A New Way to Sew Cloth Grocery Bags

We’re nearing the end of the book. This time, we’re going back to the beginning, to explain how Teresa learned to sew cloth grocery bags and the two styles she’ll teach in her book. There’s just two more posts to round out the series: one on Production Sewing and one on Selling Your Bags. Stay tuned!)

In the beginning, there was the tailored grocery bag, and I was going to write a book about making them. Inspired by a photo of one, I worked out the pattern and process based on my understanding of a cube. These bags are made of three pieces (front panel, back panel, and gusset) plus a trim-line and two straps. I sized it to match a reusable bag (made of some mysterious, cloth-like fabric) that I purchased at Giant.

sewing cloth grocery bagsI was happy with this design. I made hundreds of them and gave them away as gifts and sold them at craft shows. Then my dear husband asked if there were other ways, less complex ways, to sew cloth grocery bags. Hmmm. Well, I did not make cloth grocery bags any other way. I know this way so why would I change? He pointed out that showing other methods of sewing cloth grocery bags could result in a better book.

Fortunately, I did not have to devise another method. My neighbor and friend Lisa also sews cloth grocery bags so I asked her how she made hers.

Lisa makes boxed bags. She uses one piece of cloth to make the body of the bag as opposed to the three pieces that I use for a tailored bag. In a nutshell, you take a long rectangle of fabric, fold it over in half the long ways and sew up both sides. At that point, you have a sack, not very useful as a grocery bag. Then you work magic by folding the bag like a piece of origami and sewing across a triangle on each side. Fold in the triangles and voila! A boxed bag with a bottom and four sides. Finish the top and add straps and you have a finished grocery bag.

I spent some time making muslins to teach myself how Lisa made her bags, refining the seam finishing and figuring out how to handle those triangles. Yes, dear reader, I made muslins for grocery bags.

Think of them as prototypes that let me figure out the order of operations to make the seam margins behave. I wanted these bags to be as well-finished as my tailored bags, with not a raw edge to be seen. I also knew I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel with the straps or how I finished the top.

There are some similarities between the two bag styles. Both will last for years. Both can be repaired. Both can be hand-washed. With a careful layout, both bags are essentially zero waste. With the right amount of yardage, what’s left can be repurposed as bag straps, trim-lines, or panels and gussets.

There are some significant differences, too. The boxed bags are much easier and faster to sew. But it’s also complex in that you have to sew them in the right order to ensure the seam margins end up with no raw edges anywhere. They do not provide their own structure, unlike the tailored bags. They need a single, larger piece of fabric (19 inches by 36 inches) than the tailored bags do. Since the tailored bags need smaller pieces of fabric, it is possible to make “Frankenstein” versions from that bag of oddly sized upholstery remnants without piecing.

So which style should you sew? If you have a lot of suitable material in the stash, figure out on paper first which style will let you get the most bags from a given length of yardage. Calculate the amount waste fabric carefully. Can it be used for tailored bag panels and gussets, thereby giving you another bag? Or is that odd rectangle just the right size for a boxed bag?

If you are using repurposed fabric or fabric from the stash, it is almost a guarantee that you will have leftover cloth. Knowing how to sew both kinds of bags will let you eke out another tailored bag from the remnants when the pieces aren’t big enough to cut out a single 19-by-36-inch panel, allowing another boxed bag. Tailored bags can often lend themselves to piecing better than a boxed bag will, allowing you to squeeze out still another bag.