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.






Last autumn, I declared an end to buying Kleenex, tissues, what have you. I decided to switch the household over to hankies for two reasons: waste, and the horrible bits of Kleenex that end up in the wash after someone has left it in a pocket, and then you have to put the whole load through the dryer instead of hanging it up. I also like hankies. I like the softness of much-washed cotton against my nose when I have a horrible cold (much softer than paper). I like how they remind me of my dad, and both my grandfathers, hanky-carriers all. I only ever met one man in my generation, more than twenty years ago, who used a hanky. If we all used hankies, the boreal forest and all the little warblers who use it as their nursery would be safer.

A lot of effort in this world goes into manufacturing things that will be used once and then get thrown out. The facial tissue is one of those things. Greenpeace has estimated that North Americans use 22 kg of tissue paper products (facial tissue, paper towel, toilet paper, paper napkins) a year. They issue a green guide to tissue, also available as an app. This is helpful when trying to find recycled paper products in shops. But, in my opinion, no waste is better than less waste, and so I am trying to eliminate the purchase of this sort of product as much as I can. We do have paper towel in the house, but Itry to ignore it and use rags instead. Our everyday napkins are cloth ones, and once I find red linen napkins for Christmas use I won’t be buying festive paper napkins any more either. The spouse lives in constant fear that the very next “improvement” I bring to our lives will be washable toilet paper. I washed dirty cloth diapers for years and I have no desire to embark on that again, so I think he’s safe. Hankies seemed like an easy change to make.


I sat down at the computer and ordered three and a half dozen hankies from the UK, somewhat like these. Somehow, British hankies seemed more genuine than the American ones, and the British reviews gave me useful info on how the handkerchiefs would iron up. I had increased our hanky supply a few years ago, but in an incredibly labour-intensive way. I cut up the skirt of an old cotton nightgown, cut out several hankies, hemmed them and monogrammed them. This was a good project for winter evenings, but I didn’t want to make 42 handkerchiefs thus.

20170110_114938Now we have  a box of hankies in the bathroom, and everyone can help themselves whenever they want. One of the nice things about a box of Kleenex is the feeling of abundance, that there are masses of tissues there when you need them. Including the hankies that we owned before, we have about 60 hankies in the house. Our collection includes some really cute children’s hankies sent by relatives in the Netherlands.

20170110_112525The size of the collection means that the hanky box is easy to keep filled and no one needs to stint. The box would be even easier to fill if I did not divert the hankies into the ironing pile on the way. I love an ironed hanky, and I really enjoy ironing, so it’s no hardship. I learned how to iron from my mum and dad, and practiced first on hankies and tea towels. I still iron these items, and I find the task calming. I am teaching the children how to iron in the same way. Life in the slow lane means that tasks like this are possible. I really appreciate the chance to take the time.

And what happened to that lone hanky-user that I encountered all those years ago? Reader, I married him.