Sunday, July 7, 2013

Make Friends, Save World, with Totes from Hard-to-Use Fabrics

Out on the Left Coast, where I live, plastic grocery bags are nearly extinct. The Los Angeles City Council just passed a law to restrict their use, making L.A. the largest city to do so. Similar bans have become law in San Francisco, and in 75 or so smaller California cities.

The rest of the country may eventually follow suit, because plastic bags are an environmental hazard. The laws banning them are bad for the plastic bag industry (here's hoping they can retool), but they're good for wildlife; landfill reduction; minimizing vast oceanic plastic garbage whirlpools; and above all, for quilters and other fabriholics.

The growing demand for reusable bags, small enough to bundle into purses or pockets, but strong and large enough to carry a significant amount of stuff, are a huge opportunity for quilters to use our
a. interesting
b. beautiful
c. hideo-beautiful
d. can only be appreciated close up
e. what was I thinking/drinking when I bought this?


My initial grocery tote bag made a couple of years ago choose both (a) and (c) above. I used a 1970s cheater fabric. (cheater = pretending to be patchwork. It features squares of red, white, and blue florals and geometrics, plus a color that might be described as overripe-avocado-green -  or is that crop-failure-harvest-gold?   
You know a fabric is trouble when the gold is also green. Here's the finished bag: 
Ugly, but incredibly useful, because it was so large. I made it the exact size of the yardage that I started with (minus handles), which turned out to be huge. The fabric piece started at about 27" x 30", and I folded and seamed at the sides (with enclosed seams) to wind up with a bag that's about 26" wide and 15" high. It swallows almost anything that daily life throws at me, including, just today, six pairs of denim jeans donated by a friend (for cutting up and making stuff.)

What I didn't anticipate is how much a bag can become a bridge to my fellow humans who are retail workers. When I pull it out of my purse, clerks are often surprised, and ask me if I made it. Some of them are obviously trying not to laugh. Which always makes me laugh. So we all end up laughing. Thus the clerks, the baggers and I are all  having a better time than we would if we were just thinking that my almond milk coupon expired last Thursday. 

Though it's only single-layered, the bag has held up well. (I wouldn't put three cartons of almond milk in it, but I would put in one carton, two cans of beans, a large box of cereal,  romaine lettuce, a pair of jeans, and a couple of pairs of socks.) After a year or so, rips started to develop at the base of two handles. In keeping with the eco-theme, and my faith in serendipity, I patched them with whatever I grabbed first from the box where I keep scraps with fusible backing. 

Like black and white computer keys fabric....
On the reverse side of this patch, I fused and stitched (with invisible thread in both top and bobbin) a Simpsons patch. 
Even the most somber grocery professionals have to crack a smile (or not). 

This bag has an outer pocket with a button, and a buttonhole, set in locations that allow you to squish everything up and stuff it into the pocket turned the other way out.
I'll explain how I do this below. 

Much readier for prime time, and even suitable for gift giving, is my newest squish-'n'-go-tote, made, like George M. Cohan, on the Fourth of July.
I used a heretofore unusable 'How to Quit Smoking' fabric, purchased years ago online, for reasons that, immediately after purchase, vanished forever from my brain. (I didn't know any smokers.) 
Can you read  the captions in the photo?  "Let the doctor give him a good lecture" (top left), "You might gain weight," (top middle), and "Whenever you want to smoke, drink a cup of water." OK, I wouldn't say they're hilarious, but they're entertaining.
You might ask, What are those Hershey's kisses on a red background shaped like an upside coffee cup doing there (above)? It's another randomly-selected fusible-backed patch  that I placed over one of the fabric's anti-smoking cartoons that is in very bad taste. (It's a suicide joke, which is a horrible oxymoron.) I covered every place that the awful cartoon appeared, with a different patch (one had bananas, another had sushi, in keeping with the theme that smoking cessation might cause more eating.) They already had fusible on the back, so I just pressed them into place, and zigzagged around the edges.  

I made the pocket from a nice cotton plaid. Folded up, the tote looks like this: 
It bundles to about 6" x 5", which, not coincidentally, is the size of the pocket. Next is the back view of the pouch pictured above. When the tote is open, this portion is covered by the pocket.
Along the bottom, the caption says, "Which would you like to be?" the choice being between a couple freezing and smoking outdoors, on the left, or, on the right, a smokeless couple in front of an ironically even more lung-irritating indoor fireplace. Whoever designed this fabric could have used a thoughtful editor. But couldn't we all?
My only regret so far about choosing this fabric is that the background is white. It will eventually get grubby in my purse. But it's completely washable!

I hope the clerks and baggers who see it will find it more amusing than preachy (but if it helps them think more about giving up smokes, that's good!)  The finished size is about 21" wide by 15" high, a little smaller than my first one. If I'd had more fabric, I'd have made it bigger. From my experiences, bigger is better. Just don't use it at the anvil store.

Want to make your own bundle-able tote? Start by making your favorite easy tote bag pattern, unlined, with enclosed  seams (called 'French' seams and much easier to make than the name implies.)  I invented mine as I went along, but if you need a pattern, here's an excellent, simple tutorial: Tote 1 (I would go one step further and box the corners, so it stands up a bit.)  Use a good quality cotton fabric in regular quilting weight, not upholstery fabric, which won't bundle as easily or as small. Don't use interfacing. UPDATE: Tote 2 is a blog post with another excellent tutorial for a tote with enclosed French seams. 

The magic reversible pocket explained below can be added before or after the main body of the tote is finished. I prefer to add it after, so I can more easily find and align the centers of the bag, button, buttonhole, and pocket.

Pocket size is up to you. About a fourth of the bag's side is a good rule of thumb. Just keep in mind that the pocket size will determine the bundle size.   

Start with a rectangle of raw edged fabric, a little more than twice as high as you want the pocket, x  the width you want (say, 10" high x 7" long). That's the first piece below. Then, fold it in half, right sides together.

It is true that every time you open this thing up, it will be very wrinkly. If Martha Stewart is standing behind you in line, she won't be pleased. But her indignation will be short-lived. As soon as you place groceries in it, it will take on their shape, creating new and different wrinkles! And I guarantee that you and your store's checkout professionals will be glad that you made it yourself!


  1. Dear Cathy,
    Love the tote bags, and I especially love the "hideo-beautiful" fabric, as well as an adjective new to me. I will spread it thru the Front Range region of CO.

    One thought: if plastic grocery bags are banned, what will we use to hold the buried treasures from the cat box? Just sayin...

    1. Linda, the "poop" bag issue is a huge one, whether from cat, dog, or baby waste. I think people are going to have to buy new bags and use them. We don't have a dog, cat or baby at the moment, but the plastic bag shortage is inconvenient because we use our plastic bags for seperating trash and other purposes - At this point, we're down to about a half dozen plastic bags (down from zillions), and will run completely out of them in a couple of weeks.I'm wondering if I should sell the ones I have left on ebay! Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. WRap in newspaper - or any paper. Just like we used to do before they invented plastic bags.

    3. Now we get our newspapers online, Helen! No way to wrap fish!

  2. I'm buying plastic bags to replace the free ones I used to get. Maybe the corporations that sell plastic bags are behind the whole "bring you own bag" laws :-) wouldn't surprise me.

  3. I'm just hoping that the same companies that make disposable bags can retool their factories to make reusable, recyclable bags (or other products) that are easy on natural resources! Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. I like the "pocket" for the bag. Clever idea.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Ann, glad you enjoyed it!

  6. That 'pocket' is a GREAT idea!

  7. Hi Cathy, I thought I'd share with you about plastic bags in South Australia. Plastic bags have been banned since 2008 and after some resistance, most people have adjusted. Most bag manufacturers have started making more environmentally friendly compostable bags (made from corn starch and similar)which break down much faster than traditional bags. So, although we can still buy 'normal' bags from the supermarket shelves, most people buy compostable bags to use as poop bags etc. Our food scraps are collected fortnightly and they go into compostable bags that cost about $5 for 40, or scraps can be wrapped in newspaper. It hasn't been at total success though, as not many people recycle their food scraps for composting, so more people now purchase bin liners to keep the inside of their bin clean.

    Thanks for the tute- I always wondered how the bags folded up into the strategically placed pocket- now I know I can just whack it on the outside!

    1. Pauline, thank you so much for that explanation, you answered a lot of my questions! After posting this blog, I did some more browsing on plastic bags and found out about virulent lawsuits and accusations between US (disposable) plastic bag makers, and US reusable bag makers - each accusing the other side of lies and exaggerations (They may both be right: ( Your explanation of the Australian path is encouraging - that it's possible to have biodegradable yet sanitary plastic bags! I sure hope our domestic bag manufacturers are looking into it!
      As for the pocket - yes, you can smack it anywhere you like on the outside of the bag (or on the inside if your bag is lined, which mine aren't). Have fun, and thanks so much for your insights!

  8. But what do you do about the fruit and veggie bags?

    1. I'm glad you asked that question! If I were to go really hardcore, I'd make up small drawstring bags for them, maybe from an organza so they'd be see-through? There are people making them from regular fabric. They would make the laundry load bigger, though......

    2. Look what I just found in Mother Earth News (of course!)

      I'm thinking used nylon stockings.....

  9. To avoid using so many plastic bags, I combine my fresh veggies and the checker sorts and weighs and charges the right amount and then combines them again. Our stores still use thousands of these and we have huge boxes for recycling. They probably decompose in a hundred years, maybe more. Terrible for our world!
    Martha Ginn

  10. Interesting idea, Martha. The checker doesn't mind separating them? Do they stay as fresh in fabric bags? Thanks for the comment.

  11. In the UK, Wales has charged 5p (8cents) for a plastic bag for a couple of years now, and use of plastic bags is down by 96%. Northern Ireland has a similar experience. In my nearby supermarket (in London), which doesn't charge for plastic bags, you increasingly see people bringing their own bags - they get "green points" on their loyalty cards for doing so.

    But supermarket fruit and veg are all too often packaged in plastic containers, not all of them recyclable. Better to buy from a farmers market or small local shop, who will weigh them and put them loose into your own bag. Then they go into the crisper drawer in the fridge, no plastic bag needed.

  12. Margaret, wow, I am so glad to get your international perspective! I did not realize how widespread the bag ban is internationally. I love the idea of getting "points" for bringing your own bags - at our supermarket, we just get a "thank you."
    So you put your produce in the fridge without a bag of any kind? I wonder if that has any effect on freshness?
    Thank you so much for sharing that great information!


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