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Re-Make & Re-Use: Up-cyled Cloth Grocery Bags - Stronger, Cuter

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This clever idea of how to strengthen and 'makeover' existing cloth grocery bags came to us from a member of our own creative sample-sewing team: Julia Chapman. Julia developed this idea during the recent holiday season and made a few as gifts for friends. She now has folks clamoring for more, and she generously shared the idea with us so we could share it with you. The idea is to double up bags, resulting in a new bag strong enough to carry very heavy loads. Pretty accent panels and handy pockets (wallet and keys on the inside, shopping list on the outside) are icing on the functional and fashionable cakes. I bought new bags, but you could certainly up-cycle your existing bags to give them a needed boost of capacity and cuteness.

If you like the idea of making your own grocery bags from scratch, you'll also want to check out our EZ Grocery Bag tutorial.

Sewing Tools You Need

  • Any Sewing Machine (we recommend the Janome 8050)
  • Ultra Glide or other Teflon® type foot to stitch on the vinyl; if you don't have access to this type of presser foot, you can stitch with a layer of wax paper in place between the foot and the vinyl to keep your regular presser foot from sticking.

Fabric and Other Supplies

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Supplies shown below are to create one doubled bag.

  • TWO matching cloth grocery bags; for the best result, the two bags need to be exactly the same type so they exactly match when placed one inside the other.
  • Scrap or ½ yard of 44-45" fabric for the front and back panels plus the interior pocket
  • Scrap or ½ yard of medium weight fusible interfacing; we used Pellon Decor Bond
  • Scrap or ¼ of craft vinyl; you need just one piece apx. 5" x 9"
  • All purpose thread to match fabric and bags
  • See-through ruler
  • Fabric pencil
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
  • Seam ripper
  • Seam gauge
  • Straight pins
  • Low tack tape to hold vinyl (optional)

Getting Started

  1. If your grocery bags have plastic bottom inserts, remove them. When finished, the two layers will make the bottom plenty stable. Plus, leaving the inserts in place would make it difficult to launder the finished bag.
  2. Also remove all interior tags and ONE of the back "loops" – if your bags come with a small middle top loop; mine did.
  3. I bought the two sizes of bags available at my local grocery store. The steps shown below are using the larger of the two sizes, which measured 13⅞ wide x 16¾" high x 8¼" deep.
  4. To determine the cut size for the exterior accent panels, measure the height and width between the two straps. My bag measured 9" wide x 16½" high.
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  5. Cut your accent panels and interfacing 1" larger than both dimensions in order to account for the hem. 
    NOTE: Keep in mind that the straps may not be perfectly parallel - mine certainly weren't. If this is the case, measure the narrowest point. You can center the panels within the wider points.
  6. I chose to make my finished inside pocket 7" wide x 6" tall. This size is totally up to your personal preference and what you'd plan to use the pocket for. It could easily be smaller or larger. You pocket cut will need to be 1" wider than your chosen finished width to account for seam allowances and twice as tall plus an inch to account for the seam allowance as well as folding the fabric in half.
  7. I was fine with a simple fabric pocket. If you feel you'd like a stronger pocket, you can add a layer of the fusible interfacing. The interfacing should be the same width as your fabric cut, but only half the height.
  8. Cut your vinyl into a tall rectangle that will best fit your shopping list. I chose a 4" wide x 9" tall piece, which is just right for a standard piece of paper folded or cut into thirds.

The cuts for my large bags were as follows:

TWO 9" wide x 17½" high rectangles from the accent fabric for the panels

TWO 9" wide x 17½" high rectangles from the fusible interfacing for the panel backing

ONE 8" wide x 13" high rectangle for the pocket

Optional pocket interfacing would be: ONE 8" wide x 6½" high rectangle

ONE 4" wide x 9" high rectangle from the craft vinyl.

At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board

Interior pocket

  1. Fold your pocket piece in half, right sides together.
  2. If you are adding the optional interfacing, press a middle crease in the fabric. Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse the interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric, placing the top of the interfacing along this middle crease. The sides and bottom of the interfacing should be flush with the fabric's raw edges.
  3. With right sides together, pin along both sides and across the bottom, leaving an approximately 3" opening along the bottom for turning.
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  4. Using a ½" seam allowance, stitch along both sides and across the bottom, remembering to leave that 3" opening along the bottom for turning. Make sure you back tack the seam at both sides of the opening and pivot at the corners.
  5. Clip all the corners at a diagonal, being careful not to cut into your seam.
  6. Turn the pocket right side out through the opening. Use a long, blunt-end tool, like my fave - a chopstick, to square the corners.
  7. Press well, turning in the raw edges of the opening so they are flush with the sewn seam.
  8. Turn one of the grocery bags inside out.
  9. Center the pocket towards the top of the bag on one side. The top of the pocket is the folded edge; make sure the pocket is turned the right direction. Pin the pocket in place.
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  10. Edgestitch the pocket in place along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners. You will need to futz a bit with the application of the pocket because you are stitching it onto a finished bag. If you have a free arm on your machine, this is a good time to use it. Be careful to keep the bag flat and stop now and then to insure you haven't caught the opposite side of the bag as you are pivoting at the corners.
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  11. This seam will close the opening used for turning, which is why you made sure your folded top edge was correctly positioned.
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  12. Turn the 'pocket bag' right side out and set it aside.

Accent panels

  1. Following manufacturer's instructions, fuse a piece of interfacing to the wrong side of each accent panel.
  2. Turn back the raw edges of all four sides of each fused piece ½" to create a hemmed edge.
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  3. Topstitch this hem in place around all four sides of each piece.
  4. I used a seam allowance ¼" from the folded edge of the hem. You could go as close as ⅛" if you choose. You will use this line of topstitching as a guide when you stitch the panels to the bag so keep your stitching nice and straight.
  5. Place your piece of craft vinyl on the right side of one fused and hemmed accent panel.
  6. You want the vinyl centered side to side and top to bottom. Boy... vinyl is hard to capture on film! I set my ruler next to my project to try to show the positioning.
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  7. You cannot pin the vinyl in place because the pins will leave holes. I like to use a low tack tape to hold it in place. I do not stitch through the tape; I peel it off before it goes through the needle of the machine... just like removing pins as you sew.
  8. Switch to an Ultra Glide or other Teflon® type of foot to stitch on the vinyl. If you don't have access to this type of presser foot, you can place a layer of wax paper over the vinyl and stitch across the paper to keep your regular presser foot from sticking. When finished, simply tear away the wax paper. I was lucky enough to have an Ultra Glide foot for my Janome machine.
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  9. Edgestitch the vinyl pocket in place along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners. I lengthened my stitch slightly. For the photo, I slipped a piece of paper into my finished pocket to make it easier to see the stitching lines.
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  10. Place the plain accent panel on the back of one grocery bag centered between the straps. Place the accent panel with the vinyl pocket on the front of the same grocery bag centered between the straps.
  11. As mentioned earlier in the instructions, the straps of your bag may not be perfectly paralle - mine weren't. In this case, center the panel to make sure any directional motif is straight and it looks best to your eye. It's most important that the top edge of the panel is straight and as flush with the top of the bag as possible. Pin in place.
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  12. Stitch both panels in place around all four sides, following the original line of topstitching that secured your panels' hems. Yep... it's going to be a little bit challenging to maneuver the bag and keep it flat under the needle. I think your best options are to a) use your free arm if you have one, and b) kind of curve the bag up around the needle - almost as if beginning to turn the bag inside out. You can kind of get an idea of how I was working under the needle from the picture below.  One good thing, because the panels are stiffened with interfacing, they are actually quite resilient to all the twisting and turning.
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  13. Just keep your eye on that line of topstitching and go slowly and carefully. Stop now and then, with your needle in the down position, to flatten out the bag and to check that you aren't catching anything from the opposite side.

Final assembly of the two bags

  1. Place the bag with the pocket inside the bag with the accent panels.
  2. Align the top edges and the straps; aligning the straps is particularly critical. Pin the two bags together.
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  3. If need be, re-thread your machine with thread to match the grocery bags.
  4. Stitch all the way around the top opening approximately ¼" from the combined edges.
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  5. Reposition the bag and stitch the straps together. You don't need to pin the straps, you can simply hold them together and pull them gently taut and they move through the machine. I used the stitching lines already on the straps as my guide lines for stitching the straps together.
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  6. Finally, working from the bag exterior, stitch down along each corner seam approximately 3-4" to help hold the two bags together and secure the corners.
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Project Design: Julia Chapman
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Liz Johnson

Other machines suitable for this project include the Elna 3210 and the Brother Project Runway Innov-is 40.


Comments (14)

Ellen Robertson said:
Ellen Robertson's picture

Has anyone tried using vinyl tablecloth's that has a flannel back for totes? Would you line them, and what fabric would be best to use? These grocery totes are a super idea. Love your helpful site and the PDF's. Thanks many times for the ideas and tuts you provide everyone.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Ellen Robertson - this particular tutorial is based on using an off the shelf grocery bag. I've added a link below to one of our most popular grocery bag tutorials. We haven't tried it with a vinyl tablecloth, so we can't give you a definitive answer as to whether or not that would work, however, most vinyl tablecloths aren't particularly thick, and so may not be the best choice for a structured bag -- unless you added a firm interfacing and perhaps a heavy lining, like a canvas. Let us know how it turns out for you. 


wekebu said:
wekebu's picture

What the heck is that loop for?  I have one on a grocery bag and don't know why it's there.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ wekebu - I believe that little loop is something more for the stores than the user. They usually hang from the rack by that look in the display. Plus the baggers often use that look to hold the bag open while they're loading it.

ccgal said:
ccgal's picture

My car has little hooks on the back of the front seats, which a loop like that can be place, keeps bag from tipping over in the car. Just an idea and the loop is helpful.

khowryn said:
khowryn's picture
Congrats to the 3 winners! Thanks for so many projects and chances at other fine projects! -K.
quiltinggram said:
quiltinggram's picture
Thanks for these great looking grocery bags. I put a store bag in my purse and when
I got to a quilt show was quite surprised to see it was holes in it! Will definitely be making several of your wonderful bags.
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
@ Patricia Ann - the particular pin cushion photo we used in our header is not one of ours (scandalous I know!!). We have a super simple one on the site now, as well as the button-on one we did for our ironing board caddy in the Half Moon Modern Sewing Room. There's a "kitty" one coming up next week, and more planned later in the year.


SarahC said:
SarahC's picture
This a great idea for those non-woven bags. If you have to wash them, they get a bit limp, and putting them together this way with some reinforcement would really extend their life. Awesome!
Patricia Ann said:
Patricia Ann's picture
I like your idea. Aldi has large, sturdy bags but I don't feel that I should have to advertise for them!!!

I noticed a pin cushion at the beginning of the header -- Sewing Essentials -- at the top of the page. Did you have that featured as a project? I made one like it a few weeks ago and just love it. Hope you will feature it soon as I need to make another one and my pattern was a little off. Thanks.
erin09 said:
erin09's picture
I saw a tip for sewing with vinyl/laminated cottons on the Martha Stewart show. They said if you did not have the teflon foot to take a small piece of painter's tape and put it on the underside of your foot (trimming to the shape of the foot). Seemed to work well for them?!
smiledi said:
smiledi's picture
This is great! Never would have thought of it smilies/smiley.gif Thanks for sharing, Julia!