Choosing Grocery Bag Fabric

What kind of fabric should you use to make cloth grocery bags? The easy answer is the cheap kind, but this is not completely accurate. The weight and sewability of the grocery bag fabric also matter.

I look for a woven fabric heavy enough to use for skirts, pants, draperies, or upholstery. If it looks ideal for a gauzy summer blouse, it is too light. If you envision a suit jacket, you are on the right track.

Next, check the texture. If the fabric has an open weave, such as eyelets, lace, mesh, or openwork designs, it won’t work for grocery bags. Every one of those little openings will catch on the corners of the boxes you put into the bags and tear into a bigger hole.

I don’t use knits. The stretchiness of knits which make it so useful when fitting garments is a big negative for a grocery bag. If you find a heavy, stabilized knit, like polyester doubleknit gabardine, that could work. If you have it already on hand in the stash, make a test bag and see how it works hauling groceries home. Then, if you are satisfied, make more.

The right weight of woven fabric can be found in the garment section of your fabric store. Denim, corduroy, and khaki work well, as do medium or heavier weights of twill and brocades. You can find canvas-type fabrics in the utility fabric section; mattress ticking works well. Fabric made for crewel embroidery can work well, but not needlepoint canvas; all those little holes work against you.

Feel the weight of the fabric in your hand. Stiffness is an asset; very soft, drapable cloth is a serious defect. Some softness is acceptable as the structure of the bag gives it a supporting skeleton. A fabric that acts like it can stand on its own is very nice, as all those seams will ensure it can hold itself up and open while in use. Slick, shiny fabric or fabric that snags when you look at it are bad.

I also have a personal prejudice against fabrics that make my skin crawl when I touch them. I don’t like working with raw denim, even though denim works up as a grocery bag quite well. I have to wash that yardage repeatedly to soften it enough to make it workable for me. Certain coarse, heavy wovens give me the same itchy, unpleasant sensation. Sometimes the feeling washes out with repeated laundering; sometimes not. This is a very personal decision, as what bugs you won’t bug me.

The home-dec department is full of fabric that will work beautifully, such as cloth suitable for lined drapes. Upholstery is more problematic. Upholstery fabric always works as a grocery bag. The thickness helps hold the bag upright and open, making it easier to hold boxes and cans.

But a thick, heavy fabric is hard to sew, leading to broken needles. If your machine is not sturdy enough for upholstery work, you may have to hand-sew the parts where you have to force the needle through eight layers of fabric. This is tedious and hard on the hands. It is easier to choose a lighter weight of fabric.

What Should the Bag Look Like?

Solids or prints? Both work equally well in the sewing and the usage, so it comes down to your taste. Printed fabric makes the bags more interesting and a dramatic, unusual print guarantees that my bags don’t get confused with anybody else’s.

Do you care which direction the print runs? Florals and geometrics generally don’t have an up and a down. Designs incorporating houses or people have an up and a down and you may not like your bags to have something obviously upside-down. Avoiding this requires a careful layout that will use up more expensive cloth, resulting in fewer bags and more waste fabric.

Stripes, plaids, and checks may look strange if you don’t go to the trouble to match them. On the other hand, you can always claim the design is avant-garde.

Many design decisions can be justified in the name of art.

A very large-scale motif may look strange when cut it up (I learned this lesson the hard way with the Dragon Princess NotQuilt). Or, this is another chance to claim that you are working at the bleeding edge of design by emulating cubist and dada paintings. Many design decisions can be justified that way.

How the print lays on the yardage does matter because the most efficient layout may not be the one that shows the fabric print to its best advantage. That leads to wasting fabric that could be used to squeeze out another bag. So you’ll have to decide which matters more: Appearance or getting the most bags possible?

Another thing to look for in fabric is what the reverse looks like. Upholsteries are often woven with colored threads that form the design, as opposed to it being printed on one side. The wrong side of a piece of upholstery can be just as attractive and usable as the right side. Part of my grocery bag design involves folding over the top edge of the fabric by two inches. This stiffens and reinforces the top of the bag so it stands up better and lasts longer. It also shows the reverse of the cloth. The reverse side of upholstery adds another design element, more interesting than just the reverse side of regular printed material.

The other advantage of double-sided upholstery is that, since you can use either side out, your finished bags can have more variety. You can choose to make the side panels right side out and the gusset the wrong side out, or you can sew half the bags together one way and the other half in the reverse. The cutting and sewing are identical so it doesn’t matter how you do the layout. You get a wider range of bags for the same money and from the same piece of cloth.

Since you need a dozen or more cloth grocery bags to replace the ones you would normally use, you’ll need plenty of fabric. A 3 1/4 yard piece of fabric will give you six to seven complete bags, depending on how wide you make the gusset strip. These are functional, utility bags and, particularly if you are selling them, there is no need to put a lot of money into the cloth.

Where do you find cloth? How much should you pay? If you are making bags to resell, then I strongly recommend not paying more than $2 to $3 a yard. Those reusable bags that every store sells nowadays are 99¢. It is difficult to compete with that price. Your typical shopper cannot grasp why she should pay you for your time and expertise for bags that will last the rest of her life. You may have to sell your bags for $10 each to cover your fabric, webbing, trim, thread, sewing machine depreciation costs, plus something for your time. What the customer sees is a dozen non-fabric reusable bags at 99¢ equals spending $12. A dozen of your bags made in the USA, not with Chinese prison labor, washable, repairable, made of real cloth, at $10 each comes to $120. That is a lot of cash to drop at one go, even if they will last for decades. Ironically, spending $120 on a dress that gets worn a few times will appear the better options than $120 on bags that will be used weekly for decades.

So in the end, if you’re sewing production bags for sale, minimize the cost of fabric. If you are sewing bags just for yourself or as gifts, then spend what you like.

Next week, we’ll talk about where to find your fabric.