It’s not often that I leave home without a tote of some sort. It seems I almost always need to carry extra items that I may need throughout the day that are either too large or heavy for my purse – things like a knitting or crocheting project, a magazine, a wrap, a hat, a snack, a planner, an umbrella, slippers, hand cream, etc.

However, there’s just one problem – not any tote will do. I’m a little picky. I guess you could say it’s a Brown bag thing! I like a large well-structured carryall that either complements what I’m wearing and/or makes a fashion statement.

I find shopping for structured totes in a solid color is far less challenging than looking for one in a printed fabric that reflects my sense of style and taste, since I’m not fond of plaids, paisleys, stripes, polka dots, or cutesy themes. I tend to lean more toward things that work best with my wardrobe – ethnic-inspired textiles, abstract designs, geometric shapes and leopard – prints that can be difficult to find in the world of manufactured fashion accessories. (And, I must add, there aren’t enough swing leopard print coats in the world either, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

Several years ago, I gave up shopping for totes designed with printed fabrics and started looking for colorful woven textiles I could use to make my own. I was drawn to the upholstery fabric section because such textiles offer the durability I needed to carry my weighty essentials. I must admit, coupons, sales and clearance prices can certainly ease the sticker shock when shopping for upholstery fabric. But for even better savings, let’s not forget those wonderful discount fabric stores.

And, although some of the heavier fabrics can be more expensive, no matter where you shop, the finished project is always a more structured bag that’ll stand upright on its own. Luckily, because of the generous width of upholstery fabric, a half a yard, or less, is usually more than enough, depending on the size bag you’re making, and direction you want to showcase the print.

Selecting the fabric is just one advantage for making your own one-of-a-kind tote. Another is creating it in the size and shape that best fits your needs. Personally, I like one that’s rather deep with a somewhat wide bottom, and tie closure weighted with oversized beads or brass coins.

I used a damask (a lighter weight upholstery fabric) for the linings and inside pockets. Damask is often used to make table linens, so as someone who likes to think outside the box, whenever I see markdowns on linens, I always stop to take a closer look at the items. You just never know what you’ll find.

Also, every inch of my bags – the back of the outer fabric, lining, pockets and straps/handles – has been reinforced with an iron-on interfacing for added structure and durability. For more visual interest, I used a heavy contrasting upholstery fabric to make most of the straps/handles, which are sometimes different lengths. I made some to be worn on the shoulder, and others to be carried as handbags.

For now, I’m over making totes, so if you happen to see me standing in line at a fabric store hugging an entire bolt of heavy leopard print fabric, just know there’ll soon be a swing coat hanging in my closet!

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

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