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  • Barbara Marrs

Save the Vaquita Reversible Tote Bag

Updated: Jul 3

This past summer (2019), I created my Save the Vaquita! fabric collection for an entry in Spoonflower’s Limited Palette Challenge. But my intention for this specific marine animal motif went well beyond a new designer fabric series.

Vaquita porpoises are the smallest cetaceans in the world, and they only live in the northern Gulf of California. Currently, these marine mammals are on the brink of extinction because they become entangled in gillnets used by fishermen to catch another endangered species, the totoaba—fish being caught illegally in Mexico for their bladders that are shipped to China for use as an expensive food delicacy and a supposed treatment for a variety of medical conditions.




When I designed my Save the Vaquita! Collection, it was estimated that only 30 vaquita porpoises remained in their only home, the Sea of Cortez. Current numbers have this littlest of whales down to only 15 or less.

At the recent 2019 CITES conference (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), Mexico, the United States, and China agreed to crack down on the illegal totoaba trade to protect the vaquita, but only time will tell if these commitments will be vigorously implemented.

Whatever happens, Save the Vaquita! remains a call to action for all of us to become aware and help promote and support policies that combat the extinction of species caused by human activities. The more plants and animals that are driven to extinction via human actions, the more their ecosystems are degraded and the ecosystem services they provide deteriorate. Bottom line—if we don’t take action to preserve our planet’s species and biodiversity, we will inevitably meet our own demise.

And, yes—this really is a sewing blog! So, to help publicize the Save the Vaquita! call to action, I decided to sew an item I could use on a daily basis to spread the word—a tote bag made with Spoonflower’s lightweight cotton twill, the perfect eco-fabric for this project because of its strength and flexibility.

There are numerous free tote bag patterns online, but for this project I wanted a simple and easy reversible tote that had wide straps—which are always more comfortable for me on my shoulders when I am carrying a heavy load. So I chose the reversible bag pattern from VeryPurplePerson.

I revised the pattern to create a bigger bag with longer straps, keeping the 5/8” seam allowance. You can print out my pattern pieces from the pdf file, “Reversible Tote Bag Pattern”, attached to this blog cover on my Sewing Blog page. Cut them out, tape them together, and you have the complete one-piece pattern. My version includes pattern pieces for a bag tie, which I like to use to gather the straps at the top. These pieces are also cut out and taped together.



This finished tote measures approximately 18“ (45.72cm) at its widest bottom section, and 13.75” (39.93cm) from the bottom to the bag top, a nice, large but comfortable size for “toting” multi-sized items. The finished straps are 3” (7.62cm) wide and 13.25” (33.66cm) from the bag top to the shoulder seams.




No specific fabric amount is given for this reversible bag, but I went with one yard each of my Save the Vaquita print in the original palette of greens, rose, and bronze, and the version with aqua and teal hues. This gave me plenty of fabric to match the repeating design as needed, and enough for two large pockets and one tie.

The tote bag cutting instructions remain the same: place the pattern (center bag line) on the fabric fold and cut TWO of each fabric. This gives you one set of two for each of the two different fabric designs. Because Save the Vaquita is a one-way directional print, carefully match up the fabric folds and pattern placement. After cutting, transfer the markings for the bottom darts and lower strap seams on all four pieces, and transfer the pocket placement markings on two bag sections—one on each different design.

For the Viva Vaquita appliqué text, cut an 8” X 8” (20.32cm X 20.32cm) square of any medium weight woven cotton fabric in any solid color that matches the fabric palette. Cut a piece of fusible interfacing the same size and iron the two together. Trace the VIVA aquita letters on tracing paper and transfer these to the wrong side of the fused fabric, tracing the larger “V” twice. Cut out the large letters separately, and the “aquita” as one piece. The dot over the “i” will also be a separate piece.


For the Save the Vaquita circle appliqué, cut a 6” X 6” (15.25cm X 15.25cm) fabric square with the Save the Vaquita logo in the center in the same matching fabric print as the bag. Cut a piece of fusible interfacing the same size and iron the two together. Cut a 5” (12.7cm) diameter paper circle. (I actually used a plastic container lid that was 4.75” in diameter to make the circle pattern.) Carefully center the circle pattern over the Save the Vaquita logo in the square, pin or mark, and cut out the round fabric piece.


For the tie, cut out the two pattern pieces and tape these together. Place the tie pattern top on the fabric fold of either fabric design. Cut out the one tie piece.


Sewing the pockets would normally be the first step, BUT, these large pockets fall beyond the bottom darts, so the first sewing directions for this bag are to pin and sew the bottom darts in all four pieces. Press the darts in toward the bag center.

Next, straight stitch just inside the 5/8” seam from the top of each of strap down to the lower marking. These will be the pressing guides for the straps, and are easiest to sew at this point.

Now for the pockets! Utilitarian—yes, but on this tote, these are the key components promoting awareness about the vaquita porpoise in addition to the actual fabric design. I wanted large, strong pockets on both sides of my reversible tote so that I would always have one on the inside as well as the outside. But you can opt for only one pocket, or have no pockets and sew the appliqué pieces directly onto the bag fabric.

Place the VIVA Vaquita text as pictured across the center of one pocket, about 2” from the bottom seam. (The finished top seam will have a 1” inside fold, so the text needs to be placed a little lower to come out centered.) I wanted this appliqué to be on the pocket that was placed on my original Save the Vaquita print. Use a small amount of fabric glue or a glue stick to attach the letters and hold them in place. In a contrasting thread color (that still matches the overall print), use an appliqué zigzag stitch to attach the text. (On my Pfaff machine, I used the Z-zigzag stitch in a 3.5 width/.8 length.)

Appliqué work is not my strongest suit, so I began with the easier single VIVA letters first, and then tackled the “aquita”, stitching the final “V” last. I love the Mistral font that I used for my fabric design, but it is a challenging one for appliqué. I did the finishing touches on this appliqué piece by hand. I also stitched the dot over the “i” by hand. Of course, you can use any font for the appliqué text, or, use the alphabet program available on your sewing machine. Whatever works!

Pocket number two is much easier. Place the Save the Vaquita circle appliqué in the center about 2” from the bottom seam of the second pocket and glue or pin to fasten. As before, use a contrasting thread color and sew with an appliqué zigzag stitch to attach the circle. (On my Pfaff machine, I used the Z-zigzag stitch in a 4.5 width/.8 length.)


Steam-iron the finished pockets. I used a tailor’s ham to steam and stretch the Viva Vaquita pocket text back into a smooth rectangle. Attach a pocket lining to the inside of each pocket, and baste in place just inside the 5/8” seam around all edges. Finish the top raw seams as you prefer. (I used bias tape.) Fold down the top of each pocket 1” to the right side. Press, pin, and stitch in place along side seam lines. Trim upper pocket corners, turn right side out, and press. Press pocket seams to inside using the basting stitches as guidelines.

Place each pocket on one contrasting fabric bag piece, following the pocket guidelines. Carefully pin in place, checking the back of the fabric to ensure there are no puckers or folds—both the pocket and bag pieces should lay smooth, front and back. Baste in place, about ¼” in from the pocket edge, then carefully edgestitch, removing the basting when done. (On my Pfaff machine, I used the triple straight stitch to reinforce the pocket attachment.)

YES—it’s a lot of “pocket work”, but well worth it for the end product!

Now, back to the tote sewing! Attach each bag set right sides together, and pin the bottoms and sides as shown in Step 2 of the original instructions. Stitch, clip curves, and trim seams to 3/8”.

Turn one bag out to its right side. Place this bag inside the other, so that both are right sides together. Pin the tops of the bags together at the sides (matching upper side seams), and at the centers, up to the side seam markings on the straps. (This is Step 3 of the original instructions, but with a stop at the side seam markings that leaves an easier opening for turning the tote right side out.) Stitch, clip curves, and trim seams to 3/8”.

Turn right sides out through one of the open straps, according to the original instructions. It takes time and patience—don’t rush this part and risk ripping a seam. Once I completed this step, I ironed the bag right away to remove the wrinkles.


On one side of the tote, attach one set of matching straps right sides together at the top seam. You are attaching the matching straps that are part of one bag piece, not one strap to its contrasting fabric strap. Pin, sew, and press the seam open. Repeat for the matching straps on the inside. Now you have both sides of the first set of straps. Turn the tote over, and repeat these steps for the other two strap sets.


Fold and press the side seam allowances on each strap along the sewed guidelines. Press and smooth out the top seams all around the bag.

Match up the folded strap seams on one side and then the other. Pin in place. Baste about ¼” in from the strap edges. Carefully edgestitch along all strap and bag top seams. Remove the basting and press all finished seams.


For the tie, fold the tie fabric piece on the fold line, placing right sides together. Pin sides and bottom seam, leaving a 4” (10.16cm) opening in the center of the bottom seam. Using a 3/8” seam, sew each side and bottom seam up to the opening on either side. Trim the two corners and turn inside out. Press all seam edges, and slip stitch the bottom opening.


Optional: attach Velcro (sticky or sew-in) to inner top of pockets/outer top of bag if you want these to have some type of closing mechanism.


You now have a reversible, washable tote that promotes a tremendous message!



Given the current state of the vaquita porpoise population, we do not know if this little whale will survive or become extinct. BUT, the fight to prevent its extinction, and to promote its legacy, the ongoing battle to preserve endangered species and biodiversity from extinction via human activities, will live on.


Hence, the theme change on one pocket from Save the Vaquita to Viva Vaquita—long live the vaquita—as a reminder that “…the Earth does not belong to [humankind], [we] belong to the Earth…All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons [and daughters] of the Earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Chief Seattle

For more information, visit vaquitacpr.org and seashepherd.org, and, do go see the award-winning documentary film Sea of Shadows! In the meantime . . .






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