No matter how you celebrate, the year’s end brings a giving mood. In my family, handmade gifts have always dominated. The Christmas tree nearly topples over from the weight of handmade ornaments. Someone is always sporting a handknitted sweater or mittens after presents are unwrapped. Pantries fill with home-canned jars as quickly as trays empty of homemade cookies.
My Twice as Tasty gift to you this year is not only handmade but useful and reusable: cloth produce and bulk food bags. They’re so easy to make you’ll quickly have a stash, so you can even use them as gift bags for your homemade treats and other presents. For each one you give away, you dispense with gift paper, ribbons, and tape and instead wrap your gift in a fabric bag that can be reused or regifted.
In my kitchen, I’ve been working to reduce my use of plastics, especially single-use bags and containers. (Look for a Purging Plastic workshop in the new year.) Although I’ve been carrying my groceries home in canvas bags for years, I was still regularly recycling plastic produce bags. In researching a solution, I found many designs for handsewn reusable produce and bulk food bags—not just for transport but for storage.
There was one problem: I don’t sew. I needed a simple design that was easy to make, fill, close, and clean. I also needed an ally who could help me iron out both the fabric and the details—and who owned a sewing machine. Luckily, my mom is a talented art quilter and was willing open her studio to my little project.
The result was a collection of lightweight cloth bags that I’ve been using to transport and store everything from parsley to parsnips to pinto beans to peanuts. I didn’t want to search for a tie every time I filled the bag, so we stitched one into the side seam—simpler than sewing and threading a drawstring. The bags have a single bottom seam instead of a boxy, gusseted base; they won’t sit up on their own, but add a pound of rolled oats and they’ll rest solidly on the counter while you scoop out what you need with a measuring cup.
The “recipe” in this post gives you the full instructions on how to sew your own bags. A few suggestions make the project even easier.
Planning Your Bags
Recycling may give plastics a cat’s nine lives, but they eventually end up in the landfill. Instead of recycling them, the best option is to stop using them. But before you gather fabric for this project, consider how you’re replacing those plastic bags:
- Hidden plastic. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester and rayon, consist of manmade fibers that rely on chemicals and plastics. So opt for natural fibers for your homemade bags. The catalog of natural fibers includes cotton, linen, hemp, wool, jute, silk, and cashmere; the first three are more suitable for food bags, but the latter can make fancy gift bags.
- Tipping scales. Some fabrics can be heavy. I chose lightweight cottons and linens for my bags because I wanted to take them to the market, fill them from the bulk bins, and not pay more for the bag than its contents when it hit the checkout scale.
- A step ahead. You don’t need new fabric for these bags. I started this as a reuse project and made my bags from scrap fabric. If you don’t have a collection of likely materials, consider old sheets or thrift-store pillowcases. Fabric stores often sell remnants, the fabric equivalent of those last few squares of toilet paper on the roll. For a few dollars, you may even be able to buy fabric scraps from someone else’s project. Check out the Tips & Tricks for ways to identify natural fabrics.
Sewing Your Bags
I designed these bags to be so simple that I can make them, which basically means anyone can. But a few special tools and supplies make this DIY project easier:
- Sewing machine. You could hand-stitch these bags, but that idea would put me off the project. If you don’t own a sewing machine, reach out to a family member or friend who does. Better yet, make it a party: Invite some friends to the sewing room and make an afternoon or evening of it. Twice as Tasty recipes can even fuel your project.
- Cutting and measuring tools. You could cut out these bags using a yardstick and fabric scissors, but it will be easier with a rotary cutter, clear ruler, and self-healing cutting mat. If you sew or enlisted a sewing-machine owning friend, you likely have these tools. If you don’t, adding them to your arsenal may upgrade all of your sewing projects.
- Twill tape. For my bags, I opted for cotton twill tape, a flat, densely woven ribbon sometimes used to reinforce seams. You could use scraps of ribbon or even yarn, but it may include synthetics or not hold up as well.
Using Your Bags
Once you’ve finished your bags, the biggest challenge is forming the habit of using them. Here’s how I’ve been using mine:
- Shopping. Fill them with fresh produce and bulk items at the store. Fabric bags do weigh more than plastic ones; you could stop at the cashier on your way in to deduct the tare, but I tend to eat the cost of the extra 1/2 ounce of fabric. This does mean I don’t use my bags for spices, teas, and very small quantities—if you have bagging solutions for lightweight yet costly items, share them here.
- Storage. At home, store dry beans, rice, pasta, and other dry bulk items, as well as produce. Since you likely can’t see what’s in your bag, write the contents on the twill tape or clip or tie on an identifying tag. With cloth bags, my produce seems to last longer without turning to slime, and Sourdough Cabin Bread doesn’t mold as quickly. That said, some of my cloth bags seem to let in too much air and dry out fresh bread and herbs—if you have suggestions for storing these items in cloth, we’d love to hear them.
- Other considerations. Your new bags will likely stand out at checkout, but I’ve yet to encounter problems. Whether at a chain grocery store or local natural foods grocer, the cashiers haven’t objected when, instead of tagging each bag, I hand them my grocery list with the bin numbers written next to the items. I keep my shopping and dry-storage bags separate from those I use for produce still dirty from the garden.
Reusable Cloth Bags
Lightweight fabric made from natural fibers (such as cotton, linen, or hemp)
Cotton or other natural-fiber thread
Cotton twill tape
Wash and dry your fabric. If it’s too wrinkled to cut evenly, iron it before you lay it out for cutting. Cut your fabric as needed so that it is your desired size and the edges are square; a template or cutting mat and clear plastic ruler will help ensure straight cuts.
Choose one of the long edges for the opening of each bag. Turn under at least 1/2 inch of this edge to the wrong side, ironing down your turned hem. Use your sewing machine to stitch it into place with a straight, zigzag, or decorative stitch and a 3/8-inch seam allowance. Cut a piece of twill tape that is about as long as your hemmed edge; this will be the tie closure for your bag.
Lay the fabric right side up so that the hem is at the top; fold the twill tape in half, and place or pin the crease on one unfinished edge of the fabric, about 2 inches below the hem. Fold the other unfinished edge over the top of the twill tape to join the two edges. You now have a bag shape with a hemmed top, a folded side, an unfinished bottom, and an unfinished side sandwiching the folded twill tape.
Sew the bag together. Start at top corner beside the hem, reinforcing your stitching 2 or 3 times. Sew over the twill tape and down the unfinished side, and then sew around and along the bottom edge to the folded corner. Cut off the end threads and turn your bag right side out. Tie a knot at each twill tape end to discourage fraying. Fill the bag with your items, and close it with the twill tape ties.
Tips & Tricks
- Scrap or repurposed fabric works well for these bags. To truly reduce your plastic footprint, skip synthetic fabrics, whose manmade fibers rely on chemicals and plastics.
- It’s hard to identify fabric type by look and feel. The best solution is a burn test: Hold just the corner of a small piece of the fabric over a candle flame until it catches fire; let it burn just enough to char the edge, and then put it out. Natural fibers burn quickly and cleanly; synthetic fibers and blends melt. The same is true of cotton versus polyester twill tape.
- If you want to make a lot of bags in the same size, you can cut out a fabric or paper template. To make bags from scraps, just trim the existing block of fabric until it is square. Use these differently sized upcycled bags for different quantities of produce and dry goods.
- The selvage, which the manufacturer wove tightly to prevent fraying, is the strongest edge. If your fabric has a selvage, use that as your hemmed edge to strengthen your bag’s opening.
- If you’re uncertain about your ability to keep the fabric straight while you sew, pin the hem, twill tape, and seams before you start stitching.
Twice as Tasty
The blog already holds plenty of goodies to gift inside your reusable bags. Large bags can hold a loaf of sourdough bread or quick bread. Midsize bags work for a jar of jam or salsa you canned over summer or a freshly made jar of refrigerator pickles. Your smallest home-sewn fabric bags can enclose 4-ounce jars of herb infusions or homemade mustards. Add a custom Twice as Tasty gift tag to show that your gift, and it’s wrapping, were made with love.
The Twice as Tasty test kitchen, tiny as it is, has been in full swing preparing posts to close out the year and ring in the new one. This month, I’ll be sharing new cookie and holiday beverage recipes to sweeten and warm your winter evenings. Come January, look for new recipes that will keep your sourdough bubbling, along with the 2nd annual sourdough giveaway. New workshops and other Twice as Tasty Live events are also in the works for 2019. Happy holidays!
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