Sizing and Cutting Large Pieces of Fabric.

cloth grocery bag fabric

If you have a large piece of heavy fabric hiding in the stash, you can turn it into grocery bags. The length and width will determine how many bags you end up with. This is what I did with one of those pieces.

sewing cloth grocery bagsI bought this piece of fabric a long, long time ago; I believe it came from the Walmart dollar bin and it was, yes, a dollar a yard. I bought it to possibly make a coat or suit from, but wiser heads prevailed and it sank into the bottom of the stash.

When it came home all those years ago, I washed it and it shrank. Not stupendously but when I went to measure it, I could see the shrinkage.

The original length was about 8 yards. It now measures out a few inches shy, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much because the edges are so uneven. The cloth also got narrower; it was 60 inches wide and it is now, from selvedge to selvedge, 56¼ inches wide.

This fabric has plusses and minuses, as long-forgotten stash fabric tends to. It’s here and it’s free. I have a lot of it. The weight is heavy enough, but with a softer hand than I would normally have used. That won’t stop this fabric from functioning as grocery bags but they won’t stand up on their own either. That means that the tailored bag style would be better than making boxed bags.

This is also double-sided cloth. I can use either side as the right side. That is a real benefit as I can sew half of the bags with the lighter side out and the other half with the darker side out, giving me in effect, two separate color choices from one piece of cloth. Since I make a foldover at the top, I get a contrasting, but perfectly matched border as opposed to the wrong side of the fabric like I usually get.

A drawback is that the fabric has a definite up-and-down image. It runs the length of the yardage as opposed to selvedge-to-selvedge. If the fabric had still been 60 inches wide, this would have been more annoying as 60-inch-wide fabric cuts very nicely into four panels, each 15 inches high, running from selvedge to selvedge. That means zero waste.

In this case, 56-inch-wide fabric doesn’t cut into anything evenly so I used it the way it wanted to go in the first place; each panel running alongside the selvedge 15 inches and stacking the 13-inch panels across the width of the cloth. If I include the selvedge in my measurements, and I did, four 13-inch panels uses up 52 inches of cloth in width, leaving me with a strip 4 inches wide. I can turn this strip into trim-lines or straps later on.

The best way to tackle a piece of fabric like this is to examine it for its orientation and then measure it accurately. Decide if you want to include the selvedges in your measurements. I nearly always do if the selvedge isn’t puckering or distorting the sides of the yardage. Every inch counts and most of the selvedges will disappear into a seam. Measure out the width, both with and without the selvedges and see if including them will let you squeak out another set of panels or a gusset.

Then measure the length to see how much cloth you have to work with. Since you probably won’t have a straight edge, choose an end and then straighten it by pulling threads until you have a perfectly straight, on-grain raw edge. All the panels and gussets have to be cut on the true, so start out with a true edge.

cutting large pieces of fabric

Pulling the threat to show a straight edge. Below, see how white an edge you get when you pull one or two threads?

cutting large pieces of fabricNow that you have a true edge, measure the fabric again. You may have lost several inches after removing the raggedy end. It isn’t necessary to true up the other side. Just make sure that when you remeasure, choose the shorter side of the uneven edge to get an accurate width. It is immensely aggravating to discover when you cut that you mismeasured and you won’t get that full set of panels your diagram says you will. Also, remember to cut from that side you trued up.

This is another reason to cut a few inches of your total length. It gives you room for error.

So I measured my fabric and it came to 7 yards plus another almost another full yard, but we’ll round down, let’s say, to 7/8 of a yard. To make my math easier, I will call the length 7 yards and 32 inches (or 284 inches). This will give me a bit of margin.

This fabric has an open enough weave that will allow me to pull threads rather than mark the panels and gussets with chalk-lines. Pulled threads ensure that you get perfectly square, on-grain panels and gussets. Pulling threads can be more troublesome than measuring chalk lines but the results are accurate. This does use up a tiny bit more fabric with each set of panels and gussets measured, the threads pulled, and then cut apart.

I started with drawing my picture.

I drew a rough rectangle. At the right end, I drew seven horizontal gussets. Since I cut my gussets 43 inches long, I drew that in. Fifty-six-inch-wide fabric will divide into seven gussets, each 8 inches wide. Therefore, seven gussets will use up 43 inches of fabric.

To match those seven gussets, I will need 14 panels. On the other side of the rectangle, I drew a grid indicating the panels. The fabric will allow me to stack my panels four across the width of the fabric, each panel 13 inches wide. The panels are 15 inches long. One column of panels (two bags) will therefore use up 15 inches of cloth. That leads to marking out three more columns of bags, each using up a 15-inch-wide section. In all, 60 inches of cloth divide neatly into 16 panels.

This is one extra set of panels but I still have plenty of cloth left over.

Sixty inches of cloth for the panels and 43 inches of cloth for the gussets equals 103 inches. I subtract 103 inches from my original length of 284 inches, giving me 181 inches left over.

I already know that 16 panels and seven gussets equals 103 inches so I know that I can get that from the remaining 181 inches. I drew my picture to confirm this and, yes, I end up with another set of 16 panels (eight bags) and another set of seven gussets.

That means I have 32 panels or 16 bags and 14 gussets. This does not match up evenly.

However, I still have 78 inches of cloth remaining. I drew another picture. I started with the gussets, another set of seven as I knew that they would only take up 43 inches of cloth, leaving me with 35 inches of cloth left over (78–43 = 35). This final set of gussets gives me a total of 21 gussets that need matching up.

That final 35-inch width of cloth divides into two columns of bags (eight panels or four more bags) with 5 inches left over. My total count of bags then, is eight (round one) plus eight (round two) plus four (round three) for a final tally of 20 bags (forty panels).

My end result then, for 77/8 of a yard of 56-inch-wide cloth is 20 pairs of panels with 21 gussets. It doesn’t quite match up as I have a stray gusset. However, I will have that strip of fabric left over in the middle. It is, by my calculations, 5 inches wide.

Remember that I underestimated by several inches how much yardage I actually have. That safety margin strip left over may be enough to piece another pair of panels to match my extra gusset. Alternatively, I can add the extra gusset to my Frankenstein pile of tailored bag parts, along with whatever is left over. I won’t know until after I’m finished cutting panels and gussets.

I started at the true edge, measured out 43 inches, pulled my thread, cut the line, and then divided that 43-inch piece into seven gussets. I did this two more times, ending up with my planned-for 21 gussets.

Then I measured, pulled threads, and cut apart my panels, column by column. When I finished, I had 40 panels, which translates into 40 bags.

I also had a strip of fabric left over that was 11 inches long at its widest part and 8 inches long at its narrowest and the full width of the fabric from selvedge to selvedge. This means I mismeasured more than I thought I did as I was expecting only about 5 inches left over at best.

I could cut this strip of fabric into another 8-inch-by-43-inch gusset, although the design orientation would be 180 degrees from the other gussets. It would go into the Frankenstein bag parts pile with the other extra gusset.

Or, I could cut four 13-inch-wide sections across the width of the fabric and piece another pair of panels, then trim them to 15 inches in length. Those two pieced panels would allow me to use my stray gusset (number 21), giving me a grand total of 21 bags from my 77/8-yard piece of fabric. The pieced bag will be just as strong and functional as the whole cloth bags.

So that’s what I did. I have almost zero waste; several long narrow strips that could become trim-lines or straps, plus a few bits. I also have a mare’s nest of pulled threads. That’s it.

Evaluate all of your stash yardage that might be suitable for grocery bags this way. Feel the hand of the fabric and decide if boxed or tailored bags are best for its weight. Then determine, on paper, how many bags you can get before you ever draw a single chalk line on your fabric.

As noted above, I pieced a set of panels giving me 42 panels to go with my 21 gussets. I sewed the bags up, having to double up my webbing and grosgrain ribbon (I didn’t have enough of either to use it exclusively) to make the straps. The biggest issue in sewing the bags was the fabric. It turned out that the fabric was a little too soft in its hand. These particular bags, even with the skeletal structure imposed on them by the flanges, will never be self-supporting. Moreover, the softness of the cloth didn’t play as well as it could have with the doubled ribbon straps. I got some puckering if I sewed the straps down too fast.

Careful measuring and cutting leads to this much material. That little pile of scraps on the left side is all the waste fabric.

Fortunately, the bags look very nice and they should function just fine. Both color sides (light blue and dark blue) look good. They aren’t perfect, but that is the chance you take when using cloth out of the stash because you’ve got it hanging around, waiting to be used for something. Never forget that the cost of the fabric matters. Free fabric is worth taking the risk of the tension on the seam being not quite right, despite all the fiddling. And really, how noticeable will this be to anyone but me?