Introduction: Upcycling Grain Bags Into Tote Bags

I am a zookeeper and many of our animals' grains come in woven plastic bags. This type of bag isn't recyclable, so we give them a second life by sewing them into tote bags to keep them out of the landfill. We sell the reusable totes in our gift shop and a portion of the proceeds go to our Green Team.

These tote bags are great for grocery shopping, but also make an excellent pool/beach or gym bags. Our zookeepers love using the larger bags to carry hay or straw to exhibits without leaving a trail.

Many dog and cat foods also come in bags made of this material, as well as birdseed. If you are interested in making a large quantity of these bags, you could check with your area zoo or local farmers, they would probably be happy to save a stack of sacks for you!

Step 1: Cutting and Cleaning the Bag

Remove the string binding the bottom of the bag or simply cut off the bottom of the bag.

To ensure the bag comes out square, measure from the top and make a mark 1/2” from the bottom at the place where it is the shortest (if you cut it and the bottom is uneven). Take note of that measurement (top to mark) and mark that measurement across the bottom along the length. Or, if you will be making a large quantity of bags, use a cutting mat with a grid to make squaring them up easier. Self-healing cutting mats can be very expensive, but there are also cardboard versions that are cheaper or you can make your own from a piece of cardboard as I did.

Then cut 4” off the top OR bottom of the bag, depending on what part of the photo/graphics you want to keep visible on the side of the bag. (Keep in mind, approximately another 3" on the bottom will form the bottom of the bag, and thus not be visible.) The 4" piece you are cutting off will be used to make the handles. If you are using 2 bags to make a large totebag, you can cut the handles from the center of the back side of each bag as shown by the lines in the third photo. This helps keep the photo centered on the sides of the bag.

Cut the remaining bag to the size you want, adding 2” to account for the hem along the top and 3"+ to create the bottom of the bag.

Turn the pieces inside out and wipe them down with a wet cloth to remove any dust. This is important so that you don't get dust in your sewing machine.

Step 2: Thread and Settings

A few tips on working with this material from an expert seamstress (not me!): Set your machine on long stitches, use a sharp universal needle (not ballpoint), and 100% polyester dual duty thread (suggested brand Coats & Clark). Don’t use a heavy duty thread as it will mess up the tension. If your tension is off, try tightening your bobbin case. Make sure to oil your machine also.

If you have trouble with the fabric slipping while you are sewing, others have suggested putting masking tape on the bottom of the foot of your sewing machine to give it extra traction when working with this slick fabric. I personally haven't tried this, but if you do, I would suggest using a hole punch to make a hole where the needle goes through to prevent gumming up the machine.

Step 3: Make the Handles

Take the the 4” strip and cut it in half crosswise, resulting in two 4" strips of equal length. Starting with one strip, fold both of the long edges in to meet in the middle, then fold it in half to conceal the raw edges as shown in the photo.

Clip the strips with clothespins as you fold them to hold them in place. Instead of straight pins, I prefer using clothespins because they are faster, easier and safer to use than pins. (My sewing machine is in my laundry room, so I gave them a try after struggling to use pins with the woven plastic fabric.)

Sew along both edges to give the handles a finished look. Repeat with the other strip to make the second handle. Alternatively, you can also use webbing, ribbon or other materials to create straps.

Step 4: Hem the Top of the Bag

Mark 2” from the top of the bag all the way around. (The bag is still inside out.) Fold the top edge down twice with the folded edge lining up to the 2” marks. Hold in place with clothespins. Sew the hem, removing the clothespins as you go.

Step 5: Attach the Handles

Place the handles where you want them, measuring from the side seam to ensure they are the same distance on each side. Adjust the length of the handles as desired. For a shoulder bag with long straps, cut two 4" strips (instead of one) from the bag in Step 1. Each strip will be used to make a single handle. Trim to desired length. Attach the handles to the bag using a "X in a square" design.

Step 6: Create the Bottom of the Bag

Sew the seam straight along the bottom. If using two bags, place them face-to-face and sew the sides and bottom, making sure they are even at the top.

Stand the bag up (inside out) with the opening on the table. Open the corners and flatten the corners as shown to make “ears”. How big you make the “ears” will determine how wide the bag is. If you are making the tote from a single bag, it works very nicely to make the “ears” be as wide as the sides of the original grain bag. So create the “ears” to go the length between the already existing creases. Those creases become the corners of the totebag. Sew along the “ears”. Cut off the excess material from the corners.

Step 7: Finished Bag

Turn the bag right side out and push your finger into the corners to sharpen them up. If you are joining two bags to make a larger bag, it can be somewhat floppy. To give it more structure, I run a seam up each corner to give the corners definition.

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