Cloth Grocery Bags: Introduction

We all use grocery bags. We buy our groceries, get them bagged, take them home and then, well, what do we do with those one-use bags?

great pacific garbage patch

In the middle of the Pacific, they contribute to the largest landfill in the world.

Paper grocery bags can be easily recycled, whether at home as gift-wrap, book covers, underlayment under patio pavers, lining trashcans, as compost, or tossed into the recycling bin.

Plastic bags don’t have as many reuses. They cannot be composted or used in the garden. They serve admirably as trashcan liners or to collect dog poo during walks. Some people crochet them into other things. Alternatively, you can recycle them at the supermarket or at thrift shops for reuse.

By recycling them at the grocery store, you can get quite a few uses out of them before it tears for good, but then you are back to having to replace it.

The solution is to use cloth grocery bags that can be reused endlessly. Grocery bags, whether paper or plastic, are not free. The store has to pay for these one-use wonders, and so do we; both in the hidden costs we pay to the store for providing them and in the hidden costs to the environment.

Brown paper bags are manufactured of wood pulp, a renewable resource that demands vast quantities of energy and fresh water. At least brown paper bags will rot when left to their own devices and trees provide cooling, animal habitat, and oxygen.

Plastic bags are made of petroleum by-products. You cannot grow oil like you can trees. They can be recycled, but not nearly as easily as the industry would like you to think. They do not rot on their own. They are easy to spot in the winter, caught in shrubbery like airborne jellyfish. Animals like sea turtles eat them and starve; their stomachs full of indigestible plastic.

plastic grocery bags

Plastic bags are a regular visitor to the shore.

What’s Wrong With Cheap Bags?

There are many reasons not to use one-use bags. So what should you use? Many stores sell reusable shopping bags for 99¢ or give them away as advertising. These are better, but still not good. They are very cheaply made of petrochemicals so they don’t recycle easily. They don’t rot. They cannot be washed or repaired. They tear almost as easily as a flimsy plastic bag. Some are made of not just questionable petrochemicals, but lead-impregnated petrochemicals via the painted, stenciled design advertising the store. Mmm. I love lead in my food, don’t you?

grocery tote bags

The solution is to make your own cloth grocery bags. Cloth bags can be washed. They can be repaired. They will last a lifetime. They are not hard to make, if you have a sewing machine and basic skills. You don’t have to use fancy cloth.

grocery tote bag fabric

I have made hundreds of cloth grocery bags over the years. I gave them away as teacher gifts when my kids were in school. I gave them away as gifts to friends and relatives. I sell them at craft shows. I give them away at craft shows with purchases of Peschel Press’s books. I have gotten a lot of feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. I have made so many bags, that I learned how to streamline the production sewing.

You don’t even need a pattern, just a yardstick and chalk. There are patterns for tote bags, but they’re not the same as grocery bags. Tote bags come in a variety of sizes. They are often lined. They have pockets and compartments. They may have zippers, toggles, buttons, snaps or other closures. Tote bag instructions assume you are only making one, both in the layout and in the sewing.

cloth grocery bag

No pattern needed.

Grocery bags don’t need pockets, closures or linings, but they must be sturdy with long handles. The size is variable within a small range. A small bag won’t hold enough groceries. A large bag will be overfilled by an enthusiastic bagger, making it impossible for my 78-year-old mother to lift it. That was the standard I used.

You also need a lot of them. Depending on the size of your household, you may need a dozen or more. How many plastic bags come home with you from a grocery store stock-up? That is how many bags you need, plus a few extra if you buy more than usual.

Cloth grocery bags

Production sewing techniques are easily learned and help make several bags efficiently.

What Is Production Sewing

Production sewing is very different from sewing one-offs. You lay out the patterns — whether for cloth grocery bags, stuffed toys, or pajamas — very differently than you do a single item. A single item means waste fabric. The goal of production sewing is to use the fabric as efficiently as possible, leaving zero scrap fabric.

The other issue with sewing cloth grocery bags is cost. You are competing with free or low-cost bags. If you are careful, those 99¢ bags can be used for a long time before they rip across the bottom or the straps tear away. That means that you need to lay out your fabric as economically as possible, while using the cheapest fabric that is still heavy enough to do the job.

If you are going to sell these bags, the cost of material is paramount. Don’t spend more than a few bucks a yard. Less is better. Free is best of all. A typical customer does not understand the time and skill that went into your beautifully sewn cloth bags that will last a lifetime. They only see that you want $10 for a bag that is superficially similar to the 99¢ one. If a person needs a dozen bags, $12 is a small up-front cost for supermarket bags. $120 for a dozen cloth bags that will last a lifetime is not. Source your fabric wisely.

Even if you want to make a few dozen bags for your family, your relatives, teacher gifts and other such occasions, your cost still counts. Spend as little as possible on the cloth.

In future posts, I will talk about what fabric to use and what to look for when shopping. I will discuss how I make cloth grocery bags in quantity. I will show how I lay them out to get the best use of an 8-yard piece of fabric. I will also show how I take my immense pile of scrap home-dec fabric and repurpose it into bags that will last a lifetime, despite looking like Dr. Frankenstein sewed them together.

You can do this, too. The hardest part of sewing and using cloth grocery bags is remembering to take them with you to the store, a problem they share with every other kind of reusable bag.

Every Saturday over the next several months, Peschel Press will publish an installment that will become a book by Teresa Peschel tentatively titled “How to Make Cloth Grocery Bags.”