two gift bags on a tartan blanket, leaning against a basket

Eco-Friendly Reusable Gift Bags

Do you love giving nicely wrapped gifts but want to be a bit more eco-friendly? Yeah, me too. While there are a lot of great ways to wrap gifts in recycled materials, like newspaper, I like the idea of a gift wrap that can actually be reused. Maybe a fabric gift bag? Something durable, washable, and that stays closed well. It would also need to be a size and configuration that makes the reuse obvious to keep it from getting thrown into the pile of infrequently used giveaway totes we all have.

This year I was thinking of knitting slippers for everyone to use when traveling, or for guests, or just a cozy night on the couch. Having a bag to keep them in, especially while traveling, seemed like a good idea, so that’s where I decided to start with my attempt to eco-up the holidays.

I found a great slipper pattern on DROPS Design, and a few more that I put on the Creatorvox pinterest board if you want to check them out.

knitted slippers with snowflake pattern on a tartan blanket

It took me a few attempts to finesse the pattern and gauge since I used a very different yarn than what the pattern recommended, but once I had what I wanted I started on the bags.

The drawstring bag is a very simple design so I decided to use that for my slipper gifts. Of course it is also easy to open and re-close, so this is probably not a great idea for anyone tempted to have a peek at their gift in advance. Since I’ll be delivering most of these in person, and since all of the recipients are adults, it should be ok.

Now for the first step: figuring out the dimensions. I measured across the width and length of a completed slipper, added about 1 inch to each side of the width to account for the thickness when stacked and room to fit them into the bag, and then about 1 inch on top to leave room for the bag to draw-in when closed.

For a seam allowance: I wanted the seams folded over twice to conceal the raw fabric edges completely and keep them from fraying during many uses. Any time I double-fold seams the smallest dimension I manage to get is about 3/8″ no matter how hard I try to fold a 1/4″ seam. I wanted this project to be fun and not frustrating, so instead of struggling to get the trickier 1/4″ seam I gave myself a break and relaxed with 3/8″ seams. Mathematically that makes a seam allowance of 3/4″ for the double-fold on each side. 1/2″ or even 3/4″ seams would have been fine, too. Whatever you can manage without making yourself crazy.

The tube for the drawstring at the top required about another 1 1/2 inches because that also meant folding the fabric twice to hide the cut edge as well as leaving space for the ribbon within the tube. Since I folded the fabric around the bottom of the bag instead of putting a seam there I added 1 1/2 inches to both sides of the top for 3 inches extra fabric before I cut.

Sound like too much math? Don’t worry. If you check the dimensions a few times before you cut you’ll be able to correct any mistakes, and the seam ‘allowances’ are just that: they leave room for a little inaccuracy in everything from wiggly sewing lines to slightly-off dimensions. I just reminded myself that I was trying to make a bag for something soft and malleable and not trying to slip-cover a chair. If the bag was either a little roomy or slightly tight the slippers would still fit.

Next came pinning and sewing the seams. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to do the seams so that I would still have a tube at the top for the drawstring while keeping all of the cut edges fully hidden. Completely seaming the sides first and then making the tube at the top worked well.

fabric for a bag with the sides pinned for seaming next to scissors and a tape measure
side seams double-folded and stitched in place

For the tube at the top, fold the corners in a tiny bit at the first fold to keep the raw fabric edge from fraying:

pinning the seam at the top of a bag

Then fold the tube at the top a second time, pin it, and seam it along the bottom edge:

pinning the tube for the drawstring at the top of a bag

The tricky part was in not sewing the tube shut while I stitched the sides together. I did just fine stopping where I was supposed to on the first bag, but then I might have gotten a bit over-confident on the next one and sewed the drawstring tube right up. Hum. Not a big deal, I just took out about an inch of the seam and re-did that part, but next time I’ll pay a little more attention.where to stop sewing the side seam of a drawstring bag so the top stays open

Last step: turn the bag right-side-out and thread the drawstring. I used ribbon for the drawstring and measured it by holding it against the bag, leaving a few inches for a knot at the end:drawstring bag with red ribbon to be threaded through the top

You will need two drawstrings, one in each direction. I thought there might be some complication to threading them both through the same tube in opposite directions, but it actually works fine. I threaded and knotted the first ribbon before threading and knotting the second one. Use a safety pin to pull the ribbon through the tube gently:threading a red drawstring through the tube at the top of the bag

To keep the drawstring from unraveling:

  • If there is nylon or another synthetic material in your string, like with satin ribbon, use a match to burn the ends slightly (very slightly). Just enough to melt the fiber strands together. This can be done by holding the end of the ribbon close to a lit match, but not in the flame. It will catch fire if you get too close. If you’ve done it right there will be a very small lump (of melted plastic) at the end of your ribbon. Obviously take all necessary steps to prevent fire or injury. It will also stink, and melting plastic isn’t great to breath, so do this in a well ventilated area or outside if possible.
  • If your drawstring is 100% cotton, then wet the ends before you make the knot, tie the knot really tightly in the wet string, and as it dries it will shrink a little and be very, very tight. The ends will still fray, but they will fray into a soft cotton puff.

grey patterned bag with red drawstring

There are all sorts of directions you can go in with a simple drawstring gift bag. Adding beading, iron-on decorations, paint, even letting children draw decorations right on the fabric (just make sure the markers are permanent or the recipient knows not to wash it). Be creative matching the fabric to the gift or the recipient or the occasion, or even just using up some of your stash.

For a friend who travels a lot I thought it might be nice to stencil a label onto the bag and make it easier to find in the suitcase:unbleached organic cotton gift bag decorated with the word 'slippers'

Yes, that clearly gives away the contents before they open the gift, but what the slippers look like will still be a surprise.

What you will need:

  • Fabric
  • Straight pins
  • Needle and thread
  • Scissors
  • Tape measure and/or a straight edge to cut long seams
  • Fabric marker (or felt tip pen) to mark the cut lines
  • Ribbon or string
  • Any decorative finishing touches such as beads, paint, or stencils

Tips and tricks:

  • The idea is to make these gift bags durable and since you don’t know how often the recipient will need to wash their gift bag, it’s probably best to use fabric that can hold up to machine washing and drying, like cotton or cotton-poly blends.
  • Machine wash and dry your fabric before you measure, cut, and sew. This will allow the fabric to pre-shrink and prevent the seams from puckering when it gets washed in the future.
  • If you iron the fabric before you measure it will be easier to get accurate cut lines because the fabric will lay flat.
  • As always, measure twice and cut once. If math and measuring is not your thing, take a break to relax and clear your head before you double check and cut.
  • This project is great practice for making straight seams either by hand or with a machine. I’m new to a sewing machine and got much more confident seaming after the first bag or two.
  • If the seams are a little wobbly, or if the two sides don’t quite match, don’t worry. Make it as perfect as you can, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the project. The bag will probably never be laid out flat and examined closely (unless of course the recipient is your seamstress great aunt, in which case hopefully she is just proud of you for making something), and a little difference between the two sides won’t be noticeable when it’s in use.

Have fun being creative with your eco-wrapping this holiday, and thanks for reading.

Have any questions or comments?