Tailored Cloth Grocery Bags: First Pass

Your cloth has been purchased. You’ve washed it (if needed), unpicked any seams (if it is repurposed fabric), and you have ironed it. You measured the fabric, then worked out the most economical layout of panels and gussets on paper. You cut the fabric into panels and gussets.

cloth grocery bag link to postsNow it is time to start sewing the Cadillac of grocery bags, the tailored bag. The first pass is the hardest, most time-consuming sewing step. I sew my bags without pinning together the panels and gussets. I mark my pivot points as I come to them, mostly by eye. I finish sewing one complete tailored bag — two panels and a gusset — through to the end of the first pass, prior to moving forward and sewing the next bag in the series. I sew each bag in turn, until I have matched up all my side panels and gussets. Any leftover panels or gussets move to the Frankenstein pile for reuse later on, in a mix and match tailored bag.

Walk for a Walking Foot

I strongly recommend that you sew these bags with a walking foot. It isn’t required and I sewed many bags in the past without one, but it makes the process much, much easier, with smoother results. The fabric, no matter what you do, has a tendency to creep forward and the walking foot slows this process down. If you sew without a walking foot, you must sew very slowly to avoid stretching the top layer.

When you reach the end of sewing the gusset to the first panel, you will have some overage on the gusset. This is by design as it is far easier to trim the gusset shorter then it is to come up short and have to insert a patch. Do not trim the excess off! You’ll do that later.

When you sew the other edge of the gusset to the second panel, you may get more creep in the gusset fabric, ending up with not a rectangle of excess fabric to trim off, but a trapezoid. Without the walking foot, the second side of the gusset excess may be two or three inches longer than the first edge. This looks strange and your fabric stretching this much makes for a twisted bag. You can (and I have done this) force the bag into submission via the decorative strip, the side corner seams, and the bag straps, but it is easier to avoid the issue by using a walking foot and sewing slowly.

I don’t use a pattern, just chalk outlines, and I don’t mark my pivot points in advance and pin carefully, matching edges, so there is no way around this potential problem, other than either hand-basting or a walking foot. Get the walking foot. If you’re like me, you will wonder why you took so long.

walking foot seams right

Highly recommended: Walking foot and Seams right tool.

Get a Seams Right Too

The other tool I recommend is a Seams Right with Nancy Zieman. This little metal gadget is made by Clover and it is available in the sewing notions area in most fabric shops or online. It turned out to be perfect for accurately marking the pivot point. I made hundreds of tailored bags before acquiring this little gem so you don’t need it, certainly not as much as you need the walking foot. But it sure is handy.

The list of directions looks complicated, but it gets easier quickly. You are performing the same motion, over and over, six times for each bag. That is, you do essentially the same thing for the left side seam, bottom seam, and right side seam when securing the front panel to the gusset and then repeat the steps for the left side seam, bottom seam, and right side seam attaching the back panel to the gusset. The end result is a five-sided bag (side, side, side, side, and bottom), open at the top, which is inside out.

So now that I have thoroughly confused you, let’s get started.

Starting the Process

As a reminder, each side panel should measure 13 by 15 inches. The side panels are oriented so that the top and bottom edges will be 13 inches wide and the right and left edges are 15 inches tall. That is, the bag will be taller than it is wide. The gusset should be 43 inches long and no narrower than 7 inches, no wider than 9 inches. Any width in between is fine.

You will be changing your stitch length frequently. This is because you cannot backtrack with a walking foot. Switching to a tight stitch helps secure the stitching at the beginning and end of a seam. You will also shorten your stitch length when you near a pivot point, sew the pivot and go round the corner. Again, this is to ensure a tighter seam that does not come undone later on. The long stretches of stitching should be done with whatever length works best for your fabric. You may have to adjust to a longer stitch for thicker fabric. Trial and error is the only way.

Mark the top edge of each bag side panel, so you don’t miss-sew one when you grab it from the pile. This is the cut edge measuring 13 inches. The 15-inch long sides will be the sides of the finished grocery bag.

Set your needle in the center position so you can sew a 3/8 seam, using the edge of the walking foot as a measuring device and aligning the cut edges of the cloth.

Line up the cut sides of the bag, right sides together, with the gusset underneath and the front panel on top. Align the tops of the two pieces as well. You will be sewing the right side seam, starting at the top of the bag.

cloth grocery bags

Line up the cut sides of the bag.

Set your machine (since you cannot backstitch with a walking foot) to .4mm and sew down ± ¼-inch to secure the seam.

Lengthen the stitch setting to 3mm or thereabouts and sew the right side seam, the panel to the gusset, stopping when you are within about two inches of the bottom of the panel.

This is when you mark the pivot point on the wrong side of the front panel. The Seams Right gauge is perfect for an accurate measurement, although I did it by eye for years. Using the ¼-inch projection, align the Seams Right gauge with the bottom corner of the front panel. Make two crossing lines, each one ¼ in from the two sides. I use a fine-point black felt-tip pen. The marks don’t show in the finished bag as they end up inside a seam.

Make two crossing lines

snipping the gusset

Snipping the gusset.

Here’s the tricky part. You have marked the pivot point on the front panel. With the front panel laying smooth and even atop the gusset, line up your scissors with the horizontal line and make a ¼-inch snip in the gusset underneath. The pivot marking on the front panel tells you where to turn. Snipping the gusset allows that piece of fabric to turn, when you pivot the front panel to sew the bottom seam.

Continue sewing until you are about one inch away from the pivot point. Shorten your stitch to 1mm (to strengthen the corner). Sew up to the pivot point.

At the pivot point, lift up the presser foot and turn the front panel so you will now be sewing the bottom seam. Align the gusset with the bottom edge of the front panel. Sew about an inch with the machine stitch length still set at 1mm (to strengthen the corner).

Making the turn.

When you are about an inch away from the pivot point, lengthen the stitch back to 3mm or thereabouts and proceed along the bottom seam, keeping to your 3/8-inch seam margin.

When you are within two inches of the corner of the front panel, it’s time to mark the pivot point again.

Just as before, mark a set of crossing lines ¼ inch inside the corner of the front panel, using your Seams Right gauge (if you have one). Snip a ¼-inch slit in the gusset underneath. Sew down (using the 3mm stitch) towards the corner.

When you are about one inch away, shorten your stitch length to 1mm (to strengthen the corner) and sew up to the pivot point.

At the pivot point, lift the presser foot and turn the front panel so you are now sewing the left side seam. Align the front panel left side with the gusset and sew about another inch using the 1mm stitch length.

When you are about one inch away from the pivot point, lengthen your stitch to 3mm and, keeping your 3/8-inch seam margin, sew to the end.

The gusset strip will be longer than the front panel. Don’t trim it off! We’ll do that after the back panel is sewn on.

Congratulations! You have finished attaching the front panel to the gusset and the bag is taking shape.

Back Panel to the gusset

We’re going to do the same process again, this time attaching the back panel to the gusset.

We attach the back panel to the gusset exactly the same way, adjusting the stitch length to reinforce seam starts and endings, and the corners. As before, sew your 3/8-inch seams slowly so that the gusset doesn’t stretch too much. And as before, we mark the pivot points as we get near them. The difference is that this time, the gusset side is up and the back panel is down.

So let’s get started.

Place the free, long edge of the gusset (the one lined up with the panel it is sewn to, not the uneven end), right sides together, on the back panel. Line up the top edge of the gusset with the back panel top. At the same time, align the free, right side of the gusset with the right side edge of the back panel, right sides together. Using a .4mm stitch length, secure the right side seam. Change your stitch length to 3mm or thereabouts and sew to about 2 inches from the bottom edge of the back panel.

You have to watch for this location, as you don’t want to get too close to the bottom edge of the panel. Remember that the back panel is underneath the gusset so you cannot see it.

Slide your Seams Right between the gusset and the back panel. Line up the ¼-inch tab of the Seams Right with the bottom panel corner. This is underneath the gusset and on top of the bottom panel corner. From the top of the gusset, you should be able to feel the change in thickness. Mark the pivot point on the gusset, using the same crisscrossing lines.

Snip a ¼-inch cut on the gusset to the pivot point. This time you can see exactly where you are making your snip but you are estimating where it is in relationship to the back panel. This is the opposite of how you marked and snipped the pivot point when sewing the gusset to the front panel.

Sew closer to the pivot point and when you are about an inch away, tighten your stitch length to 1mm. Sew up to the pivot point.

At the pivot point, lift the presser foot and swing the back panel around (under the gusset) aligning the bottom edge of the back panel with the gusset. The gusset will turn with the snip cut.

Sew ± 1 inch using the 1mm stitch length, securing the corner. Then adjust your stitch length back to 3mm and proceed, with your 3/8 inch seam margin down the bottom edge of the bag.

When you are about 2 inches away from the corner on the back panel, stop and mark the pivot point again on the gusset. As before, snip a ¼-inch cut at the pivot point on the gusset. Adjust your stitch length when you are within 1 inch from the marked pivot point.

At the pivot point, lift the presser foot, pivot the back panel, aligning the edges, and sew for an inch using your 1mm stitch length to secure the corner.

Then readjust your stitch length to 3mm and proceed along the left side seam to the top of the bag.

When you are within ½ inch of the end of the back panel, (the gusset is too long to measure by), shorten your stitch length to .4mm to secure the stitch line. Cut the bag free from the machine and set it aside.

Sew all your remaining sets of panels and gussets together the same way.

When you have sewn all your grocery bags together, it is time to prepare them for the second pass.

Look over the panels and clip any loose threads.

The bags are still inside out. Look over all six seam margins and remove any loose threads, clipping them off or pulling them free. This seam margin will be captured within the next pass. Cleaning up loose bits now will mean not having to remove whiskers sticking out of the seam later on.

Next, clip across each of the four outside corners, coming within a few threads of the pivot point. Clipping the seam close will make enclosing this seam easier and less bulky.

Lay the bag, still inside out, down flat. The too long part of the gusset should be down, with the panel side up. Straighten the bag so the edges of the two panels and the other edge of the gusset make a straight line. Trim off the excess gusset fabric. If you sewed slowly, using a walking foot, you should have a rectangle about 1 to 2 inches wide and the width of the gusset. If you did not use a walking foot or you went too fast, you will get a trapezoid, with one side longer than the other. The finished bag will have a little twist to it, but it will be perfectly functional when finished.

When you have de-whiskered, clipped corners, and trimmed the excess gusset fabric from all the grocery bags, flip them right-side out, laying them flat with the bottom of the gusset folded inside (to discourage wrinkles) and you are ready for the second pass.

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