Production Sewing of Cloth Grocery Bags

production sewing

You want to be efficient with your time and materials to make a lot of bags like these and sell them profitably.

I taught myself how to sew grocery bags in quantity. I know there are plenty of things that I have missed or don’t understand. There isn’t much information out there about sewing the same thing over and over, especially for the home seamstress. Patterns assume you’ll only make one item and only one at a time.

Laying out the patterns for mass sewing is different, cutting them out is different and sewing them is different. If, for example, you want to make matching pajamas for the whole family for Christmas, figuring out the yardage needed is easy. You just add up all yardage the pattern says for the five sizes you need to make.

But is it that simple? You may realize that you can lay smaller pattern pieces in the spaces between the larger ones and discover when you get to the end, that you’ve got enough yardage left over to make two more pairs of pjs. That was money you didn’t need to spend.

sewing cloth grocery bagsWhen you cut out the pajama pieces, do you want to make only one cut between a pair of legs or two? If you go to the trouble of cutting out all those triangle marking points, then you cannot lay one pattern piece directly alongside another. If you aren’t matching plaids, then do you need all those triangle points sticking out? Wouldn’t it be nice if one cut gave you the raw edge on two separate pattern pieces? That would save fabric too, enabling you to buy less.

When you sew the pajama pieces together, should you stay-stitch all those neck edges at once or do them as you come to them, one set of pjs at a time? Should you set in all the sleeves on all the tops at once? Or do them one set of pjs at a time? How about buttonholes? Once the machine is set up for buttonholes, you should sew all those buttonholes on all those plackets at once.

There’s not much out there on the subject for any kind of sewing, whether garments or something else made of cloth. I believe this is because that’s the way home sewers operate. Certainly, everything I’ve sewed in the past has been one-offs or I sewed multiples of a pattern one at a time spread out over years. Sometimes what I sewed has been very complicated but each item was a stand-alone. The only exception has been sheers and curtains, but those are all straight seams and generally the width of the fabric. Not much help there.

So when I began sewing grocery bags, I had to work out my own methods. I think I did a decent job, considering my total ignorance of the sewing industry along with the fact that I am not an expert home sewist. Writing “Sew Your Own Grocery Bags” led me to think even harder about the best way to make them in quantity.

There are still more things to consider that you may not have thought of.

If you are going to buy material, then the boxed bags are quicker to sew and quicker to cut out. Stick with these for production sewing as time is money and your buying public may not be able to understand why you charge more for a tailored bag than a boxed bag. The finished bags look almost identical to anyone who doesn’t sew. If you only sew tailored bags with odd remnants, you can keep the price the same since you are using up fabric that might have otherwise gone to waste.

If you want to sell grocery bags as a home-based business as opposed to making your own plus sets as gifts for all your friends and relatives, then you have to keep a laser focus on cost. Cost matters. You won’t earn any money if you can’t sell each bag for enough money to pay for what you spent plus profit. This doesn’t just include the cost of fabric. Cloth is not going to be your biggest expense. Your time is what costs you the most. You might be able to source your fabric for less than $1 a yard, your webbing for pennies, and your thread from big cones you bought at the outlet. The time you invest in each bag, however, doesn’t change unless you become more efficient.

How do you become more efficient? You can start by outsourcing all the easy jobs to helpful family members (see chapter 8). Those folks cannot operate a sewing machine but they don’t need to in order to turn bags right-side-out or clip thread tails. That becomes time you don’t spend; time that you use for something nobody else can do.

If you make quilts and do machine piecing, then you are probably already familiar with chain piecing. Chain piecing saves you time and thread. Thread costs money too, and those spools add up fast. If you’re sewing dozens of bags, then consider where you could chain the sections to speed up the process. Have your assistant cut the chains apart and snip off all those thread tails. Chaining the production process will change the order of operations a little, but if you want to make hundreds of bags, then look into it. Keep notes as you go for future reference.

Do you have a serger? I don’t and that determined how I sew grocery bags. I have a horror of raw edges. They don’t strengthen the seam, they unravel, they don’t add any structure, and they look messy and unprofessional.

If you have a serger, then you know that as you sew the seam, you finish it at the same time. A serger would completely change the sewing process and make it faster. I can’t tell you how to serge a grocery bag, either the boxed or the tailored version. What I can say is make a bag (either kind) the regular way and then dig out that Hannah Montana fabric that nobody will accept even for free and serge a few bags, figuring out what you want to change. Again, keep notes as you go.

I think you would only have to make one pass for the boxed bag, sewing it wrong sides together. The triangular wedge would be sewn with a regular stitch and then sewn down with a regular stitch as would the flange. Or, you could sew the bag right sides together with the serged seam on the inside. Then use your serger to sew the triangular wedge, trimming it short. Use a regular stitch to secure the serged flanges down. Or not. See what works.

The tailored bag should be similar. A serger would allow you to make many fewer passes through the sewing machine, saving you valuable time. You should end up with all your serged seams on the inside of the bag. If you sew them down to reinforce the sides, the bag will still function the same way; it will even look similar to a tailored bag sewn the usual way.

One result I can forecast is that your finished bag (whichever type you make) will be slightly larger as you haven’t used up as much cloth in seam margins. This is not a flaw so don’t change the size of the pattern pieces. I chose those sizes to minimize cutting waste.

A serger won’t help you with the straps or the foldover. It could help you with the trim-line, if you choose to serge the raw edge before doing the foldover. If you do this, the serged edge becomes the finished edge. A contrasting thread, with the stitches close together, could look very nice and completely enclose the raw edge. It would be faster and use cheaper thread as opposed to more expensive trim.

Do you want to make the straps as long as I recommend, sewing them down almost to the bottom of the bag? Longer straps take a little more time to sew and they use more costly webbing or fabric or twill tape. If you are sewing a thousand grocery bags for the craft show circuit, cutting each strap one foot shorter will save you some significant money, yet each bag will still look good and function as it should. One thousand bags requires 2,000 straps so cutting each strap one foot shorter adds up to 2,000 feet or 667 yards of webbing you didn’t have to pay for.

If you’re selling, you need to consider your fabric carefully. You are competing with those 99¢ bags that every store sells nowadays. Worse, some stores are now selling very cheap, stamped design canvas bags for $3.99.

You probably can’t get a customer at the craft show to pony up $10 for a plain canvas bag. Those are everywhere and your careful sewing won’t matter. However, you might very well get someone to pay you $10 for a unique bag made of floral upholstery, denim, or striped drapery fabric. Those bags are special, you can’t get them anywhere else, and the purchaser gets something one of a kind. That matters to many people.

In this case, don’t make too many of any given fabric as uniqueness is your selling point. You also have to choose a wide range of fabrics (from the clearance rack, natch) since your taste won’t necessarily be the same as the customers. I’ve made plenty of bags that I thought would sell nicely at the craft shows I go to and I’ve been wrong. Other bags that I made–to use up the ugly, free fabric I had–I thought would never sell. I was wrong there too. The customers determine what sells and they won’t think like you or even each other.

If you decide to make bags to sell, then think carefully about all the cost-cutting methods you can use so that you actually earn a profit. Keep careful records of what you spend on material and how much time it takes you to sew a set of bags. Get as much assistance from the family as you can for the non-sewing portions. And don’t take my methods as gospel. Feel free to alter them to suit your circumstances. Use the fabric you like and can afford. The bags you make will be your own bags so make them the way that works best for you.

The other thing you should do before sewing hundreds of bags to sell is some research on running a small business. There are many books on this so I won’t repeat their information. However, very few books on small, home-based businesses cover sewn products. The primary cost in sewn products whether they are grocery bags or pajamas is labor. That is to say, your time spent bent over a sewing machine or someone else’s time.

Then there’s all the issues of how to find a selling venue with customers who will actually pay a reasonable price for your product. Local boutiques? You have to ask and what they’ll accept this month might not be accepted next month. The craft show circuit, local or regional? I’ve done this one and sales vary wildly from show to show. The shows vary too, from the very small show at your annual church bazaar (low cost of entry and small customer base) to the large show (high entry fee and many more customers). Online in your Etsy store? I’ve never tried this route. All of these venues have their benefits and drawbacks and the only way to find out what works is to try.

A book I found recently that does cover some of those hidden issues is “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing” by Kathleen Fasanella. Ms. Fasanella published her book in 1997 so it is out of date in some ways. It is still the only book I could find on Amazon that discusses production sewing, and if you want a home-based business sewing cloth grocery bags, then production sewing is what you’re going to be doing. Ms. Fasanella’s book would be useful too if you got successful enough to start hiring other people to sew bags for you while you manage the business. It is an expensive book so get your copy via your library and then decide if you want to buy your own copy to make notes in.

If cloth grocery bags work out for you, you may want to expand into other cloth items. Again, you must keep detailed notes on your sewing processes and keep track of all your costs. Revise your methods as needed. Try different ways and see what works best, just like you should keep track of what designs sell best.

If your business costs you money, it’s not a business. It is a hobby.

You also need to use patterns where you can legally sell what you make. All the big pattern companies tell you on the pattern that it is for home use only. I seriously doubt that McCall’s or Butterick send teams of lawyers trolling through the craft show circuit looking for people who’ve used their scrub patterns. The same thing is true of using that Disney-themed cloth or Dr. Who fabric for your kid’s pjs or the Angry Birds upholstery for grocery bags. I don’t think Disney or anyone else keeps an eye on that market. They won’t waste their time or money other than on big manufacturers.

Honestly, copyright law is complex and you should ask a lawyer. Or, draft your own patterns. Then you own them and you can do what you want.

In the case of my grocery bag patterns, I want them to be used. Philosophically, I am opposed to disposable bags. I want to see more people using cloth bags. I want to see more people making some money from small businesses, and cloth grocery bags are one way to do it.

I hope this book lets that happen. Make as many bags as you like and if you make some money doing so, that is even better.