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If you’re a lover of all things sewing, you’ve probably heard all the clever quotes: Measure Twice, Cut Once; Keep Calm and Quilt On, Sewing Mends the Soul, and our favorite for this project: It’s All About The Fabric. In the fashionable, upscale boutiques, the ones filled with the latest purses and bags, one trend we noticed is what we dubbed The Signature Fabric Tote. This is a bag whose fabric is so unique and striking, it is the focal point of the entire design. These special handbags carried price tags of $75, $100, and up. With the amazing fabric options available to you, both in-store and online, you can create your own signature style for a fraction of retail prices. Home décor fabrics are an especially good category. It’s where we went to originally find an eye-catching geometric in a high-end charcoal and citrine color combination with an amazing chenille texture.

We combined our key fabric with a solid faux suede for the inset panels. The solid doesn’t draw away the focus but does introduce another wonderful texture.

These inset panels also anchor the handles, which can become another point of interest in the design. The tone of bag can swing from casual to elegant depending on the type of handle you choose. We wanted a professional, downtown feel and so opted for a sleek bamboo-look set in a simple black plastic.

Although home décor and upholstery fabrics are traditionally more expensive than their cotton cousins, they are usually much wider – so you need less yardage. We used just ½ yard and had a nice chunk leftover, which we’re saving for a great ScrapBusters project… maybe a clutch or a mini pillow or an accent pocket on another tote, or….?

The tote finishes at approximately 10″ high x 14″ wide x 4″ deep with the center insert panel designed for an approximate 5″ – 5½” handle set.

Sewing Tools You Need

Fabric and Other Supplies

  • ½ yard of 44″+ heavy-weight fabric with a dramatic motif in an interesting texture for the main exterior panels; we originally used the chenille style 54″ Theseus in Citrine by Swavelle Mill Creek
    NOTE: The yardage recommendation above is based on our fabric selection and includes a bit extra for the fussy cutting and panel matching. There will be leftover fabric with a 54″+ fabric. Save it in your scrap stash for a cool clutch or pouch. 
  • ⅓ yard of 44″+ solid fabric in a coordinating color and interesting texture for the inset panels and handle loops; we originally used 54″ Passion Suede (a 100% polyester faux suede) in Charcoal Gray
    NOTE: Because we are recommending a solid without a specific directional pattern or grain, you can get away with ⅓ yard. If you select a fabric with a directional component, you should get ½ yard. 
  • ⅔ yard of 44″+ wide quilting-weight cotton for the lining; we originally used 45″ Etchings Slate from the Bella Solids collection by Moda
  • ½ yard of 45″+ wide medium weight fusible interfacing; we used Pellon Decor Bond
  • ½ yard of 20″ wide lightweight fusible interfacing; we used Pellon ShirTailor
  • ONE magnetic purse snap
  • ONE set of decorative purses handles
    NOTE: As mentioned above, our purse instructions include cut sizes and panel positioning to match the handles we used, which had an interior bar length of approximately 5¼”, an exterior arc of approximately 6¼” and a base of 7″ total. You could certainly adjust your center inset panel slightly larger or smaller to best fit your handle choice. 
  • All purpose thread to match fabric
  • See-through ruler
  • Fabric pen or pencil
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
  • Seam gauge
  • Seam ripper
  • Straight pins

Getting Started

  1. From the fabric for the exterior (Theseus Citrine in our sample), precisely fussy cut TWO 14½” wide x 13″ high rectangles
    NOTE: Remember, not all fabric motifs are perfectly square. As shown in the illustration below, we recommend cutting the two main exterior panels individually to insure the fabric’s motif will be an exact match to either side of each inset panel.
  2. From the fabric for the inset panels and handle loops (Charcoal Passion Suede in our sample), cut the following:
    TWO 6″ wide x 13″ high rectangles
    TWO 11″ x 4″ rectangles for the handle loops
  3. From the fabric for the lining (Bella Solids in Etchings Slate in our sample), cut the following:
    TWO 19″ wide x 12½” high rectangles for the main lining
    TWO 9″ wide x 6″ high rectangles for the lining pocket
  4. From the medium-weight fusible interfacing, cut the following
    TWO 14½” x 13″ rectangles
    TWO 6″ x 13″ rectangles
    TWO 11″ x 4″ rectangles
  5. From the lightweight fusible, cut TWO 19″ x 12½” rectangles

At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board


  1. Match up all the interfacing cuts with their corresponding fabric cuts. All the exterior elements get the medium-weight fusible; the lining gets the lightweight. Following manufacturer’s instructions, fuse the interfacing to the wrong side of each fabric piece.

Create the exterior body

  1. Find the two fused exterior panels and the two fused inset panels.
  2. Place one inset panel right sides together, along one 13″ side, with one exterior panel. Pin in place.
  3. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch together.
  4. Press open the seam allowance, then grade the allowance to reduce bulk. To do this, trim back the exterior panel portion of the seam allowance to ¼”.
    NOTE: For more about seam allowance grading, see our full tutorial
  5. Press the seam allowance together and towards the exterior panel.
  6. Flip over and topstitch along the seam within the exterior panel. Your topstitching should  be super straight and just ⅛” – ¼” from the seam. As with most topstitching, slightly lengthen your stitch for the best look.
  7. Place the remaining raw edge of the inset panel right sides together with the second inset panel. Double check that your motif is aligned as fussy cut. If you made any adjustments for what would be the front panel and what would be the back panel, make sure you are aligning the correct 13″ edge to the remaining raw edge of the inset panel.
  8. As above, pin in place then stitch, grade the seam, and topstitch.
  9. Repeat to seam the remaining inset panel in place between the remaining raw edges of the exterior panels, creating a loop.
  10. Along the top, press back the raw edge ½” and machine baste in place.
  11. Turn the exterior loop wrong side out and flatten, carefully aligning all the inset panel seams. Pin across the bottom.
  12. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch across the bottom.
  13. Create 4″ box corners.Traditionally this would mean your “box” would be half that size or 2″. However, because we are working with just a bottom seam allowance, we used a 1¾” box.

    NOTE: If you are new to this technique, check out our tutorial: How To Box Corners.
  14. Double stitch both corner seams for extra strength.
  15. Turn the exterior bag right side out, push out the corners and press well.


  1. Find the 11″ x 4″ handle loop panels and the handles themselves.
  2. For each panel in half widthwise so it is now 5½” x 4″. Pin along the 4″ sides.
  3. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch the ends together.
  4. Press open the seam allowance and turn each little loop right side out.
  5. Roll the seam to the center back, creating a clean front panel, and press flat.
  6. Place the pressed handle loop wrong side up (seam side up). Center the handle across the middle of the loop.
  7. Fold the loop in half, aligning the raw edges and encasing the handle’s bar within the loop. Pin in place.
  8. Run one line of machine basting close to the raw edges to secure the alignment.
  9. With these edges secure, run a second line of machine basting across the center, as close to the handle bar as possible. A Zipper foot will help you get in nice and close.
  10. Repeat to create the second handle.
  11. Find the exterior bag. Align one handle with each inset panel, centering the handle behind the top folded edge of the bag, which you previously machine-basted in place. The handle itself should be very close to the top of the bag, about ⅛” from the top folded edge. Pin in place and then machine or hand baste in place.
  12. There are a lot of basting stitches, but not to worry. You’ll remove them all and the faux suede it quite forgiving –  so those little holes will disappear with a light press.
  13. Set aside the exterior bag.


  1. Find the two pocket panels.
  2. Place the pocket panels right sides together, aligning all the raw edges. Pin in place along all four sides, leaving an approximate 3″ – 4″ opening along the bottom for turning.
  3. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch around all sides, pivoting at the corners. Lock your seam on either side of the opening. Clip the corners.
  4. Turn right side out through the opening. Push out the corners so they are nice and sharp. A chopstick, long knitting needle or point turner works well for this.
  5. Fold in the raw edges of the opening so they are flush with the sewn seam. Press well.
  6. Find the two lining panels.
  7. Place one panel right side up and flat on your work surface.
  8. Place the lining pocket on the right side of the lining panel. The pocket should be centered side to side and 2½” down from the top raw edge. Pin in place along both sides and across the bottom.
  9. Using the see-through ruler and a marking pen or pencil, measure to find the exact center of the pocket and mark a vertical line to divide the pocket into two equal halves. Place a few pins along this drawn line as well.
  10. If necessary, re-thread the machine with thread to match the lining fabric in the top and bobbin.
  11. Edgestitch the pocket in place along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners and with a generous backstitch at the pocket top. This closes the opening in the pocket used for turning right side out.
  12. Stitch along the drawn line to divide the pocket into two sections.

    NOTE: For the cleanest look on all pocket stitching, use a lock stitch at the beginning and end or leave your thread tails long, pull through to the back, and knot to secure.
  13. Place the two lining panels right sides together, sandwiching the pocket between the layers. Pin along both sides and across the bottom.
  14. Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
  15. As you did for the exterior bag, create 4″ box corners, which means your “box” will be half that size or 2″.

    NOTE: As mentioned above, if you are new to this technique, check out our tutorial: How To Box Corners.
  16. Turn the lining right side out, push out the corners and press.
  17. Fold down the top raw edge of the lining ½” all around. Press in place.

Insert the magnetic snap

  1. First measure and mark the position for the magnetic snap on the pocket side of the lining. The position should be centered side to side, which will place it directly above the center dividing seam of the pocket.
  2. Unfold the top edge of the lining and position the depth of the snap 1½” down from the top raw edge.
  3. Make small slits and insert the one half of the magnetic snap. We added a 2″ x 2″ reinforcing square of the medium weight interfacing.
  4. Repeat to insert the remaining half of the snap directly opposite the first half.
    NOTE: If you are new to inserting magnetic snaps, check out our full step-by-step tutorial: How to Insert a Magnetic Snap Closure.


  1. Find the lining bag. Turn it wrong side out.
  2. Find the exterior bag. It should be right side out.
  3. Slip the lining inside the exterior so the two are now wrong sides together. Align the side seams and bottom boxed corners.
  4. Along the top, the folded edge of the lining should be flush with the folded edge of the exterior. If it does not align, adjust the lining fold all around as needed for a perfect fit.
  5. Re-thread the machine if necessary with thread to best blend with both the exterior and inset fabrics. We used charcoal gray.
  6. Topstitch all the way around the top of the tote. To keep our stitching straight, we used our Zipper foot to get in as close as possible to the handles. Go slowly, even hand-walking (using your hand to move the needle rather than the foot controller) the needle along the handle. Because of the handle depth, the screw that holds the needle in place may bump into the handle, which will prevent the needle from fully descending. This is why it is important to check your available seam distance (from both the bottom of the handles and the top of the magnetic snap halves), and to go slowly and carefully.
  7. Remove all the basting stitches and press.


Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Debbie Guild

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Betty Brockhoff
Betty Brockhoff
1 year ago

I love this bag design concept but prefer to have a zipper closure. I’m wondering if it would be better to use a zipped insert rather than trying to modify this from a magnetic closure.

Liz Johnson
Liz Johnson
1 year ago

Thanks, Betty! Yeah … not all bags can be all things :-). With the way the handles are used on this project, it would take quite a bit of re-designing to make a zippered top work and look right. So, yes, you could certainly consider a zippered insert. Hope you give it a go!

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