Introduction: Upcycled Food Packaging Tote Bag

Matches, food packaging, shipping envelopes, and super glue –doesn’t sound like your grandmother’s sewing project, does it? These upcycled grocery totes are super fun to make, and they’re not flimsy either. This design is fully capable of hardcore, one-trip-from-the-car grocery hauling any time you need it. Best of all, it’s a statement piece that makes people think twice about the aesthetic and functional value that can come from things that would normally be considered trash. Let’s get started!

Materials Needed:

  • 9 medium sized frozen fruit bags (4 for each side and at least one for the bottom)
  • 1 used shipping envelope to fit the bottom
  • Nylon Webbing, 1 inch wide (this is the black strap material. My bag used about 8 yards) Alternatively, you could cut denim strips or use something else you have on hand to reinforce the seams.

Tools Needed:

  • Sewing machine
  • Gorilla glue (the Microprecise bottle makes it easy to apply)
  • X-Acto knife and cutting mat
  • matches
  • masking tape & electrical tape
  • ruler

Step 1: Cut and Flatten

I used two different kinds of fruit bags for the front and back. The green ones are already flat, square and easy to work with, so all I did was cut the Ziplocs off to make them more consistent (exact measurements aren’t important since your materials will probably be different, but I cut these to 6 ¾ inches wide).

The Wyman’s bags are 3-D and have a bunch of extra material that is pinched at the top and bottom. To make these workable, rough-cut the top and bottom off and leave the middle section a slightly bigger size than the green bags. Next, flatten the section so it is only two layers; put something like a board or book on half of it to keep it pressed out properly. Put little pieces of masking tape inside on the top and bottom, apply a dot of gorilla glue to where they will contact, and press flat (see pictures). The tape makes the glue more effective since it sometimes doesn’t stick to the bag material very well, and the glue is there to permanently hold the layers where you want them when you go to cut it down to size, sew it, etc.

*Optional* After cutting the Wyman’s bags to exactly the same size as the green pieces, it is best to put the sections under a heavy stack of books to press flat for a few hours since they will be all bendy and lumpy from being out of their intended shape. This material responds very well to pressing and comes out much easier to work with.

Step 2: Join With Glue

The glue in this project is not used for structural stability; rather it is for holding things together quickly and accurately in preparation for sewing. It also eliminates the need for pins or basting stitches which reduces the number of holes poked in the material. It is easy to unintentionally perforate the material with too many holes too close together, especially since it was not created with the intention of being sewn, so set the stitch length on your sewing machine longer than normal. The material can actually take quite a bit of abuse, but the less holes, the better.

Each side is made of four fruit bags. Decide what orientation you want to get the best visual effect… on this one I turned one side upside down to concentrate the berries in the middle. These bags are all about the visual impression of the color splash and composition, so be creative and don’t worry about the words being upside down or whatever.

I joined lefts to rights first, but order doesn’t matter here. Overlap pieces by one inch. Why one inch? Because the nylon webbing is one inch wide, so a one-inch overlap will give you a perfect reference to place the webbing strips straight and square along the length of the bag while being perfectly centered.

Mark a line one inch from the edge, put a piece of masking tape along it (also put tape on the other piece where they will contact so the glue works well), dot it with gorilla glue, and press the other side on top using the line as a reference to keep it square. Repeat for the other left/right pair, then use the same process to join top and bottom.

Step 3: Seal the Tops

I used ¾ inch wide electrical tape to give the raw edge of the top a smooth, finished look.

Mark a line 3/8 inch down from the top on the front and apply the tape flush to that line; fold the rest over the edge to seal it off.

Step 4: Apply Vertical and Horizontal Webbing Pieces

Vertical – Measure and cut a piece of webbing ½ inch shorter than the top-to-bottom measurement of the whole unit.

After cutting, hold each raw edge over a match flame to heat the raw threads just enough to melt into each other and prevent fraying. Do not let the flame touch the webbing material; the radiant heat is more than enough. It only takes a few seconds of slowly moving the match back and forth to evenly heat and seal the edge. Do this process for all future strips of webbing to prevent fraying without having to fold under the edges and hem (that would be a pain since it’s such thick material).

Apply masking tape along the edge of the overlapping piece, dot it with gorilla glue, and apply the webbing strip (no need to apply tape to the backside of the webbing strip –the glue holds good without it). It should be flush to the top and ½ inch short at the bottom and should run flush to the edge of the overlapped piece (see pictures). Give the glue 10 to 30 seconds to set, then sew down each side of the strip. *Tip* Sew a few practice runs on some scraps to calibrate your stitch tension and length properly for these materials.

Horizontal –Measure and cut a webbing piece that is one inch shorter than the total left-to-right width of the unit. Seal the edges with a match, apply tape and glue, and center it so it runs ½ inch short on each side. Make it flush to the overlapping bag edge along the whole length. Sew down each side (it will overlap the vertical webbing strip in the center).

Step 5: Apply Webbing for the Seams

These webbing strips will overhang by ½ inch for the seam construction later. By doing this, the load-bearing seams will be sewed on the webbing overhangs instead of directly on the bag material, which puts less stress and holes on the bag material and allows for double stitching without compromise.

Side Seams –Measure and cut a webbing strip so it will match the top-to-bottom measurement of the side perfectly. Mark a line half inch in from the edge and use as a reference to accurately place the webbing. Apply tape, dot glue, and press down webbing so it only contacts the unit by ½ inch; the other ½ inch hangs off the side (see pictures). Important: Webbing should be applied to the front side and be perpendicular to the horizontal webbing piece (this is why a ½ inch gap was left on all the edges). Sew two lines of stitching, and make sure one is right on the edge of the webbing so it doesn’t lift up with the movement of the future bag.

Bottom Seam–Measure and cut a webbing strip so it sits right between the two side strips. Do not overlap the bottom strip with the side strips. Mark a line half inch up from the bottom edge. Apply tape, glue, press webbing; it should be perpendicular to the vertical webbing piece. Sew two lines of stitching.

It is entirely possible to make upcycled bags without the webbing, and I’ve done it many times, but those bags are better for light loads. Reinforced joints and seams really prolong the life of the material and improves durability and usability, so I recommend it. There are other possibilities besides webbing, like cutting old denim into strips. The only downside is that you’d have to hem denim on all sides to prevent fraying, which adds time to the project.

Step 6: Handles

I like having 18 inches of free handle length, so add on however many inches are sewed down to get the total length. Mine needed an additional 6 ¾ inches to go from the top of the webbing strip to the top of the bag, so 18 + 6.75 + 6.75 gave me a 31.5 inch strip. I spaced it 3 inches away from the vertical webbing using my handy clear ruler (see pictures). Use the ruler as a straight edge to guide alignment. Tape, glue, apply handle, then sew two lines of stitching.

For the handle I elected to sew another layer of webbing on the inside of the bag for added durability. Cut and measure two short strips to match the sewed down part of the handle. Tape, glue, sew. *Tip:* Stagger the seams! When adding a second layer, do not sew on the edge like you did on the outside handle; move the stitching inwards by ¼ inch to avoid creating too many holes in a line and perforating the bag material.

Step 7: Repeat Steps 2 Through 6 to Make the Other Side

Step 8: The Bottom

Select a bag to use for the bottom. This 10 inch wide one was a little wider than I would have liked, but I wanted to use the whole bag so I didn’t cut it. You’ll notice it runs a few inches short on each side, but this is okay since boxing the corners will seal the gap. In a previous project (the bag on the right in the cover picture) I made the bottom the same length as the sides and it resulted in a more rectangular base, and the inside had little triangular flaps that lay flat on the inside after boxing the corners. It’s really up to you.

Find a used shipping envelope with a layer of bubble wrap in it, cut it to size, and insert it into the bottom bag. Seal the Ziploc and glue or sew shut.

Optional: You can put webbing strips on the bottom seams if you want to, with ½ inch hanging off like the other seams. I did for this bag, but in retrospect it made boxing the corners more difficult and bulkier because the webbing is so stiff, even though it looks nice. In the cover picture, the bag on the righthand side did not have webbing around the bottom and it seems pretty strong anyways.

Step 9: Sew the Sides to the Bottom

With right sides facing each other (i.e. inside-out) pin the bag bottom to the bottom of one of the sides. Sew it, then attach the other side to the bottom in the same way (I find pinning to be easier than gluing for all the final seams).

Step 10: Sew the Side Seams

Line up the sides (still right sides together, or inside-out) and pin them together on the webbing overhangs, then sew. You’ll have to crease the bottom to make the whole thing flat.

Step 11: Box the Corners

This is where the bag goes from adolescent to adult. Sit the bag on the bottom like it's supposed to look, then push one of the side seams down towards the inside of the bag to fold it as illustrated in the picture. You may have to fiddle with it a bit to get a nice fold. Next, pin and sew it down where my finger points in the picture. You’ll have to flatten the seam to one side as you sew. Repeat on the other side.

As I mentioned before, the webbing on the bottom piece makes this step more difficult. On my bag, somehow little pieces on one of the boxed seams didn’t get tucked in properly and stick out imperfectly. But the important thing to remember is, no matter what mistakes you make or how it comes out, these colorful bags are going to look WAY better than if they were sitting in a landfill.

Turn it right side out, and you’re done! Happy hauling!

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