How to sew market bags from feedbags

Upcycling Market Bags from Feed bags

Welcome! Since you are here reading this I assume that you are interested in making upcycled market bags. I think that’s great! These are possible for anyone who is beginner to advanced in their sewing skills. The trickiest step is the step to make a flat base, but it’s not that bad. And, once you have completed it once, it’ll be easy after that. Your sizes may vary a little based on the bags you are using and the desired finish size, so be flexible. There is no “right” size. I like large bags, my daughter likes shorter bags, so it’s all about what you want to create.

At the time I am writing this, many in my area are considering their options for reusable market bags. Eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—have banned single-use plastic bags.1 So this is a great time for you to make these bags whether for your own use, to gift, or to sell.

Depending on the number of bags you desire I recommend working on these in an assembly line style. However, I suggest making one bag completely to begin with so you know if you want to adjust any of the sizing (ie, make it shorter or wider). I try to complete 5-10 bags at any given step. I also made a mistake on my very first bag, completely a silly error, but I recommend using a not-so-special design for your first bag, just in case any of my steps here are confusing and/or you make an error.

Step 1. Attain some bags. We have a good supply of fowl feed bags from our own homestead. Then I put a request out on Facebook to my friends and family but also the local community. Through this post I struck up a bartering relationship with a local stable, and some people just gave me some feed bags. Since then, I have been searching out more suppliers.

You also need heavy duty thread, a heavy duty needle, and I recommend a sewing machine, although you could sew this by hand.

Doesn’t everyone keep feed bags in a bucket in their bathroom?

Steps 2 & 3. The order of these I sometimes vary. If the bags are really nasty, dirty, or sticky I wash them first. Generally though, I prefer to rip open the bottom seam and then wash them.

Often if you snip the end loops of the bottom seam you can tug on the string and it will magically unravel the full seam. Sometimes you have to snip every single stitch. Once the bag is fully open at both ends you can thoroughly was both sides. I lay them right in my tub and scrub and rinse there. After, it is ideal if you can hang them to dry (do not stick them in a dryer!), but I often prop mine standing up in the tub or in a bucket.

This part isn’t really that fun and I try to do a bunch at a time. Depending upon the seam ripping and how sticky they are, this usually takes about two to five minutes a bag.

A rolling cutting wheel makes this task easiest

Step 4. You need to square your bag. Sometimes the bags are not cut evenly, sometimes they are printed crooked. You want your design to look straight. I use the grid lines on my cutting mat, and typically I use my rotary cutter to cut some off the bottom if needed. Normally it’s only about ½” or less that may need to be cut. Ideally you will be able to lay out your bag on a gridded cutting mat and then use a long, stiff ruler and a rotary cutter to trim your bag. My ruler (designed for quilting) is missing so I have been using a random piece of stiff, transparent plastic with my mat and cutter. Some bags need only a sliver trimmed, some don’t need any at all.

Step 5. Decide how the picture will place. You will need to cut three inches off the top or the bottom. This 3” strip will become your handles. You need to allow for about x” on the bottom that becomes folded over to form the base. Also, there is sometimes are part of the design that is just perfect for handles. For example, I had a birdseed nag that had a sunflower seed design at the base of the bag. I trimmed that off to use as my handles. However another design has the American flag at the top. Rather than fold that down in my top hem, I cut it off to be on the handle.

Be sure to cut through both layers of bag, and stay nice and straight.

Once you have trimmed of the 3” loop, you want to find the seam. Cut off the rectangle or square where the ends overlap so you lave one long strip of single-ply plastic.

Then cut this strip in half so you have two 3”x?” lengths. I like long handles so I always leave mine as long as possible. You may wish to shorten them now if you know you want short handles. You will be able to adjust the length later, also. 

This is my favorite handle, I love this sunflower seed design!

Step 6. I fold my handles in thirds. I fold my right edge to the middle, and then my left edge over the edge I just folded in. This means one raw edge is in the center and one raw edge is on the outside edge of my handle. You want this to be as even and straight as possible. Because I don’t want holes in my handles I do not use fabric pins, instead I use clothespins, one in the middle and one at each end. I have seen this done with binder clips, but I find clothespins easier to slide and adjust.

I have found a heavy duty needle and heavy thread to work the best. Line up your strip so that your seam will be about ⅛” or less from the raw edge. Sew down the entire length of the handle, then back, this time about ¼” from the raw seam.

Set these aside.

Step 7. Fold your bag inside out. Be sure that the main picture (or front of your bag) is centered. Most bags already have the image centered, but be sure. You don’t want this to shift as you sew the bottom so you may need to use clothespins or binder clips.

While the is bag in inside out, sew along the bottom seam twice. I sew once about ¼” from the raw edge, then I turn it and sew again about ½” from the raw edge.

Step 8. This is the hardest step to explain and to complete the very first time. Simplistically, you are creating the triangle folds that give your bag a flat base. After you have completed this once it makes perfect sense and you’ll be fine. 

With the bag still inside out, pull the corners of the seam you just sewed, so that the points meet, and the bag lays flat. In other words, you are opening the bag up and folding it in half so that the fold lines are now straight through the middle of your pretty picture of your largest side. In order for the bag to lay flat, folded this way, the middle of your fresh seam moves into the bag, and the two corners come together.

Step 9. You must decide how large of a base you wish your bags to have and measure this next line accordingly. The larger the triangle you mark, the wider your base will be. I measure mine at 4” giving me a 7” base.

Again I use my cutting mat and “ruler” because my mat nicely has a measuring grid marked out on it. I lay the point of my triangle (that fresh seam) into the corner of my grid and using the side guide lines I make sure the bag is laying straight. Then with a ruler I draw a line from equal points on the grid. I actually lay my point on the 1” mark so that I can easily see my guide lines. Then, I lay my ruler across from the 5” to 5” line, giving me a line 4” from the point. I mark this with water soluble marker. The line only needs to last until I sew it, and then I want to be able to easily wipe it off.

Finally, sew right on the line. I recommend sewing it twice for durability, but you probably don’t need to. Now, turn your bag right side out and flatten down the base. TaDa! It looks like an actually bag now, doesn’t it??

Step 10. Sewing on your handles and finishing the top of the bag are done in the same step. Again, I choose to use clothespins as I don’t want pin holes in my bags.

Begin by folding down the raw edge of the bag, inside the bag to the approximate height you want the bag to be. (If you find you are folding a very large amount down you may actually want to reverse the bag, lay it out on the cutting mat and trim off some excess.) You want to make sure your bag is even, measuring from the base to the top all the way around. Often there is a line, border, or text you can use as a reference point. You may need to tweak this slightly if the bag was printed crooked. Most people would rather one side of their bag be ¼” different than the border around the image to look like it is ¼” wrong… Put a clothespin on each side to hold your fold in place.

Almost done!

Once you have the top edge folded as you like, decide how you want your handles placed. You must decide how you want them spaced, and how you want the handles to lay. I choose to put the sewn edge of my handles towards the outside and the smooth edge to the inside. This feels more comfortable on my hands when carrying weight in the bag. You also need to decide how tall and how wide you want your handles to be. Once you have decided this, (clothes)pin your handles in place. Make sure that they are evenly spaced from the side, and make sure they are symmetrical.

Next, sew all the way around top edge of your bag about ¼” from the edge. I choose to match my thread to the major color of the bag as much as possible. This hems down the top of the bag and holds each handle. 

Finally, for strength, I do another seam on each handle. This seam is only a little wider than the handle itself, and about an 1” lower than your top seam.

Congratulations, your bag is complete! 

Please send me a picture, I would love to see what you create!

Sources1 http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx