How to Sew Reusable Cloth Produce and Bulk Bags

Bootsy, Quality Assurance Manager
Bootsy, Quality Assurance Manager

I’ve been diligent about using cloth shopping bags for literally decades now (I bought my first cloth bag in 1988). But until recently, I rarely used cloth produce bags. I’m all for plastic bag bans, but we need to address the plastic produce bag issue—those things generate huge amounts of plastic waste. So in 2011, when my older daughter and I decided to try ditching the plastic, we made some simple cloth produce bags the same rectangular shape and size as the plastic ones.

How to close homemade bags and mark bulk bin numbers:

  • Most stores provide twist ties that you can close up the bag with and write the code onto. Yes, that does produce a minimal amount of waste. If you shop at the same store and buy the same items, you can reuse these twist ties. I met a woman a couple of weeks ago at a zero-waste meetup who showed me a twist tie she has been reusing for five years (!).
  • If you have a bit of ribbon, you could also sew that into the side seam of your bag and tie the bag up with it after you’ve filled the bag. I have heard mixed reviews on using a washable crayon to mark produce bags with the bin number. When I use my bags, I type the bin number into my phone next to the item on my shopping list.
  • If you don’t have ribbon, a rubber band will also work to close up the bag. I have a collection of these from the old days.
  • I’ve thought about embroidering the bin numbers on the bags (my sewing machine would do it, not me) but the bin numbers change regularly and the store might just change the bin number for pine nuts to the bin number for sunflower seeds.

I used really gorgeous blue embroidered fabric for the bags in the post. I’m pretty sure it’s linen and I doubt it was cheap, but it has been sitting in my closet for at least a couple of years and so I figured I may as well use it. Each finished bag measures about 11″ x 17″.

You don’t really need instructions for these—they are so easy—but here they are:

2 Precut cloth edited

1. Make a template if you plan on making several bags (I made ten). This just makes cutting easier. I cut my 23″ x 17.5″ template out of an old sheet. Or just cut out one bag and use that as your template.

3 Cutting Cloth edited

2. After washing, drying (I use a clothesline) and ironing the fabric, lay it out to get the optimal number of bags out of it. Below are my 10 bags cut out.

4 Cloth cut edited 5 Finishing top edge edited

3. Serge across the top of each bag. This finishes the edge.

If you use a regular sewing machine, skip this step and make a hem to finish the top edge as the last step.

Below are all the bags with their finished top edges.

6 Cut bags finished tops edited

7 right sides together pre sew edited

4. Fold the rectangle lengthwise, right sides together. If your OCD surpasses even mine, iron and pin the bag before sewing it up.

8 Sewing bags edited9 Finished bag inside out edited

5. Starting at the bottom corner beside the fold, sew the bottom edge, turn and sew up to the top. Lift up the presser foot, flip the fabric over and sew back down halfway. This keeps the serger threads tucked inside the bag where you can’t see them (after you turn the bag inside out).

10 Bag of onions edited

6. Turn the bag inside out and iron if desired.

11 One finished bag edited

This picture and the one below, which I took outside, show off the color better. (I don’t have the best lighting inside.)

12 Finished bags edited

41 Replies to “How to Sew Reusable Cloth Produce and Bulk Bags”

  1. So pretty. I would definitely use these!

  2. What are your experiences with different types of fabrics for storing produce? Different fibers (cotton, poly, etc) and different weights/weaves… I wonder if some fabrics wouldn’t breathe enough for storage. Or what about possible chemicals etc from the dyes and/or processing, how do you know the fabric is food-safe? And what about when they get left in the bottom of the bin and turn green and black and full of stinky juice (I say from experience from how most of my cloth produce bags, purchased with all the best intentions, ended up ruined)? My biggest problem has actually been that I’ll forget that I have a head of broccoli (for instance) that I’d planned to use right away but plans changed and then since it’s “hidden” in a bag I just didn’t notice it — until it liquified and stank. :p I really want to use more cloth storage but I find they get damp and icky even when I don’t forget about them (talking about fridge storage, not dry goods).

    Also — I’m curious how you store stuff in the freezer without waste — I hate all the plastic bags I go through but love how I set up so much produce for the winter season in the freezer.

    1. Hi Heather. This could be another post just in and of itself! Ideally for the bags, I would use lightweight yet sturdy fabric made of natural fibers. You want a lightweight fabric so that when the cashier weighs the bag, you don’t pay for the weight of the bag. Some stores automatically give you a tiny discount for the bag. Something like this looks good:

      As for the type of fabric, when synthetic clothes are washed, tiny fibers come off in every load and these bits of plastic end up in the oceans. On the other hand, conventionally grown cotton uses more pesticides than any other crop(!). In an ideal world, I would use organic, lightweight, unbleached cotton gauze. I have tried to find this and have not yet been able to…I wish a fabric company would read this and contact me…I’ve emailed a bunch and got a few samples but they weren’t exactly right. If I could, I would grow my own flax and weave linen myself!!! That would be awesome!

      I made many of my bags out of old sheets my neighbors wanted to get rid of before they moved (some cotton, some feel like a cotton/poly blend). Some I made out of new, thin cotton fabric that had been sitting in my closet since my daughter was seven (she’s in college now…). I also made a bunch out of fabric my ex brought home from India and I’m pretty sure he said it is a silk blend. It’s very lightweight and super sturdy. I gave a bunch of those away on Facebook.

      As for the stink, I have occasionally found a puddle or green slime inside a cloth bag where I once had stored parsley. But this also used to happen with the plastic bags. When the cloth bags get dirty, I just wash them. Another tactic that helps is prepping stuff after you bring it home. So, for instance, when I buy cauliflower or carrots (something really dense) I’ll wash and cut it up and put it in the fridge in a container until I need it. Then I just toss it in a pot to steam or pan to roast when I want to eat it. For herbs, it helps to store them in a jar of water on the shelf instead of in the crisper drawer.

      In the freezer I actually use glass jars. I have learned (the hard way) that wide-mouth glass jars are best for this. If you store liquid, like broth, in a bottle with a narrow neck, it will expand and can break the bottle. So for liquids or beans in their cooking water (I cook dry beans in my slow cooker), I always leave at least an inch headspace for expansion. I have LOTS of jars. I’ve been collecting them for years and my neighbors give me theirs often now too. I have a jar fixation. There may actually be a name for this condition ;p

  3. […] Homemade cloth produce bagsfor produce and bulk foods like pasta or cat food […]

  4. As a grocery store cashier, I am required to take off the tare weight of any bag when weighing the customer’s item, so I’d suggest to have the cashier weigh your homemade bag *before you fill it* so you don’t pay for the weight of the bag. Some fabric bags can weigh a lot.
    That being said, maybe instead of putting a bin number on a homemade bag, how about marking the tare weight on it? 🙂

    1. Hi Julie. Thanks for chiming in as a cashier. That’s great advice. I try to use my lighter bags but do want to mark the tare on them also, since even those light ones do weigh a little bit. My sewing machine was broken for a while and now works again. It can embroider numbers and letters, so on my (very long) to-do list, I have “tare bags.” I once bought VERY expensive vanilla beans in a heavy bag. It’s a mistake you make only once. Luckily I noticed the high price and removed them from the bag and the cashier weighed them naked.

    2. ummm for storing leafy greens spinach kale choy sum and herbs like parsley basil etc DRY is the key. I use almost a whole newspaper and wrap it like a florists bouquet only tighter – fold the top down and throw a rubber band around it. lasts for ages even on tour when its out of the fridge between accommodation sites. (seriously 20 -40 pages though not ten, like a whole street press or saturdays sport section, FAT. Lately ive been using small bamboo placemats – almost as good i think and prettier. and cleanable (vinegar and paste brush if mucky). Based in this if you DO use bags in the fridge id suggest heavy denim bags might be best to slow down the foetid mush and theyd also be robust enough to scrub or bleach(? – ew!!) if you forget.

      Nice bags by the way.

      1. Thanks for those tips. I’d love to get my hands on some bamboo fabric.

  5. Nice material bamboo but not sure if d work in this context any better than hemp or cotton canvas. Its so deconstructed in manufacturing process. Maybe. I’ve only seen it in fabrics that are almost microfibery like socks and undies tho. Is it absorbent enough? I guess they make nappies out of it but I’ve never inspected one up close as a mum might do.

  6. Love these! I am thinking of making some but with the fold on the bottom. I worry the seam will wear out with repeated use.

    1. Ahhh, that’s a great idea! It think I’ll do that for my next batch. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for this post! I’ve been thinking about making my own veggies and fruits bags, now I’m going to do it. I have some fabric that has been sitting in a box for some time. It needs to be used!! Also, here in Finland, we weigh our own fruits and veggies with the scales that are in the produce area. So it would easy enough to weigh my stuff naked and then toss them in the bag.

    1. Great! I’m glad your fabric will go to good use and that you don’t have to worry about the tare. Enjoy!

  8. […] use my bike basket so I don’t need any plastics for my produce. You can also make your own canvas produce […]

  9. This is great stuff. I bake sourdough bread every weekend, and I slice it up and then throw it in the freezer. My normal routine is to put the sliced bread into a plastic freezer bags and just reuse the bags, but I’d love to sew up some fabric bags. I definitely don’t know what kind of fabric to use for this particular food as I don’t want the bread getting freezer burn. What would you suggest? (And by the way, I saw that you also bake and freeze bread. I totally recommend slicing the bread first–then you can break off a slice, throw it in the toaster, and it is delicious.)

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Well I find the sourdough bread freezes better in the cloth bags if you don’t slice it otherwise I find it tends to get freezer burn. If you already have plastic bags, you may just want to keep using them so you can slice the bread. But if you don’t slice it, that nice crust of the sourdough keeps the bread really well. At least, that’s what I’ve found. I hope that helps 🙂

  10. […] Those humidity-controlled drawers in your fridge, known as “crispers,” work very well when you use them properly. As a bonus, they mean you don’t need to store your produce in plastic bags to keep it fresh. Plastic can actually be the enemy of freshness in these finely-tuned climate-controlled areas of our fridges, as encasing certain produce in plastic encourages the production of ethylene gas that will cause food to spoil more quickly. Consider taking reusable produce bags with you to put your produce in when you shop. You can even make your own. […]

  11. If you make your own cloth bags, every time you shop for bulk take a picture with your phone of the bag and the bin number behind it, then just keep everything lined up with your photos so you can easily check out. Just let the cashier know you’ll be reading off the bin numbers. If you have the same pattern for all your bags take some sharpie and use various colors to draw simple shapes (and coloring them in to make them more legible) in a corner of the bag. If you only have black sharpie you can try to use more shapes and make up some of your own markings.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the ideas, Zaina. I type in the bin number next to my list on my phone but taking a pic would be faster.

  12. […] bags are less commonly known but they are incredibly easy to make! The Zero Waste Chef has a tutorial. I made a few bags for produce and bulk shopping and have used them several times. I felt a little […]

  13. I’m new to sewing, so please forgive me if I sound silly… But what kind of stitch do you use to make these bags? ( I reckon they have to be strong to hold all the weight)

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Debbie, that’s not silly at all. Use a straight stitch. You could also finish the edges with a zigzag stitch. I have a serger that sews, trims and finishes the edge all in one. I hope that helps. ~ Anne Marie

  14. You could use cloth made from Bamboo for these bags.

  15. Wow I have just discovered your blog and it is amazing. 2 nights ago on the BBC (UK) they aired a new documentary on plastic waste. I’m sure it left a lot of people in total despair wondering what can they do, how can they reduce plastic… and your blog has so many answers! Thank you 😌 Thank you so much. I’d be expecting your site traffic to go up as people in the UK search for practical answers. Here in the UK we don’t really have bulk buy stores. It’s difficult to buy unpackaged food. There really needs to be a paper bag revolution here. Who doesn’t love brown paper packages …. tied or not tied up with string! It’s going to be a real effort to change our habits. I’ll definitely be signing up and reading a lot more of your blog. Thank you again. The planet thanks you 🌎 🙏🏻 💖x

  16. Sorry if this is a double as I didn’t read al the commentaar and tips.
    My tip: I use shoe laces to tie the bags, using a safety pin to pull it through the tunnel I sewed in the top of the bags.

    1. Wow, it brings back souvenirs of how my mother was doing it…
      Not that I feel that you must be old to use that trick (I’m 69, I’m the old one…) but just because it’s a good souvenir for me, that I forgot. Thanks for mentioning it.

      1. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Hi Gilles,
        This used to be just the normal thing to do! Hopefully it will become normal again very very soon!
        ~ Anne Marie

  17. Sorry: autocorrect wrongly corrected the English word ‘comments’ into the Dutch word ‘commentaar’. Didn’t see it until it was to late

  18. […] when I came across Anne-Marie Bonneau’s tutorial on how to make your own cloth produce and bulk food bags. Bonneau, who’s known as the Zero Waste Chef and has no end […]

  19. […] when I came across Anne-Marie Bonneau’s tutorial on how to make your own cloth produce and bulk food bags. Bonneau, who’s known as the Zero Waste Chef and has no end of delightful tricks up her […]

  20. […]  Given that tea towels are the right size with straight hemmed edges, they easily can be made into bags to hold loose produce. Katherine Martinko  wrote an article and has photographed her crafted bags. As well, she notes Anne–Marie Bonneau’s tutorial on how to make your own cloth produce and bulk food bags. […]

  21. […] creation, I’m going to show you how to make super simple produce bags. I found the original tutorial from one of my favorite bloggers, The Zero Waste Chef . If you haven’t checked her out yet, […]

  22. […] Anne Marie a.k.a Zerowaste Chef – Homemade Cloth Produce & Bulk Bag […]

  23. […] Y cómo transportas los productos? Puedes optar por bolsas de tela (si son de algodón, mejor) e incluso te las puedes fabricar tu mismo. […]

  24. We finally decided some clothes were past wearing so I’ve made some produce bags! Yay! All I can say is – my approach was a little different ;-).
    Step 1 – chop up t-shirt and shirt into the biggest rectangles possible (plus lots of random shapes which went in the rag jar).
    Step 2 – fold rectangles in half.
    Step 3 – grab needle and thread, backstitch the two open sides with doubled thread.
    Step 4 – turn right way out!

    So no ironing, measuring, trimming or edging. If I was using beautiful material like yours maybe I’d have made more of an effort, though! I might edge the tops if they start fraying later. I’ve also made a denim bag from a left-over jeans leg I found, and that one has a draw top made by turning over the top and threading through some wool (red and plaited, it looks pretty!). And one of the t-shirt bags has a draw string too.

    The bags are all different sizes and shapes, but I’ve tried to think about how I will use them rather than worry what the standard size would be. So four are very small, as I only pick up small amounts of most things – e.g. two potatoes, 20 cherry tomatoes. Most things don’t need to be in a bag anyway – it’s only dirty, wet. small or unwashable things I’ll bag up. Two bags are deliberately long to put a loaf of bread or a bunch of herbs in. I’m finding out how well they work – so far so good – and may add more draw strings if I find stuff is falling out too much!

  25. […] purchase fresh produce frequently, I highly recommend taking an hour or so to make produce bags. The Zero Waste Chef has a great […]

  26. For your twist tie dilemma, laminate pieces of paper and punch holes in them and lace the bag strings through them. Write your bin number with permanent marker and use rubbing alcohol to remove it for a new number when you want to change it. Voila handy reusable tags for your handy reusable bags. Or as I am writing this you could probably use packing tape folded over with a hole punched in it since most people probably have packing tape already around the house.

  27. […]  Given that tea towels are the right size with straight hemmed edges, they easily can be made into bags to hold loose produce. Katherine Martinko  wrote an article and has photographed her crafted bags. As well, she notes Anne–Marie Bonneau’s tutorial on how to make your own cloth produce and bulk food bags. […]

  28. […] healthcare workers by making your own cloth masks. And while you’re at it, try making some cloth grocery bags for when the bulk bins […]

  29. […] If you really want to step up your no-plastic-bag game, you can also ditch plastic produce bags for reusable bags. Produce bags made out of mesh, linen, or cotton are popping up all over the place, including at Etsy, Crate & Barrel, and Bed Bath & Beyond. You can also make your own out of dish towels or other fabric you have around the house. Get the tutorial on Zero-Waste Chef. […]

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