Wednesday, December 16, 2009

tutorial: reusable grocery bags

Hands-down, the favorite hand-made gift I've given to folks over the last few years has been reusable grocery bags. They are SO easy to make, and they're useful and good for the environment. And when I make them, they're also super frugal and doubly good for the environment, because I make them with (surprise!) thrifted linens! It's probably too late for last-minute gifts, but file this one away for next year, and start keeping your eye out for nice sheets (or my favorite - duvet covers with coordinating fabrics!).

Let me start off by saying this is not my original idea - I started with this tutorial on But as I sweat-shopped DOZENS of these bags, I discovered several shortcuts that make things go faster. You know me, I'm an engineer at heart (aka: LAZY). If you're familiar with that tute, here's a summary of the changes I made:
  • I use a square "neck" and "armhole", to avoid clipping lots of curves (so tedious!)
  • I use a quick and dirty method to join the straps at the top
  • I do the side folds while the bag is inside out - so much easier! This means the french seam on the bottom is "backwards", but who cares.
So, to begin... To make 8 bags, find two sheets that are at least about 80" by 96" (or a duvet cover of that size). If you are using regular fabric, you'll need about 2/3 yard each of two fabrics (one for the outside, and one for the lining) for each bag. My cutting instructions will be for using sheets, but I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out for regular yardage too (you'll lay out the bag sideways instead of upright).

If you want to make your own pattern (instead of using my measurements), you'll also need an old plastic bag to cut open. I've heard that Target bags are slightly bigger than grocery bags, so that's what I used.

Use your bag template (adding seam allowances), or use the measurements I've provided below. Mine are slightly smaller than a Target bag, just because it fit better with the dimensions of the fabric I was using.

Like I said, I love to use duvet covers, because their fabric already coordinates! I got this one for about $7, and it will yield 8 bags. Sweet!

I cut the duvet cover apart, and then cut each "sheet" in half (just to make it easier to handle). Then I layered two coordinating half-sheets (right sides together) and then folded that in half length-wise.

Here's what it looks like before I start cutting the bags out. The fold is at the top, and there are 4 layers of fabric. The reason I arrange it like this before cutting is so that I don't have to pin anything when I start sewing (I'm lazy, remember?).

And here is a cutting diagram of how I cut four bags from each half:

Here is the bag all cut out. If you're careful when you're cutting out the inner section, you can save that to make pockets. Just sew up the sides (leaving some space to turn), turn it, and press. Don't sew the pockets on right away - we'll do that in another couple steps.

So, first step - sew all the "neck" and "arm hole" seams. As I mentioned, since I cut the fabric out already layered and right sides together, I don't worry about pinning. And if you're lazy like me, you can chain stitch all your bags at once - do all the necks, then all the left arm holes, then all the right arm holes. I chain stitch everything I can!

Then clip all the corners. If you want to add pockets, now is the time. You can add them to the outside or the inside (or both!). Just pin roughly in the middle (on the right side of the fabric!) and do a narrow top-stitch around three sides. For myself, I leave them off - I usually only use these for groceries, and those don't need pockets. But for gifts, you might want to add them.

Now, pay attention here. For each bag, turn ONE piece right-side out and press. Leave the other piece wrong-side out.

Take the piece that is wrong side out, and lift up the top layer of fabric.

Take the second piece (the one that is right side out and pressed), and stuff its straps inside the straps on the first piece.

When you do this, make sure the outer fabrics are facing each other, and the inner fabrics are facing each other.

Pull the straps all the way up until the edges are even. Hold the bag up by the straps and give it a little shake to get everything in place. Pin the ends of the straps.

Sew straight across both straps (chain stitch again!). After stitching, clip the corners a little bit to reduce the bulk.

Don't pull the straps out just yet. Just sort of unfold the sides to match up the outer fabrics and the inner fabrics. Start pinning at the center, in case your ends are uneven (like mine!). Sew along the sides with about a 1/4" seam (chain stitch!).

Press the side seams open, and then (finally!) turn everything right side out. The straps will be connected like magic! Yay! So easy, right? Press the remaining neck and arm hole edges. When you're done, the lining fabric should be on the outside. Lay the bag out, and trim the ends if they need it. Then fold one edge over about 3" (just eyeball it), and pin. I usually do this at the ironing board, and I give it a quick little press too.

Flip the whole bag over, and fold the other side down about the same amount. Press (if you want) and pin.

This is what it should look like from the bottom. Folding to opposite sides eliminates the bulk that would build up in the middle if you were to fold them both to the same side.

Then, just sew across the bottom with a 1/4" seam (if you already trimmed the edge). Or, sew across with a 1/2" seam, and trim it down to 1/4". Chain stitch! :-)

Turn the bag right side out, and press the bottom (or not, if you're lazy like me). Then sew again about 1/2" away (yes, chain stitch!), creating your french seam. You're almost done!

Now, do a narrow top-stitch around all the neck holes and arm holes. Yes, I chain stitch these too - do all the necks, then all the left arms, then all the right arms. If you're pressed for time, you can ignore the arm holes - they'll be inside the side folds anyway, so you won't see them much.

Finally, fold the straps in half, and stitch across "in the ditch" (as close to the seam as you can).

Give the bag a little final press, and you're all done! Yippee!!!

Whew! Writing tutorials is hard work!! It is way past my bedtime now. I hope that all is clear. If not, please let me know!

And finally... Did you see that Sew Mama Sew is having a Grocery Bag Sew Off? I've signed up, and I'm hopefully going to finish up at least these 8 bags, and maybe more. Sadly, I've already given bags to every friend and family member I have! So, how about this - if you use this tute to make some bags, and blog about it, let me know, and I'll send you two of these bags. How cool is that - make some for gifts, and get some free ones for yourself! It's kind of like a grocery bag "pay it forward" scheme! The offer stands as long as I've got bags to give away, so get sewing!


  1. You are a saint! I had these on my list of gifts to make this year, but I never found a pattern I liked, and I was too busy (lazy) to come up with something on my own. Definitely filing this one away for next year! It is perfect! Thanks so much!!

  2. Hi Evelyn- I absolutely love your tutorial. I used the original tutorial to make myself a lunch sack, but I like your squared off version much better. Your pay it forward idea is fantastic--I'm trying to think of a way to cram in another craft before Christmas. Hmm...I'll let you know if I do.

  3. this is worked really hard on this tutorial. it looks pretty great! i am not sure that i have time to make bags right now, but if i do you can be sure i will blog about it.

  4. Evelyn, this is a great tutorial! I don't think I'll have time until the new year, but I'll be using this tutorial for sure! Thanks for putting it together.

  5. What a fabulous tute! I can hardly wait to use it.

  6. Thanks for this very clear tute! I'm not sure when I'll get around to making some but I'll be keeping my eye out for a nice duvet cover!

  7. Woo hoo!!! I love these bags-- and now I'll definitely be making some of these up in the near future! Thanks so much for sharing the tutorial. :)

  8. I made a grocery bag recently Definitely have to make another one using your tutorial.

  9. This is amazingly clear, and definitely will be my go-to tutorial once Christmas is over. Thanks!

  10. What a wonderful tutorial - thanks Evelyn!

  11. Great tutorial! This is just what I was looking for. New blog for me too, so I'll be sticking around and reading some.