Reusable Fabric Christmas Gift Bags

I swore last Christmas would be the last Christmas I used traditional wrapping paper for my holiday gifts and true to my word, I came up with a much better idea this year. I hate wrapping Christmas presents. I always think it’s only going to take me an hour or so and it ends up taking eight. Eight labor-intensive, boring, back-breaking hours I’d much rather spend cooking or reading, as much as I may love the recipients of those presents. Heck, I could be cooking them something instead. And although when we were kids my mom used to meticulously save wrapping paper to use year after year, we’ve gotten lazy about it in recent years and I hate seeing all that paper go to waste. So this year I decided to make fabric gift bags instead. They are just as pretty as gifts wrapped in paper and didn’t take any more time. And the best part is it will take substantially less time in subsequent years as I have to make fewer and fewer bags as I am able to reuse bags from prior years! I figure in two or three years it’ll take me about ten minutes to wrap all my gifts! Then I’ll kick back with some soy nog and listen to Christmas Wrapping 18,000 times in a row and be very happy.

The first step of making the gift bags was by far the hardest. I went to Jo-Anne Fabrics. Due to childhood trauma, I hate Jo-Anne’s. My mother made all of our clothes when we were kids and we were always being dragged to stupid Jo-Anne’s. It was awful and boring. Mark actually had the exact same trauma, so we commiserate about this. We both agree the only things to do at Jo-Anne’s were 1) hide in the middle of the circular fabric racks and 2) look at the Halloween costume pattern books, but neither of these things were interesting for more than five minutes, and if you’ve ever lived with a serious sewer, you know trips to the fabric store take closer to five hours. Mark’s mom bribed him with trips to the toy store after Jo-Anne’s. I was bribed with trips to the library. You’d think a kid could go the library without having to be tortured first. Anyway, I hate Jo-Anne’s to this day.

I didn’t inherit any of my mother’s sewing skills, unfortunately. Although I hated all the trying on of clothes I had to do as a kid (“walk away from me”, “now turn around and walk towards me”, “turn sideways”, “do a pirouette and then a handstand”), suffering through a thousand pins pricking me at the hemline, much later in life I realized I hate pretty much all manufactured clothing (and I’m small enough that frustratingly little of it fits me) and I wish I could make my own clothes. From time to time I attempt to do so. It generally goes badly very quickly. I have vague plans of either invading my mother’s house one week and forcing her to teach me how to sew (again – she did try when I was younger) or kidnapping my mother-in-law and making her do the same. Most of the times the sewing machine gets lugged out from its storage place, I end up whining to Mark that I hate sewing and that the only thing I’m good at is cooking so I’m going back to that and I stuff the sewing machine back in the closet and console myself with an elaborate feast.

Anyway, the point of all of this is, it is DEAD EASY to make these gift bags, and trust me, you don’t need any sewing skills other than knowing how to thread your sewing machine. I even imagine this would be a really good project for any child that is old enough to use a sewing machine. I, in fact, found myself wishing I had a kid I could task with it!

As I was saying, the worst part about this project is Jo-Anne’s. On those rare occasions I get the misguided notion in my head that I am going to sew something, I usually go to G Street Fabrics which is huge and there are always a myriad of people wanting to measure and cut my fabric for me. However, G Street is more expensive, further away, and closes earlier, so I went to Jo-Anne’s this time. And Jo-Anne’s did have some great deals on holiday fabrics, like 2 yards for $5. Of course there was only one person cutting fabric and despite the fact that I was the second person in line and the one person in front of me only had one fabric, it still took 15 minutes. I had anticipated this and taken a book in, though. Seriously. I really did stand in line and read my book. Jo-Anne’s is dumb.

So anyway, step one: get a bunch of cheap, garish fabric. I bet it will be even cheaper in January. Cotton is definitely best and easiest to work with. Also make sure you have a lot of thread. And some grosgrain ribbon to match the fabric.

Step two is to cut the fabric into rectangles large enough to cover your gift. I find it infinitely easier to use a rotary cutter for this type of project, mostly because I can’t cut in a straight line. What I did was fold the fabric in half, place it on my cutting mat, place a gift on it …

… then cut around it, leaving a few inches on the sides and bottom and a bit more on the top:

Note: At Swim Two-Birds is a decoy gift! Many of my gift recipients read this blog and I can hear them all now thinking, “man, I hope I’m not the poor sap getting that gift”. Their loss, though, it’s a great book.

For many of my bags, including the one I will be depicting here, the fourth side was on the fold of the fabric. This meant I only had to sew up two sides instead of three. If you included the fold in your cut, unfold the fabric and hem the entire top side. If you have two separate pieces, hem the top of each. I just estimated an inch or so, folded it down and started pinning. My mother will surely be appalled by this when she reads this and realizes I didn’t measure and make sure it was uniform. Sorry, Mom. It’s just a gift bag.

After pinning, sew the hem, close to the raw edge. I imagine my mother would instruct you to do a lot of folding the raw edge under, pressing, folding again, pressing again, ad nauseum, but you’re in luck because I hate irons. Also, it’s just a gift bag.

Here is the finished seam. Remember, if you have two halves instead of one folded piece, you will do this for each half.

If you have one piece, fold it in half, right sides together, hemmed seam at the top. If you have two pieces, place right sides together, hemmed seams together at the top.

Pin the two raw sides together for folded bags, or three for two-pieced bags.

Sew the seams. Use whatever you feel comfortable with as a seam allowance. Heck, I can’t even sew in a straight line. It’s just a gift bag. (My mother is probably rolling her eyes at my incompetence and laissez faire attitude by this point.)

Here’s the bag all sewn up:

Turn it right side out.

Slide the gift inside.

Tie the bag closed at the top with a length of ribbon. Ta-da!

As for gift tags, Jo-Anne’s had these wooden ornaments for 49 cents each:

I figured they’d make good reusable gift tags I can save from year to year, although for people outside the family from whom I couldn’t reasonably demand my tags back, they could then double as an ornament after being used as a tag.

Here’s the tag on the bag:

(Would you believe I also made those stripy pillows?! I’m a sewing genius!)

I only bought a limited number of the wooden ornaments, so for other gifts, I’ll use cut-up bits of old Christmas cards or printed photos, or something like that.

As for the bags themselves, if the recipients want to keep them, of course they can, and I hope they’ll use them next year. Then I’ll get some back and use them following year, etc. I figure they’ll just circulate through the family, and I’ll make more each year until we have enough to cover just about every size and shape of gift.

In food news, I’ve been on Fortinbras to get cracking on his holiday baking post. He says he’s started writing it, which means it’ll be done sometime in March. Of 2012. In the meantime, since it probably won’t dawn on Fort to include pictures of the cats, I’ll give you this photo of Tigger, which Fort exclaimed “looks like a heart”. And which therefore sums up my feelings for Tigger.


  1. Mom Said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    JoAnn’s used to be a busy store. The day a sale started, people would line up outside the store waiting for the doors to open at 10 am. One time I managed to get in the cutting counter line behind a woman who had a whole shopping cart full of fabric bolts, and she wanted just a little bit of each one because she was making a quilt.

    My favorite visit in recent years was the night that one person was running the whole store alone. She had to cut your fabric and then you went to the cash register and she had to run up there to check you out.

    I would definitely be turning under 1/4″ at the top edge first, but I wouldn’t have just pressed it. I would have stitched it down and then ironed it flat rather than vice versa. Or at least just zig-zagged along the raw edge to keep it from fraying before turning down the top hem. And where is the zig-zagging of the side seam edges?

    I don’t use a rotary cutter, but I would just tear the fabric on large gift bags. Torn edges would definitely need zig-zagging.

  2. renae Said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    I don’t know how you’d feel about all that turning edges under, ironing, and zig-zagging seams after making 50 bags. The good news is that cuts made with a rotary cutter fray very little, so I’m not all that worried about it. Plus I’m sure all of the recipients of my gifts will be far too polite to turn their bags inside out and look at the seams. Right?!

    Jo-Anne’s was, is, and always will be a nightmare. It’s like everyone there moves at half-speed or something. I had several different bolts when I was buying my gift bag fabrics, so I let the lady behind me who only had one go ahead of me. Besides, I had a book to read anyway.

    Trader Joe’s is right next to Jo-Anne’s, so these days I bribe myself with a trip to Trader Joe’s afterwards! Which is probably your idea of torture.

  3. Jain Said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

    I have such a hate-hate relationship with sewing, and therefore, by association, with Jo-Anne’s. It started back in junior high school (before there were “middle schools”) when I had to make an aqua dress with an aqua/white flowered Peter Pan collar. Damn that dress to hell. I wanted to take shop, make truly useful things and learn valuable skills, but couldn’t because of my grrl-parts.

    Fast forward to a sewing project that went bad. Maybe a robe I couldn’t find in a store so decided to try myself… I forget. Whatever. And it was probably the tension on the machine that did me in, it does every time. I was so angry that I took the thing–whatever it was–out to the driveway to set it on fire. And learned that polyester doesn’t burn. It just melts. Which infuriated me even more.

    Due to my, er, frugality, I still have to sew an occasional pillow or simple curtain. To this day, my blood pressure skyrockets, I get cranky, and break out in a cold sweat. So I probably won’t be trying your gift bags.

    But they’re cute.


  4. renae Said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 12:20 am

    Jain, your comment made me laugh. Not at you, but with you. I definitely feel your pain. Sewing makes me very angry most of the time as well. I swear the gift bags are really, really easy or I wouldn’t be making them, but I certainly don’t recommend sewing to anyone who hates it and I think you may hate it even more than I do!

    I think the tension is messed up on my sewing machine, too, probably due to my EXTREMELY bad idea to “get into quilting” last year (ha ha ha ha ha ha, what was I thinking?!). The thread inexplicably broke a few times while making the gift bags, causing me to want to throw the machine out the window. I adjusted the tension slightly (in which direction, I have no idea since I don’t know what the tension dial means) and it stopped doing that, fortunately for all involved. Otherwise I’d have been stapling my bags together.

  5. Mark Said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

    I go an award in Home Economics for best-in-class!

    Wait.. that is something I shouldn’t tell people.

  6. Jain Said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    Yes, broken threads are my nemesis! I know that “throw it out the window” feeling too well, and curse our 1-story home on sewing days. Fat lotta satisfaction that would be: a dull thud after a 3-foot drop.

  7. Lovliebutterfly Said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

    This is so clever! I am a sewing freak too! I did Dress and Textiles until A-Level, then stopped there to do Graphic Design at Uni. I should have done Fashion instead! I sew my own dresses and stuff but I’ve never made gift bags! Why haven’t I thought about that! I wished someone would make me a bag like this as a gift wrap! It’s like getting 2 gifts then!

  8. Maureen Said,

    December 22, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    Great idea! I never really thought about Christmas wrapping as something that could be eliminated. Thanks for sharing the idea!

  9. renae Said,

    December 22, 2008 @ 11:43 pm

    Lovliebutterfly, I am VERY sure that any gift bags you made would be far, far better than mine! I’m really pretty hopeless at sewing.

    Maureen, thanks! I wouldn’t have felt as guilty about it if my family still re-used wrapping paper for years on end, but I hated seeing all that paper just thrown away!

  10. Aunt Lynn Said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    The gift bags were a really neat idea. Renae made most of mine using fabric with polar bears on it because she knows I love polar bears. Since a lot of the gifts people in our family usually want are of a fairly consistent size (books, DVDs, CDs) we should be able to reuse most of them over and over. Jain, I also wanted to take shop instead of home ec in junior high because I already knew how to cook and sew. Our first sewing project was to make an apron and we had to tear the pieces rather than cutting them. I can still remember the ugly orange flowered material I used. Then we had to bake a bunch of cookies and invite the boys to a tea party and serve them while wearing our stupid aprons — a very traumatic experience. Despite the horrors of home ec, I love to cook and bake, but I still think I could have learned a lot more useful stuff in shop.

  11. Gothic Lollipop Said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Sewing actually isn’t that difficult if you have a good machine. I highly recommend computerized machines like the Singer Futura. I never thought I could sew before I got mine (actually bought it for the embroidery machine part of it, which I never even ended up using). Sewing with a computerized machine with lots of power like that definitely takes a lot less patience than trying to sew with an old mechanical machine that gets jammed up every two minutes and can’t handle anything thicker than cotton quilting fabric…but also you just have to realize that some of your seams are probably going to be wonky no matter what, so you just have to leave them be and move on with your life (something I learned while working on costumes for my college theater department and had to learn to sew fast!). It’s very hard to be a perfectionist and sew without going nuts, so just relax and do the best you can ^_^;;

  12. renae Said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    Gothic Lollipop, Actually I got so frustrated with my old machine while making my gift bags this year that I did in fact buy a new one! It’s a Brother CS6000i and although it just arrived two days ago and I’ve only made a couple of bags so far, I think it’s going to be much, much better. I think ALL my seams are going to be wonky, though – I still can’t sew in a straight line! Fortunately, I may be a perfectionist in some areas of my life, but sewing is definitely not one of them (as my mother can attest). Thanks for the words of encouragement…they help right now when I’m facing a million more gift bags to make while learning a new machine.

  13. Rebbecca Said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    I saw this as I did a search on how to make x-mas bags. Have you ever done a french seam? They are super simple. You just sew right sides together with a thicker stitch like a zig zag then turn it inside out and sew with with a straight stitch. The finished product would be beautiful inside. I just thought I’d throw that out there since you have less bags to make so you might have more time to spend on the new ones. Plus I buy lots of fabric online. I hate the snooty old ladies that always ask…” So Sweety whatch makin?” and then they tell you how the fabric you chose is all wrong! Do grocery clerks ask what you are cooking and try to make you change the ingredients?

    As for “straight lines” use the little lines that are on the machine near the foot. They are guide lines.

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