Making Cloth Grocery Bag Handles

In my continuing attempts to streamline my sewing procedures for cloth grocery bags, I decided a long time ago to stop using the fashion fabric to make the straps.

grocery bag straps

Webbing used for belts and backpack straps make ideal grocery bag straps.

Fabric straps require careful cutting to keep them perfectly straight on grain. Because you have to double the fabric to get the right weight (and enclose the raw edges), they take more fabric than you would think; expensive fabric that could go into panels or gussets. They are a lot of trouble to sew, ironing as you go, and the thickness ends up being uneven, with the turned under hems on one side of the strap (four layers) as opposed to the double layer at the fold. When you are using very heavy cloth, this extra thickness matters: in the sewing, in the orientation of the strap (which side do you place towards the outside?) and in how the strap feels in the hand.

In addition to the amount of fabric you would expect to use to make a pair of bag straps, I use still more. I like to make long straps that give plenty of play when using the grocery bag. I have had users tell me they like the option of carrying a bag over the shoulder and a longer pair of straps lets them do that.

I also use my straps as stiffener for the bag sides. I cut and sew down long straps, 42 inches or so, giving me a handle that extends well above the top of the grocery bag and one that extends almost to the bottom of the side panel. This stiffens the sides and ensures that the bag handle can more easily support the weight of the groceries piled inside as instead of a small, 1-inch square of support, I have a pair of 10-inch-long support mechanisms. More stitching equals more reinforcement and less chance of a bag tearing or failing in use and less chance of a bag strap ripping free.

It takes time to do all of this: cutting, pressing, sewing, and then sewing down the straps.

Alternative Bag Straps

Fortunately, there are alternatives to using the fashion fabric. These solutions save precious time as you cut the strap and sew it down, rather than have to do the work of making the straps first. Cost does become a factor as you already have the fashion fabric on hand and webbing, twill tape or ribbon have to be purchased separately.

The easiest workaround is to use 1- or 1 1/2-inch wide webbing. This kind of webbing is used for belts and backpack straps. The webbing, ready-made, can be nylon, cotton, or whatever you can find. It is already the right width, with clean edges, it is the same thickness throughout, and you can cut the straps to whatever length you need. It also comes in a choice of colors, especially if you buy it online.

Ready-made webbing can be purchased by the yard but it is easier and much cheaper to buy the entire spool, using your discount coupon. Joann’s sells webbing in fifteen-yard spools, if you buy everything on an uncut spool. Since I cut my bag straps to 42 or 43 inches, I need two and one half yards of webbing for each grocery bag; a strap for each side that gives me plenty of room for my hands and that goes down the side panel nearly to the bottom, reinforcing both bag and strap.

A 15-yard spool will give you — at 84 inches of webbing per bag (two straps) — enough webbing for six bags, with some left over. If you make the straps shorter, say 1 yard long per side (72 inches of webbing for two straps), you will get seven bags worth of straps, with a yard left over. I like longer straps — for security, functionality, and as part of the bag’s appearance — but if money is an issue, shorter straps will work. Just don’t make them too short.

Sometimes, you will find lightweight webbing or twill tape that is wider than the standard backpack width; 2 inches as opposed to 1 inch, or even wider. This webbing may be too lightweight to make a satisfactory bag strap. The solution is to fold it over and sew down the edges on one side and the fold line on the other. This strengthens the straps considerably, while still, unlike cloth handles, keeping a uniform thickness.

I also use grosgrain ribbon, 7/8- to 1- inch wide. This ribbon has a nice feel and the ribbing makes it slip-proof. It is too light in weight to use as is, so I double this, press it, and sew down both edges. Like the folded over webbing, it remains a consistent thickness throughout. Grosgrain ribbon comes in many colors and can be purchased in 100-yard spools. Since you have to double the ribbon, you don’t get as many bag handles as it would first appear, but you still get plenty from a 100-yard spool. When you buy grosgrain ribbon, make sure it is made of washable cloth and made for sewing. Some craft ribbons are made of slick paper, and they will not work for bag handles.

Twill tape is like grosgrain ribbon. It is too lightweight to use as is for bag straps, but folded over, it functions very well. Like grosgrain ribbon, you can find it in 100-yard spools and sometimes you have a choice of colors, along with a choice of widths.

Where to Find Handle Material

Where do you find webbing, twill tape and ribbon? Start at your local fabric store. Joann’s and other fabric stores will often sell you the entire spool, rather than selling it by the yard. Use your discount coupons to reduce the cost. It is worth looking for a discount fabric outlet in your area. This is how I purchased most of my webbing, twill tape and ribbon in 100-yard spools. Ribbon spools, twill tape, and webbing can also be ordered online. Look for belting and backpack supplies. Sometimes you get really lucky and instead of finding 100-yard spools, you get a 1,000-yard spool, the kind sold to the garment industry.

grocery bag ribbon

Highway-worker chartreuse ribbon makes an ideal material for straps.

Since you are using webbing or ribbon instead of fabric, you have to consider the color. Since I purchased a wide variety of 100-yard spools of webbing and ribbon, I use whatever looks best with the bags I am currently sewing. One of my spools is a bright highway worker chartreuse. The color is shockingly vivid, and for that reason, the store was heavily discounting the 1,000-yard spool to get rid of it. I think it was $10. Because I have so much of this color, I use it whenever it looks acceptable with the fashion fabric. It will take me a long, long time to use up all this ribbon. A 1,000-yard spool of dull, forest green webbing was much easier to use up as it blended better with just about everything. The chartreuse does not blend with anything. It fills the foreground, demanding attention for a mile around.

If you want to avoid this situation, stick to neutral tones like beige, tan, cream, or gray. White straps get dirty very fast so I don’t recommend this color. Black straps are striking and look good on most fabrics. In the end, the decision may be made for you based on what you can find and what you can afford.

If you choose to use fabric for your bag straps, I recommend using something other than the heavy weight fashion fabric you are making the grocery bags from. Instead, dig through your stash and find something in a coordinating color. Look for a fabric that is too lightweight to use for bags but one that, when doubled over, will feel nice in your hands. A weight like a percale sheet works very well. A one-yard cut of 45-inch wide piece of fabric should yield enough straps to make six grocery bags.

Start with a straight edge, by either tearing the fabric or pulling threads. Measure out and mark three-inch intervals and cut your strips, keeping on the cross-grain. A 1- yard cut (36 inches) should give you twelve 3-inch wide straps, each one 45 inches long, selvedge to selvedge, if you are precise in your measuring and cutting. That will allow you to make six pairs of straps. For every six pairs of straps, you will need another yard of fabric. If you are imprecise in measuring and cutting, you’ll need a few inches extra cloth for every yard in order to get 12 usable straps. Don’t cut your straps narrower than 3 inches in width.

Make the straps by ironing each one in half, lengthwise. Then fold in the raw edges ½ inch per side, ironing them in place. This will give you a folded over strap, all raw edges enclosed, that is 1-inch wide.

Sew a seam down both sides of the strap to secure both sets of folded over edges. If you omit sewing the seam by the fold line, that edge may roll or distort over time when the bag is being used. Fold in the top and bottom edges, concealing the raw edges when you pin and sew the straps onto your grocery bags.

Choosing to use up your stash to make fabric straps instead of using webbing, twill tape, or grosgrain ribbon is a personal choice. It really depends on you; do you have the time to make them, do you have ready access to inexpensive 100 yard spools of webbing, or do you have plenty of short cuts of fabric laying around, looking to be used up for something. If you don’t want to spend any additional money, then despite the additional sewing time, cloth straps work very well. Just don’t use the heavyweight fashion fabric. You cannot substitute something else for the panels and gussets as you can with the bag straps; reserve the home-dec weight cloth for the bag itself.

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