Set the pile of partially finished cloth grocery bags aside. Now it’s time for making bag straps.
If you are going to make cloth straps rather than use purchased webbing, now is the time to do it. Dig through your stash and find those 45-inch-wide pieces of moderate-weight junk fabric in a reasonably coordinating color. Tear the fabric into 3-inch-wide strips from selvedge to selvedge. Fold each strip in half lengthwise (giving you a long, very skinny rectangle), press flat, and then fold in the raw edges a half-inch. Press again and then sew down both sides of the strap, tucking in the raw edges at the ends.
One yard of 45-inch-wide cloth will give you 12 straps, enough for six bags. Each of these strips will, because of the 45-inch-wide fabric, already be a good length for the bag, if a bit longer than my recommended 42 inches.
If you use wider cloth, then your strips will be too long. Trim the excess so it becomes 45 inches and proceed as above. Never piece the fabric; that adds both bulk and a potential weak spot. Use the excess fabric for trim lines or toss it back into the stash.
If you are using 1 to 1½-inch-wide webbing, measure all your strips and cut them accurately. You can do this on a big table or on the floor.
Place your measuring tape (the 60-inch one will work here) and pin down both ends with a heavy soup can. This way it won’t shift or move, throwing your measurements off. Place the spool of webbing at the beginning end, measure out 42 inches and cut. Repeat until you have cut all your straps. This job is easier with a helper. If you don’t have a helper, use another soup can to secure the loose edge so your measurements stay accurate.
If you like, treat the ends of the webbing with fray check. I usually don’t as I cover the raw edges with zigzag stitching when I sew them down. These straps are now ready to use.
If you are using 2-inch-wide ribbon or twill tape (or wider) and it is too lightweight to use as is, fold it over in half, making it 1 inch wide. Do not cut the ribbon or twill tape in half down the middle. You will never be able to enclose and seal that raw edge and the ribbon is still too lightweight for straps.
As with 1-inch-wide webbing, measure out 42-inch long sections of your 2-inch-wide twill tape or ribbon. When you have cut all you need (one pair for each bag), proceed to the ironing board. Press each section flat, then fold over the sides and press the ribbon again, ironing towards the fold to push out the fullness. Press each section in turn. It does not work to fold over the entire length of ribbon, press it, and then cut off 42-inch long sections. When all your sections are folded and pressed, go to the sewing machine.
At the Sewing MachineStart at the narrow edge of the ribbon, sewing close to the edge, working from the folded edge. Sew across the bottom edge, close to the raw edge. Pivot at the corner and sew the open sides together slowly, working your way down the length of ribbon or twill tape. Secure your stitching with a few .4mm stitches at the end. Then turn the ribbon or twill tape over and repeat with a line of stitching close to the raw, short end and then down the folded edge, taking care to sew close to the fold line. This forces the ribbon to lay and stay flat. A line of stitching at both raw ends will help keep the twill tape or ribbon from fraying. You can use a line of fray-check if you think it needs it. I generally don’t bother as the raw edge gets enclosed with zigzag stitching later on.
When all the ribbon or twill tape straps are sewn, press them again and set them aside.
If you are using 7/8-inch or 1-inch-wide twill tape or ribbon, you will have to double the length so it can be folded over and sewn to the correct, 42-inch length.
You will need your 120-inch measuring tape and a clean floor for this job. A helper will make this task much easier. Stretch out the 120-inch measuring tape flat on the floor, securing the beginning end with a heavy soup can. Put another soup can at the midway point and a third near the end at the 90-inch mark (past where you want to cut off the ribbon). Unspool your twill tape or ribbon, starting it at the beginning of the tape measure. Secure the loose end with a soup can or have your assistant hold it. Pull the ribbon or twill tape up to the 84-inch mark, and cut. Repeat for all the bag straps you need, one pair for each bag.
When all the narrow, ultra-long straps are cut, it’s time to sew them to the correct length. They shouldn’t need pressing at this stage. Bring the two narrow edges together (make sure you don’t introduce a twist in the ribbon). Sew across the bottom raw edge, right up to the edge with a tight stitch. Pivot at the corner and sew up the long side, pushing the fullness towards the fold. Secure the stitch at the fold. Flip over the ribbon and repeat the process at the raw edge, sewing it again and this time sewing down the second side, pushing the fullness to the fold.Repeat the process with all the straps. Sew very slowly if you don’t use a walking foot, as you will get ripples. If extra fullness creeps in while sewing the second side, gently push the excess fullness under the presser foot. Tiny tucks work too. A nail file works well for this. Press the straps flat and set them aside.
If, despite your best efforts, you discover a twist in the ribbon at the end, don’t despair. It can be fixed without ripping out the entire seam. Cut the ribbon apart at the fold and finish sewing to the end, just as if you had deliberately cut two separate pieces to start with.
When you set your straps aside, let them hang freely draped over a chair back or table so they stay flat. The next step is pinning them to the bags and sewing them down.
(This post is a draft from the upcoming book “Sewing Cloth Grocery Bags.” A complete list of the posts can be found here.)