Recycling and Creating Beauty at Simple Sacks NH

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

Photos courtesy Simple Sacks NH

If you live a house or apartment, you have furniture. If you have furniture, you likely have an easy chair or a sofa. And if you have a chair or sofa, it is covered with fabric. It stands to reason the fabric has to be a bit thicker and more durable than mere cotton or another material of which a shirt or dress would be made. Usually, that material is upholstery fabric.

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When it comes to upholstery fabric, the sky is the limit. Colors and patterns and fabric textures vary greatly, because the tastes of the buying public vary as well. Your home might have a muted color scheme and you want a quiet, patterned fabric for your sofa. Or you might prefer a brighter color palette or a certain pattern, such as stripes or a floral design.

What does all this mean? The furniture we purchase in stores often have upholstery fabric samples galore. You have probably seen such samples, which are swatches of various fabrics in an array of colors and patterns, held together on a single large circular clip or hanging from a display wall in a store. 

Styles and tastes change with the seasons and each successive year, and it that, upholstery samples come and go. But most people have no idea what becomes of all those samples once they are no longer needed. Sadly, the fabric often ends up in landfills, because it can’t be used for much, once it has outlived its display floor usefulness. 

That is where Eileen Russ and her business, Simple Sacks NH, come in. Eileen has found a clever, beautiful and functional way to repurpose all those fabric samples, creating gorgeous handmade bags of all kinds and sizes. 

With a studio in North Conway, Eileen has a lot of upholstery fabric that finds new life in bags that have become extremely popular with customers far and wide. 

“Furniture stores keep upholstery fabric samples for about six months,” she explains. “Then the fabrics get thrown out.”

Eileen is originally from Watertown, Massachusetts, and she has a Master’s degree in creative arts and learning. She worked with children in after-school programs where arts and crafts were part of the agenda. Her sister had moved to Bartlett, NH and 20 years ago Eileen felt it was time to leave the city as well and relocate to a quieter, more rural area. 

Working in an after-school program, Eileen was looking for art supplies for student projects. She went to furniture stores asking for donations for children’s projects. A furniture store responded with a call saying they had a lot of fabric and would she be interested in it?

“A friend, Cheryl Hurst, and I got our hands on a windfall of upholstery fabric and leather and started experimenting making bags,” Eileen recalls. Working with fabric was nothing new to Eileen, because she had previously made and sold laundry bags. 

In order to get a true sense of the beauty of upholstery fabric, just imagine a rainbow of textures and patterns and colors. Now imagine having all those fabrics at your fingertips, ready to be repurposed into handbags and other items. For someone like Eileen, who is creative and has a knack for sewing, it must have been a dream come true.

“I now have about five furniture stores that call me when they have a couple bags of fabric and I go pick it up,” she says. It makes her very happy, and provides the material she needs for making bags, and the furniture stores feel good to have found a new use for the material rather than tossing it out.

According to Eileen’s website, www.simplesacksnh.com, “After a year of cold calling furniture stores around New England, we now have furniture stores calling us to come and collect their fabric samples. It’s a blast collecting and organizing beautiful fabrics with such a variety of colors, textures, weights and designs. Each fabric is really one of a kind. There’s one for every personality. It is a good feeling for the furniture stores, our customers and us to know that we are all doing our part to support the recycling and conservation effort that is vital to our environment.”

Because she had the sewing machines anyhow (she had used them previously to make laundry bags), it wasn’t necessary to purchase any new machinery to make bags once Eileen saw how popular her products were with the buying public. She had in her studio an industrial sewing machine with the capacity to do single stitch, serging and double stitching.

Her first foray into making bags was a small purse and her first attempt at selling bags was participation in an artisan fair. She quickly came to see that the events were a great way to get started and her purses and other bags made from the recycled upholstery fabrics were a hit from the start. But doing fairs, setting up a tent outdoors in the summer and carrying all the products got to be tiring. Now, Simple Sacks of NH does three fairs a year, all great events for displaying and selling the bags. 

Stores around New England sell the bags, and there are a number of locations in New Hampshire where shoppers can find the handmade bags. Eileen also has a website where products can be ordered.

A lot of the stores that carry Simple Sacks products have the small purses and coin purses, always popular with customers. Fields of Ambrosia in North Conway is one location that Eileen says carries her bags, as well as Flossie’s General Store in Jackson, NH. 

Eileen saves fabrics with moose and bear designs for bags she makes for Flossies, because she says is seems to be a store where customers love moose products!

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The bags are all one-of-a-kind and made with a high degree of quality.

Eileen is picky about the construction and makes the bags to last. “I have a personal relationship with every bag I make!”

Construction is key, and customers like it that all the purses have zippers and all the bags are lined. Originally, Eileen was using shoelaces for ties on the big totes, but that morphed into flaps with a button closure over time. 

Clearly, nothing is as exciting for Eileen as getting a call that a furniture store has a few bags of fabric to give her (and when she says “bag” she means a garbage bag size not a grocery store sized bag). Once she is back in her studio with the fabrics, she sorts them by dark, light, summer and fall styles of fabric. Samples vary in sizes, such as a 17 in. wide by 24 in. tall piece of upholstery fabric that could be used to make a tote if Eileen likes the colors and pattern. “Or I might use it for lining a bag. I’ve been getting really good fabrics.”

One feature of Simple Sacks that Eileen finds particularly fulfilling and fun is working with a client who knows with a color scheme in mind. If someone calls and says they saw one of Eileen’s bags on the web, but that customer has specific colors, for example, blue and black, Eileen will send photos of fabric in those colors and the customer can pick and choose whatever fabrics they want. Then, Eileen gets to work making a bag in the material the customer hand-picked.

Another great thing about Simple Sack products is that, because the fabric is donated, Eileen is able to keep her prices very reasonable. If she had to go out and purchase the fabric, prices would rise accordingly. 

Because Simple Sacks reuses the fabrics, the furniture stores no longer have to feel bad about tossing out upholstery fabrics that would end up in the landfill. Eileen has the satisfaction of knowing she helped the recycling effort while creating bags and bringing something useful and beautiful to customers. And customers reap the benefit of being part of the recycling stream, and buying a bag at a reasonable price. 

The next time you find yourself in a furniture store, you might take a second look at the rich textures and colors of upholstery fabric samples. Imagine, for just a moment, those fabrics finding new life and purpose when Eileen takes such materials and creates handbags, coin purses and all sort of bags that brighten and bring pleasure to the lives of all those who purchase a Simple Sack.

(For information and to view products, visit www.simplesacksnh.com or call Eileen at 603-356-4138. If you would like to visit the studio or you have fabric samples to donate, please call ahead to make an appointment to visit Simple Sacks NH in North Conway.

You can find Simple Sacks of NH products at Flossie’s General Store at 12 Main St., Jackson, NH; Cardigan Mountain Country Store at 231 Lake St. in Bristol, NH; Fields of Ambrosia at 13 Norcross Place in North Conway village; Just Naturals & Co. at 176 S. River Road in Bedford, NH and the Willey House on Rt. 302 in Crawford Notch (from June to October).