Tote Bag Tutorial (or, What To Do With Hundreds of Upholstery Samples)

A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from the woman who owns the drafting shop where I get my pattern sheets printed. We’ve gotten to know each other over the years. She said that her parents were closing their furniture store, and would I like to have the upholstery samples? Well, sure, why not?! Not exactly your typical heirloom or garment or quilting fabric, but it’s fabric, right? So my husband took the pickup and picked up four big packing boxes full of upholstery samples! And by big, I mean about 40 pounds each!


Textures, colors, patterns, oh what fun! But what in the world could I do with all those samples? I thought on it for a while, then sorted out about half of the fabrics that were too heavy (and too many browns!) for what I might have in mind. That left two big almost-full boxes of lovely fabric.

I know that many of my sewing friends do a lot of charity sewing. There are my friends from the Florida Sewing Sew-ciety; the SAGA Wee Care program; Threads of Love; Quilts of Valor; Project Linus, and many other groups, not to mention all the individuals who sew, just to give to those less fortunate. They are a very generous group! So I thought that if I could write up instructions for a simple tote bag, someone or some group might want to use the upholstery fabric for totes for women’s shelters, homeless shelters, etc.

I stitched up some bags, working on the instructions in my mind as I made them, then posted to my friends on facebook that the samples were free to a good home for anyone who could pick them up or would pay shipping. I’d even throw in instructions for the totes. Within minutes the fabric was spoken for!

These are not couture totes, but they are very nice. The fabrics are sturdy, and the construction is solid. I designed them so that they would be easy to sew, but also so that they would look good enough that anyone would be proud to carry one.


I thought that others might also like the instructions. So here it is…

The Upholstery Sample Tote Bag Tutorial

Each bag requires: Two approx. 18″ squares of upholstery fabric, 3/4 yd. quilting cotton, polyester sewing thread, size 90 or 100 (14 or 16) jeans machine needle. Optional – glue stick, 2″ wide blue painter’s tape

Seam allowances are 3/8″ to 1/2.” Accuracy is not critical!

Do not press the upholstery fabric with an iron. Some of it is very heat sensitive (ask me how I know!)

If using regular fabric instead of upholstery fabric for the outer layer, it should be interfaced with a medium-weight woven interfacing.

Choose two upholstery fabrics that coordinate. Trim them to the same size, if necessary.tote-1

You can just make one side of the tote from one fabric, and the other side with the other fabric. But you can also make it more interesting by piecing the fabrics so that it looks like you’re supposed to be using two fabrics! Place both fabrics right sides up, and cut through both layers. This cut can be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal (see finished totes photos above.)


Pair the bottom layer from one side of the cut and with the top layer from the other side of the cut, and vice versa.


Place the two pieces for one side of the tote right sides together and stitch; repeat for the other side of the tote.


Now, remember, you can’t press some of these fabrics. So just fold the seam to one side, and topstitch from the right side on both pieces.tote-5

Now it’s time to make the straps. I made these to go all the way to the bottom of the tote, for more support. Straps just stitched to the upper edge are more likely to pull out.

Get out your quilting cotton. Cut enough 4″ wide strips to equal two lengths, each about 1-1/2 yards long. Seam these together if necessary to get the length needed. Several inches shorter or longer is fine, too.

Press the strips in half lengthwise, right sides out, then open the strip back up. Press the long raw edges in to almost touch the fold. Then fold the strip in half again along the original crease. You will have a 1″ wide strip that is 4 layers of fabric thick. Use a little glue stick to hold the final folds in place; it makes stitching much easier. Press to dry the glue.tote-6

Stitch close to both edges of both strips.tote-7

Place one end of one strip 4″ – 5″ from the side edge of one tote side, with the short end even with the lower edge of the tote side. Use a ruler as shown below to make this easy. Use some glue stick on the back side of the strip, but don’t put any glue at the top edge. Place a strip of 2″ wide blue painter’s tape across the top, even with the top of the tote fabric edge, as shown. This not only holds the upper edge of the strip in place, it creates a stitching line for the next step.tote-8

Bring the other side of the same strip around, and glue and tape to the other side of the same tote side. Make sure the strap isn’t twisted.tote-9

Starting at the lower edge, stitch with the needle down, along the previous stitching line from the bottom until you just touch the blue tape.tote-10

Pivot and stitch right next to the tape until you get to the other side of the strip.tote-11

When you reach the stitching line on the other side of the strip, stop and pivot again. tote-12

Stitch down about 1/2″ ( I counted five stitches.) Stop and pivot again, and stitch across the strip.


Stitch to the line going up to the blue tape, and stitch up  and across again, reinforcing that stitching. Then pivot and stitch down the other side of the strip to the bottom of the tote. Repeat for the other strap placements.

Right sides together, stitch the front and back tote pieces together at the lower edge. Fold the seam to one side and topstitch.tote-15

This is now your pattern for the lining! Cut a piece of quilting cotton to the same size.tote-17

Fold the tote right sides together and stitch the side seams. tote-16

At one lower corner, bring the side seam to meet the bottom seam. The corner will be at the tip of the point. Stitch across the point about 1-1/2″ from the tip. Backstitch well at each end.


Similarly, stitch the side seams of the lining except leave a long opening on one side seam. Press back the seam allowances of the opening. tote-19

“Box” the lower corners of the lining the same way you did for the outer layer.tote-20

Don’t cut off these corners on either the lining or the outer fabric.

Turn the lining right side out, and slip it inside the outer layer, which is wrong side out. Match up the side seams and pin (these are the only two pins you need for this project!) Now, working from the inside of the circle, with the outer fabric against the bed of the machine and the lining on top, stitch all the way around the upper edge, making sure to not catch the straps in this stitching.tote-21

Reach your hand through the opening in the lining side seam, and pull the entire bag right side out through the opening. Reach through the opening and push out the boxed corners of the outer fabric.

Line up the edges of the lining opening, and stitch close to the folded edges.tote-22

Push the lining down inside the bag. Now grab the bottom of the bag (both outer fabric and lining) and turn the entire bag inside out. Working again “inside the circle” with the lining against the bed of the machine and the outer fabric on top, topstitch the upper edge. Keep the straps out of the way. You’ll have to work the fabric with your fingers to get the seamline to lie along the edge, but just work a few inches at a time.tote-23

Finally, turn the bag right side out. Finished!tote-a






6 thoughts on “Tote Bag Tutorial (or, What To Do With Hundreds of Upholstery Samples)

  1. I have been planning to do the same thing with sample books I was given. Your notes will be a big help. My samples have paper glued to the upper section. Were you able to remove that or did you just discard those pieces?


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