Finding New and Used Fabric

Where do you get the fabric? You start at any fabric store. Joann’s is a national chain, they run good sales, they have a clearance rack, and they provide discount coupons. Sign up for their mailing list, look over their fliers, and you may get lucky. Many fabric stores do the same thing so if you are fortunate enough to have any in your area, check them out and watch their sales.

Every Walmart used to have a fabric department. A lot of them don’t, not anymore. If your Walmart has a fabric department, then it probably also has a dollar bin. You never know what you will find, but the dollar bin at my local Walmart has been good to me and thus it is always worth checking out.

Depending on your area, there may be department stores that still carry fabric. Some craft stores do, as does every quilt shop. The trick is finding the heavy cloth you need at the price you are willing to pay. Every one of these places will have some kind of clearance rack, so start your search there first. The less fussy you are about the appearance of the fabric, the more likely you are to get lucky.

If the fabric stores do not provide, there is always the secondhand market.

It is possible but unlikely to find raw yard goods at a thrift shop. The same is true of yard sales. What you regularly find is plenty of the right weight of cloth, in big pieces, disguised as something else. That can be tablecloths, draperies, bedspreads, or fabric shower curtains. So look beyond what the fabric is being used as and envision it as something else.

How good is the fabric?

The first step with evaluating a drapery panel or a tablecloth is its condition. If it is full of moth holes, shredded, or has obvious wear spots, then there isn’t enough life left in the cloth for grocery bags. Pass those pieces by. If a drapery panel or a tablecloth looks in good shape, then it can be used. For your own personal bags, you can overlook stains. If you are going to sell the bags, then you have to cut around the stains, wasting cloth. The price may still be low enough to make it worth buying.

In addition to Goodwill’s regular thrift shops, many areas have their Bargain Bins. Everything here — clothing, coats, and household linens — is sold by the pound. Buy more than 20 pounds and the price drops to just over a dollar a pound. The Salvation Army, Blue Mountain, and every other thrift store sells secondhand draperies so there are plenty of places to look. You can also get lucky at yard sales. Look for that big pile of fabric bunched up at the back.

When you are buying fabric for bags you will sell, check your taste at the door. You may hate that pattern of yellow pears on dark brown, but it doesn’t mean no one else will like it. Focus on how much fabric is available for the price of that big piece.

The fabric you are most likely to find for repurposing comes in two varieties: tablecloths and drapes.

Tablecloths range in size from little side tables to banquet tables. Bigger is always better. Tablecloths usually don’t have wide hems. Unpicking the hem will give you an inch or more of cloth on each side, but you won’t get more than that. Measure carefully to see if you need that extra inch or so to lay out bags most economically. If you don’t, don’t bother unpicking the hems.

Factor the cloth’s shape into your decision. Rectangular tablecloths give you the most usable cloth. Round tablecloths have a lot of waste. Oval tablecloths, depending on their size, vary widely in how much scrap you have left over. A small oval tablecloth isn’t much better than a round one in terms of usable fabric. A long, wide oval can provide quite a lot of fabric.

Draperies come in sizes too. They are often long, seven feet or more. The width can vary from the width of the original fabric to several widths seamed together. Add in the deep hem and the rod pocket or pinch pleats and you can get another foot of fabric in length, after you unpick them.

Drapes are often lined, giving you a second piece of fabric (usually muslin but sometimes Roc-lon blackout lining) to use for something else. A muslin lining won’t be heavy enough to make grocery bags although you could repurpose the muslin for bag straps. Roc-lon is thick, stiff, and heavy, but it doesn’t like being punched full of holes by sewing machine needles. It doesn’t like being washed either. The blackout layer will, I think, not hold up well as a grocery bag. I save my Roc-lon for lining my own drapes and window quilts.

What you don’t want are the drapes that have that flocked lining glued to the underside. That pseudo lining makes them unusable for grocery bags. This plastic-y stuff is sticky, unpleasant to sew through, and will degrade and rub off inside your grocery bags onto your food. Drapes with this kind of lining may not even be cloth. I have seen some that were more like plastic paper than cloth.

Unpick drapes for more fabric

Drapery bottom hems and side hems are easy to unpick. They are often sewn with a lockstitch and if you find the pulling end, the seam will unzip itself.

The top of the drapes can be more challenging. Rod pocket tops will have multiple stitch lines, separating the header ruffle from the rod pocket, giving you at least two rows of stitching to unpick. Tab tops need to be removed; they cannot be reused for grocery bags, even if you unpick every seam and iron what is left. Ring tops are the same. There may be a top hem to unpick, after you trim off the tabs or rings, giving you some extra cloth.

Pinch pleats give the full length of the pleats plus a fold under. The height of the pinch pleat determines the extra fabric you will be rewarded with: six-inch high pinch pleats will yield another six inches of cloth plus the fold unders. Eight-inch tall pleats give you another eight inches. Despite the pinholes in the cloth, it is well worth the tedious effort to undo the pleats, particularly if you are making bags for personal use.

To unpick pinch pleats, first cut the pleats apart. Examine the front and the back and you should see the thread holding the pleats together. Snip this apart, removing every bit of thread. Do each pleat in turn, removing all the seams. When the pleats are ripped, they should unfold, revealing a paper interior that should be discarded.

When all the seams are ripped, wash the cloth, iron it flat and measure. You are ready to sew the secondhand cloth into a bag, exactly as if you bought new fabric.