8. Fold the piece in half so that the edges with the top bands meet. The denim side should be on the outside and topstitched right sides are together. Pin the sides shut. Make sure to match the topstitched seams of the bottom and also match the bands on both sides. Sew the side edges shut with a 1/4″ seam allowance.

9. Box the corners of each side. To do this, take the top of each side seam and bring them together. You should have a diamond that intersects evenly in both directions (see Slideshow).

10. Using a ruler, draw a straight line across the seamed corners with tailor’s chalk or a pen to create a triangle. Your line should measure 4″ across. Pin on both sides of the line. Make sure that your lines are parallel with one another and that the opening forms another straight parallel line. Sew along the chalk lines, making sure to lock stitches. Trim off the excess fabric (snip the corner), (see Slideshow).

Create the Interior 

1. Cut your pillow case or cotton to 22″ × 43″.

2. Fold the rectangle in half so the 22″ edges are together and the right sides are facing. Pin the side seams and then sew them with 1/4″ seam allowance.

3. Box the corners in the same fashion as you did the exterior.

Insert the Interior Hang Pocket  

This is a clever and practical way to hint at the true identity of the original fabric (blue jeans!) and tie the exterior and interior together (see Slideshow).

1. Cut a piece of the same jeans into a 7 1/2″ × 19″ rectangle.

2. With the denim side up, fold the bottom (short side) up 1/2″ and press. Fold over 1/2″ once more and press. Topstitch 1/4″ from the edge closest to the denim (see Slideshow).

3. Flip the rectangle so that the denim side is face down and the hemmed is edge still at the bottom. Fold up the bottom side 6 1/2″ and pin in place. Set aside.

4. Cut two 2″ × 13″ strips of the interior lining fabric. Fold each in half lengthwise and press. Open and fold each end to the center crease mark. Press. Enclose the raw edges of the pocket sides with these strips and pin them in place. You should have a little extra fabric at the bottom to fold under. Stitch in place (see Slideshow).

5. Attach the pocket to the interior. Find the center of the top edge of one side of the interior. Finger press it to create a crease. Do the same thing with the center of the top edge of the pocket. Match these two creases and pin the pocket in place. (The top of the pocket is flush with the top of the interior.) Baste along the top edge.

Put It All Together 

1. Baste each handle to the top edge of the exterior portion of the bag. The handles’ ends should extend 2″ above the top edge of the bag. Position them equally distanced from the side seams of the bag and there should be 7 3/4″ between them. The pocket should be positioned directly between them (see Slideshow).

2. Turn the lining inside out so that the right side is on the inside. Insert the exterior bag and tuck in the handles. The right side of the interior should be touching the right side of the exterior. Sew along the top edge with a 1/4″ seam allowance, leaving 8″ open on the side opposite the pocket (see Slideshow).

3. Turn the bag right side out through the opening and tuck the interior into the bag. Press and pin the opening shut. Topstitch the entire perimeter and close the opening. Create a boxed X over the end of each strap in the band portion of the bag. This reinforces the straps for heavy hauling. This bag is now ready to fill!

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Reinvention: Sewing with Rescued Materials by Maya Donenfeld, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012.