Towel to Tote: Precious to Functional

For newer weavers, using a handwoven dishtowel can be scary. Here is one solution for turning precious into functional without the fear factor.

Adam Lazar Aug 2, 2021 - 5 min read

Towel to Tote: Precious to Functional Primary Image

Turning a dishtowel into a tote is one way to make it functional while keeping it safe from messy spills in the kitchen. Photo by Adam Lazar

I carry my belongings around in a kitchen towel. No wait, let me explain! About a year ago, I came across “Stripes and Blocks Kitchen Towels” in Handwoven’s Top Ten Rigid-Heddle Table and Kitchen Linens. The clean, crisp stripes and squares in a grid pattern really appealed to me. I enlisted the help of my instructor, Natalie, at the Chicago School of Weaving, in adjusting the pattern that is written for a 20" rigid-heddle loom to a narrower design that could be woven on my 16” loom. We also switched the weft from 8/2 cotton to 20/2 cotton to make the stripes and squares more pronounced.


Stripes and Blocks Kitchen Towels by Susan E. Horton. Photo by Joe Coca

With the project warped, I fell into a comfortable weaving stride with the back and forth of the weft, in-laying the squares, and shifting the color pattern with each row of squares. The project was simple enough to create a nice rhythm but also required regular concentration to keep it on track.

When I finally inlaid the last square and freed the project from the loom, I was delighted with the results. I hemmed the towel and wet-finished it with a gentle wash and dry. I hung it on the towel bar in my kitchen and stood back to admire my accomplishment. But after about three minutes and 17 seconds, my joy turned to worry: I had spent so many hours weaving this beautiful towel—how could I let it get stained and worn with the inevitable cleanup from marinara sauce and blueberry smoothie? I can hear all you experienced weavers chuckling at me, but as a beginner weaver, I couldn’t see my simple kitchen towel as anything but precious. I took it off the towel bar, spiriting it away to the safety of my studio, and there it stayed for the better part of the year. Sometimes it would hang on my loom working as a cover, sometimes it was pinned to my bulletin board like a wall hanging.

Inside, I knew I wanted the towel to be something other than decor, but what? I wanted it to have a functional purpose, and in the end, I decided to turn it into a bag. I reasoned that if I kept the handwoven textile away from the areas of the bag that get the most wear and tear by adding commercially woven fabric, it would be safe for daily use. It would become something less precious, more functional, and remain beautiful. I paired the towel with denim, drawing from the blue cotton of the warp. I turned the towel on its side, making the width of the towel the height of the bag. I created the bottom of the bag with a panel of denim 3" wide and the length of the towel. This I sewed to one long side (now bottom) of the towel. I used the same denim for the pocket and lining of the bag. The pocket is a simple panel the width of the bag sewn to one side of the lining and top stitched to divide it into three pockets. For the lining, I chose to use the lighter reverse side of the denim, expanding the palette slightly while still keeping the colors cohesive, with the added benefit of making the interior of the bag easier to see into. I boxed the corners of the bottom and added store-bought cotton webbing for the handles.

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Using both sides of the denim fabric kept the lining, the bottom panel, and inner pocket in the same color family but added interest to the tote, as well as visibility on the inside. Photo by Adam Lazar

Anyone who sews regularly will know this is a rather simple project to construct, but it really allows the towel-now-textile to shine. I had no plans to make this project into a bag when I first started weaving it, but I’m glad this is where I ended up. I have such an appreciation for the ingenuity and creativity that’s required in designing a weaving pattern that I couldn’t bring myself to dry my hands on the finished piece. Maybe after I have a few more weaving projects under my belt, I’ll be more relaxed about what they’re used for. But for now, I’m choosing to elevate them to bags, scarves, and pillows.

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Out and about carrying a ... kitchen towel. Photo by Grace Puricelli