Reusable Grocery Bags: The Art of Design for $1 or less.

Consider the humble grocery bag. You know the one I mean: The plastic kind with the fused handles that stack so nicely when they’re at the grocery store, yet incredibly manage to take up so much space in our kitchens. Ours used to take up a whole drawer in our kitchen, and when one’s kitchen only contains three drawers, this is an issue. My problem with reusable grocery bags, and from what I’ve heard it’s a popular one, is that although those big totes are lovely, durable, and hold everything you could ever wish to buy, I can never seem to actually remember to bring them into the store. Enter: A Solution.

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Honestly, I was hesitant to even write a post about these things. They’re pretty cool, very useful, and I do love them but I’m still coming down off the high of successfully sewing my first bra and let me tell you, that is leaps and bounds more exciting construction-wise than reusable shopping bags. However, they’re easy, practical, perfectly suited, and they make my life a heck of a lot easier, so I’ve decided they’re worth sharing. If you’re visiting for amazing pictures though, this is perhaps not the post for you… but maybe go check out my projects page – promise not everything is this utilitarian…

Now, like I said, my problem with reusable shopping bags is that I can never remember them, right? What if I could come up with a way to always have them, thus eliminating the need to remember? Okay, that seems doable. What’s a lightweight but strong material that doesn’t take up too much space and won’t weigh me down if I want to carry it around in my bag at all times? Jon’s hiking gear has a lot of ripstop nylon, as it’s both lightweight and strong. Perfect!

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~the prettiest pictures of a reusable shopping bag you’ll see all week~

Spotlight has ripstop nylon in 10ish pretty awesome colors for $13/meter. (if you’re not in NZ/Australia, think of Spotlight like Jo-Anns, except not as well organized and more expensive-if that’s even possible…) I had just about settled on some shockingly hot pink grocery bags, when I happened into Geoff’s Emporium (It’s like shopping in a creepy old basement but the trade off is amazing prices) – and found some lovely ripstop nylon for a whopping $1 per meter! One dollar! for a whole meter of fabric! Unfortunately it only came in grey. There were some other colors, but only the grey was $1. I was all set up and convinced to buy the $13 variety, so you can only imagine my delight! I took home a meter and got to work.

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Meet your friendly neighborhood kitchen floor: Good thing I only bought 1 meter ’cause that’s all I had room for…

Pinterest is full of reusable shopping bags, and I’m not the first to attempt one that can fold down and be kept unobtrusively in one’s handbag. Baggu makes delightful ones for $9 that have cute prints and fun colors, but we are not about that life. Not when there is ripstop nylon in this world for $1 per meter, and we have a sewing machine. Think of what else you could buy with the other eight dollars!

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As you can see, I really dressed myself up for this photoshoot…

The next requirement of my bag design was, well, a design. Do I go for a simple rectangular tote with handles enough to sling over a shoulder if necessary? Shall it have a boxy bottom that would add bulk but also increase storage space? How might the handles be reinforced? Pinterest, again, is full of ideas, but inspiration struck this time in a much more mundane place. Someone’s already designed the perfect compact grocery bag after all – why try to reinvent the wheel? I decided to model my bags after the very ones I was trying to replace. Have a look at one of your standard, run of the mill grocery bags: they’ve got a bottom gusset that adds space to stuff it full when the bag is open, and the handles are wide and cut onto the bag itself – two key features which increase strength and comfort of handling. Plus, in theory, my ripstop nylon would behave very similarly to the plastic.

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Hello, pretty pattern pieces!

Skip ahead to Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the kitchen floor with my one meter of  one dollar ripstop, and one plastic bag. I cut the heat welded seams off the bag, and copied it directly to use as a pattern for my creation. The construction is straightforward, with all seams enclosed and reinforced to prevent the fuzzy fraying nylon from snagging and going everywhere, and to keep the bag from tearing itself apart under the weight of our shopping.

Here’s a little cutting diagram on how I maximized my fabric space:

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I really wanted to make it hot pink to match the fabric I almost ended up with…but we might as well embrace the grey.

A few construction notes:

Side seams are enclosed first by sewing wrong sides, then trimming to 1/8″, then flipping and sewing right sides- the traditional french seam. The ‘armholes’ and ‘neckhole’ (the thing kind of looks like a sleeveless shirt before you sew its bottom closed) are bound with self-made 1/4″ binding. The 1/4″ is a bit fiddly but 1/2″ causes too much wrinkling on the curves. Then, the bottom gusset is pinned in place (ballpoint pins prevent snagging!) and sewn with some more self-made 1/4″ binding, folded under at both ends. You’ll need about a yard and a half of the binding per bag. I find it helpful to iron the bottom gussets down, thus creating creases to help line everything up, but for the love of all things holy please turn your iron down to the lowest setting if you’re a person like me who almost never sews synthetics.

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Let’s talk about how boring grey nylon shopping bags are to take pictures of…

Last but not least, using the scrap leftover from cutting out the main opening of the bag, I made a small stuff-sack for storage in my purse. The lips overlap slightly, and the sides are french seamed like the bag’s sides. Here’s a little photo collage of the folding:

 

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With an artfully placed 6″ ruler for scale! So Scientific!

 

The original grocery store bag is heat-welded at the top edge of the handle – the exact place where you hold the bag – and although I cut my bags on the fold so there was no need for a seam there, I stay-stitched the handle of the first bag in half to facilitate folding. However, Jon- the authority on all things grocery shopping and cooking in our house (because I’m hopeless)- decided the stitching was in a silly place, and as soon as he learned it wasn’t vital to the function of the bag, asked me to take it out. The bag still folds just fine, and this way there’s no added bulk from the seams, making them (in his exact words) “much more comfortable to carry and superior to the plastic bags by far”

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To be honest, when he said that was the exact moment I decided these mundane, un-pretty grocery bags deserved a place on the blog.

 

I made these bags only about 1.5″ wider than a plastic grocery bag, but much to my surprise they hold so much more stuff than the plastics. Jon and I shop for groceries once a week, and that trip for two of us results in an average of 5 plastic grocery bags. With my first meter of ripstop, I made two reusable shopping bags (I was an inch short of getting three! so close! I was thwarted by the self-binding…) – and for three weeks after I made them, we used just the two bags for our weekly shop, plus one plastic bag to keep the meat separate. From five to two! Even if you don’t count the separate meat bag, that’s twice as much in one bag!

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I was going to post comparison photos of my bag and a plastic bag with the same groceries, but then I ripped the stupid plastic bag. Clearly that’s just illustrating my point.

I think part of it might be that we trust the ripstop nylon a lot more than we trust the plastic it replaced. Sharp box corners and heavy cans make me nervous about plastic, but the reusable bag stands up to that no problem! The week after I made the first two, we’d just run to the store for some emergency milk, cereal, and ice cream (a true emergency you see) and we decided to get a plastic bag as we still use them as trash can liners. We were perilously thwarted when the cereal box ripped through the side of the plastic bag, and I ended up whipping out a reusable bag, dramatically saving the day in the grocery store parking lot.

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I just wish the silly things were a little prettier is all. It looks so sad and droopy…

I have fabric for five bags (spent one more dollar on one more meter), and have three of them finished, so the last two are going to be spares.

I can’t decide what the best part of this whole project is. Is it that, at five bags from 2 meters of $1 fabric, each one costs 40 cents in materials? Is it that they weigh almost nothing, live happily in my purse, and during the month since they’ve been used I haven’t forgotten them once? Perhaps it’s the ~environmentally conscious grownup who really has her shit together~ vibes I feel every time I use them. It might even be that Jon really likes them, and I’ve thus far managed to (if temporarily) abandon everything I’ve ever made for him (or promised to make, and let me tell you it’s a long list) and this somehow feels like progress.

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It was sunny for exactly three minutes today, and my three minutes of sun were spent modeling a shopping bag.

While they’re definitely an economical and responsible sewing project, they’re not high on my list of Things That Were Amazing To Sew. Plus, really, there are not many ways to take attractive photos of stormcloud-grey reusable shopping bags. Makes like these satisfy a need though, and for their purpose, I could not be happier with the way they turned out. Now that they’re done, though, all I really want to do is go sew something…pretty.

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CAN’T WAIT TO SHARE THIS PROJECT WITH YOU GUYS

On that note, hello to all the new friends I’ve made this week! I promise there’s something much prettier in the works for when we meet again! (hint: I’ve used the rest of that purple lace, and it’s almost finished!)…

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