How to make cloth grocery bags

Today we learn how to make cloth grocery bags. I developed this list because I demand a lot from them:

* They should last forever.

* They should stand, at least a little, so a bagger can load them.

* The handles should be durable enough to last as long as the fabric.

* The handles should be long enough so I can carry the loaded bag as a shoulder bag, but not so long that they get in the way.

* They bags should have any raw edges or spots that can snag, catch or tear.

* The sewing should be efficient and straightforward.

* Finally, I want my bags to look attractive in addition to being sturdy.

These are the Cadillac of cloth grocery bags.

Here’s how I make them. There are a lot of steps, but many of them are quick to do. I never sew less than three or four bags at a time and finish one complete step with all of them before moving on. That seems to be a fair compromise between production and bespoke sewing.

This is what I do:

1) Choose the fashion fabric. The bigger the piece, the more bags I can cut from it.

2) Design the layout on paper. This lets me figure out mathematically the most efficient use of the cloth, getting pairs of side panels and gussets without waste and without ending up with too many side panels and not enough gussets or vice versa.

cloth grocery bag straps

I use webbing for the handles, so I do not reserve fabric for it. If you do this, account for this additional fabric when you do the layout.

3) Cut out the side panels and gussets, keeping the edges clean and true on grain. Straight-grain cuts ensure straight-sided bags, with no twisting or skewing in the sewing or during use. It doesn’t matter if you use the straight grain (the length of the yardage) or the cross grain (across the width), so long as you don’t cut even the smallest bit on the bias.

make cloth grocery bags

Pulling a thread from the edge of the fabric ensures a clear straight line for cutting

4) Sew the first pass. With right sides together, sew the front panel to the gusset, then the back panel to the gusset. Trim the corners and turn the bag right side out. Sew all the bags cut together. This is the most complicated step.

5) Iron the bags to prepare them for the second pass through the sewing machine. The object is to get a crisp, knife-edge with the seam line exactly at the fold.

6) Sew the second pass. On the outside of the bag, resew each seam, giving you a half-flange all around the sides of the bag. Measure and snip the flange to mark the foldover.

7) Sew the third pass. Sew down the flange all the way around. This provides the bag a supportive skeleton.

sewer with cat watching shoulder

Be aware of cats wanting to help

8) Sew the fourth pass. This is where the top foldover is pressed, sewn down, and then trimmed out. If you make trim from your stash, rather than using purchased trim, you’ll need to sew it at the beginning of this step.

9) Sew the fifth pass. Prepare your bag straps, either by using webbing or fabric from the stash.

10) Perform the sixth pass. Pin all the straps in place, along with any bag tags. This is a separate step because it takes so long to pin four straps ends on a pile of bags.

11) The seventh and last pass. Sew down all those straps. You’re finished. Pour yourself a stiff drink or a restful cup of tea, depending on how aggravating you found the process.

12) Enjoy your new bags!

Next week, we’ll go into the tools you’ll need.

(This post is a draft from the upcoming book “Sewing Cloth Grocery Bags.” A complete list of the posts can be found here.)