Zero Waste: Gift Bags

Zero Waste: Gift Bags

Early in January, just after we took down the Christmas tree, I got out my stash of Christmas fabric and made gift bags. We have been using fabric gift bags for the presents under our tree for several years, ever since I bought some from a friend who had a business making bags. She even made little felt initials for the children to attach to the bags.20180131_103134.jpg

We never quite had enough and last Christmas I counted the number of presents that had had to be wrapped in the traditional way using paper. I decided to try for a zero waste Christmas 2018 and resolved to make us more bags, even though the cat is quite fond of the tissue paper. IMG_0141.jpg

I guess you could say I’ve had a mental block about making these bags, since some of the fabric is left over from a set of napkins I made for my mother in 1993. The mistake I was making all these years was to try to make them before Christmas. I always feel like an idiot doing Christmas crafts in October (besides, I’m making Hallowe’en costumes then), and by the time I get to November I’m marking essays and starting the Christmas cake. December is right out. If it’s not a gift, I’m not sewing it.

But January was the perfect time. The kids were back at school and the winter sunshine was streaming in the window. Time to invest in a waste-free Christmas 2018.

Another approach is to wrap all the presents in festive tea towels, if you don’t want the work of sewing bags. Use one like this, tie it up with ribbon, and there you go. 20180115_150405.jpgThe serious advantage of the bags, however,  is that wrapping becomes almost no effort on one of those evenings in the week before Christmas.

I made five bags out of  random bits of fabric. I used them as a bit of a practice session for French seams, but I didn’t get too perfectionist. They are only gift bags, after all.

French seams are a good way to bind your seams if you don’t have a serger, which I don’t. I don’t like fraying fabric on internal seams. I made PJs for the kids for the first time this Christmas, and used French seams on those too. But I always need more practice.

To make a French seam, put your fabric wrong sides together. Stitch as closely as you can to the edge of the fabric, perhaps 5-7 mm, or 1/4 inch. (Frustrated note here: most patterns sold in Canada give yardage and other measurements in Imperial, but fabric in Canada is sold by the metre. I’m always converting. It’s good for the brain, I suppose). Once you’ve finished your seam, trim the edge so you have as little fabric as possible. Iron the wrong side of the fabric to flatten the seam, then fold the fabric right sides together and iron the seam that way.


Sew a new seam with a sufficient seam allowance that all of the fabric from the first seam is enclosed. Now both the outside and the inside of your little bag look nice.


I put a ribbon drawstring at the top of my bags. I ironed a little fold into the top of the bag and stitched it down, then folded it over again to make a slot wide enough for my ribbon to be threaded through. In some of the bags I made the top of the bag first and then did the side and bottom seams, and in some I did it the other way around. It was easier for me to do the top first.

And a little tip, if you have a selvedge you don’t need to worry about finishing the seam first. I didn’t care about grain for these little bags, so on this bag the selvedge ended up at the top. 20180115_145745.jpg And on this bag, the selvedge was at the side and I didn’t have to make this bit into a French seam.20180115_150152.jpg

Then, once my knots were tied and my threads were snipped, I got out my little ribbon stash and threaded the ribbon through the top of the bags. The best part of this was using a bodkin. It’s like a large needle except the eye goes all the way from top to bottom. 20180131_105810.jpg I bought one years ago, and it’s very handy when drawstrings bury themselves deep into clothing. I do love a specialized vocabulary, and textiles have a lot to offer: bodkin, selvedge, grain…



I didn’t get ambitious and make a channel for the ribbon so I would get a charming frill at the top. I just made plain old drawstring bags. Maybe next time I’ll use the bag-making session as as a tutorial, not on French seams, but on fancy bag closures.

And there will be a next time. I’m planning on making non-Christmas themed bags for birthday presents too. I am motivated by considerations of zero waste, but I am also motivated by the horrible gift-wrapping corner in my basement. I tidy it and tidy it, and it always reverts to chaos. I realize blogs often show an idealized version of life, but this is reality. It’s definitely worth a few hours of sewing to get rid of this lot.




Peace and porches

Peace and porches

Or, stop cutting illegally through other people’s neighbourhoods.

I spend a lot of time working in my garden. Planting, weeding, pruning, dead-heading — there’s always a great deal to do. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to go into the garden and just be. I have made the garden in order to be a refuge and a place of peace, and I’m attempting to find that peace there. I look closely at each individual blossom and leaf to appreciate the complexity and beauty of even the smallest thing. I pay attention to the butterflies and bees and other winged insects that work so busily there.

Lately I’ve been especially enjoying all the birds in the front garden from the vantage point of our new porch. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve planted six trees in the front and side gardens in order to provide us and the sidewalk with shade, and to provide the birds with habitat. Until our porch was built, I hadn’t realized how successful that bird-focused project had been. Now, there is always “a melodious noise of birds among the spreading branches” (Wisdom of Solomon, 17:19): goldfinches, robins, cardinals, sparrows, cedar waxwings…we can just sit quietly and gaze as they fly about.

The front porch also gives us a lot more contact with neighbours. Most Overbrook front gardens are fairly shallow, and the sidewalk (or road, for those streets without sidewalks) is not far away. People frequently bike or walk past our house, and if we’re sitting on the porch we often exchange friendly greetings. Sometimes it’s no more than a “hello”, but often people stop to introduce themselves and their dogs, to chat about the new porch or the garden, and to talk about how they’re going to the lovely park by the river and how much they love the neighbourhood.

Both these vehicles are making illegal turns at around 4:30 pm

The porch is a place for us to enjoy the peace of the garden and has also become a place for us to enjoy the fellowship of the neighbourhood among the trees and flowers. It is difficult for us to enjoy these chats against the frequent noise of the traffic that comes down our street. We have to pause in our chat until the racket has gone away. Some of the cars drive sedately, but others roar past. I have even seen an enormous car-carrier truck on our street waiting at the light at the end of the road.

As far as I can tell, no part of Overbrook is protected from commuter and commercial traffic cutting through the neighbourhood. Some signs forbidding turns at certain time of day serve as acknowledgement of the disruption this causes, but have little to no effect in reducing the volume of traffic. I have noticed that other neighbourhoods, like Kingsview Park, are protected from through traffic. Overbrook is almost entirely a residential neighbourhood. I wish we had more front porches here, so that chats between neighbours could turn into conversations between friends. I wish that Overbrook were protected better from traffic, so that we could all find peace and quiet in our gardens


The Pink Quilt

The Pink Quilt

It’s finished! Almost a year after I bought the fabric, the pink quilt for Little is finally done. This is my second quilt. The first one was blue and I made it for the teenager out of his father’s old dress shirts and two sheets.


My quilting journey began in the Ottawa Public Library. I was browsing in the the knitting section and not finding anything new, when I saw on the next shelf a book called The Gentle Art of Quiltmaking by Jane Brocket. The colourful quilts caught my eye and I took it out to have a look. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, I’m never going to be one of those crazy stay-at-home mums who makes quilts.” Hahaha. Jane Brocket’s message is that you don’t have to be the best seamstress in the world, but if you have the urge to create, you should go for it and perfection be hanged. Since I am a recovering perfectionist, I took the bait. In my further reading about quilting, I found that the instructions that began “cut 1024 2 1/2″ squares out of fabric A” did not appeal.

I like the peacefulness of sewing by hand, and so that first quilt was hand-pieced and hand-quilted. It took about 18 months. The time of day when I actually sit down is in the evening, during what we call Mummy and Daddy hour. When the children are in bed, and the work is done, our rule (and haven) is that we spend at least an hour together in the evening, chatting or watching Netflix. Both hand-sewing and knitting are ideal activities for that hour: relaxing but not distracting.

As soon as the blue quilt was done, Little started wishing for a quilt of her own. We looked at lots of images of quilts on Google, and she was inspired by one with lots of pink and blue and red. On a hunch, I got in touch with my friend Kate Austin, an immensely talented artist. Yes, Kate had scraps for me to look at on my next visit to Toronto. That was the nicest shopping expedition ever: cup of tea, gorgeous fabric, and hanging out with Kate and her two adorable sons. I came home with about 90 squares of fabric samples from Kate’s page on Spoonflower. Little laid our her quilt at home the very next day.


I then ironed all the squares (luckily, I like ironing) and pinned them all into rows before putting them in separate bags so I wouldn’t get mixed up. Then the piecing began, this time by machine. I’ve always been a little cautious around sewing machines, since the speed and noise make me nervous. I like activities to be slow, and quiet to silent. Piecing 80 squares together helped me get over an shyness of my sewing machine admirably. The piecing was done last August, but September is the start of my Christmas knitting season and I had a big blanket in the works for one of my sisters and her family.

Work on the quilt resumed in the new year. I trimmed all the edges and ironed them all flat, then made the quilt sandwich: Backing fabric face down, then organic cotton batting bought from Sew Sisters, then the quilt top, face up. I remember not enjoying this task with the blue quilt but Little helped me this time and it went fast. For the backing, I used a sheet with a pretty busy print so that all the pink quilting thread wouldn’t be that obvious. 20160217_161950

Then one evening I armed myself with my needle (a size 9 between, if you please), the quilt sandwich, pink hand-quilting thread and a thimble. Every evening I could, I quilted each individual square according to its own pattern. I really got to know the quilt this way, and grew to love some of the patterns that I had never really paid much attention to while I was piecing. I had liked the small all-over patterns on the page, so to speak, but when it came to quilting the bolder patterns insinuated themselves into my heart. Since I was never quilting the same designs consecutively, the work remained interesting. I was glad that I was friends with the designer, since I felt a bond with her while I was quilting; it was as if we were working on it together. One thing about hand-quilting: the soundtrack of the process is “where the bleep is my bleeping thimble?” I was always losing track of it.

Slowly the number of quilted squares grew. Once I was done the quilting process, binding began. Little had requested that the backing be the binding fabric as well, and she wanted the top striped border of the sheet incorporated into the design. Endless fiddling on the ironing board ensued, and I pinned and repinned the binding and especially the corners. I decided not to do mitred corners as I had on the blue quilt, but rather folded over ones since they seemed to suit the quilt better. After two evenings of hand-sewing, the quilt was bound.

One member of the household who took a special interest in this project was Georgia the cat. Quilting books often have pictures of cats on the quilt tops and Georgia was no more impervious than any other member of her species. She lay on the quilt while we were laying it out; she lay on the parts while I was piecing it; she lay on it every chance she could get while I was quilting it. That is one really excellent way to get boiling hot: sit under a quilt that you are working on and have the cat come and sit on top of you. She added an extra layer of cosiness to what was already a pretty cosy project: making a quilt for my daughter out of fabric designed by an old friend, with my husband at my side.

Little is delighted, and has been sleeping under the quilt for the last week. I am already planning the next quilt (theme: birds), for Middle.