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Make a Tote Bag From an Old Grain Sack

A long-time crafter, Dolores has created sewing projects for private clients, including pillow covers, linen pillowcases, and sink skirts.

Grain sack tote bags

Grain sack tote bags

Retro Tote Bag Craft

A short time ago, I was browsing an antique store and I saw a huge pile of old grain sacks. Since I love old textiles, I found it hard to resist buying a few. Grain sacks can be utilized to upholster chairs, make pillows, or adorn curtains and tablecloths.

I decided to make some tote bags with my new (old) grain sacks. They are certainly too long to use as they are! If you want to make a tote bag, or reusable grocery bag out of these vintage grain sacks, beware: if washed, the print may fade. They must be dry-cleaned. But stains and wear add to the authentic look of the piece.

I chose three different brands of grain sacks: a Chase A Seamless Extraquality bag, a Fulton Seamless, and a Bemis Extra Heavy Seamless bag.

Bemis Extra Heavy Seamless burlap sacks have been in use since Judson Bemis founded his company in 1858. The large bags have been used for cotton, grain, and feed. The bags I found measure 46" long and, if cut length-wise, are 92" long. The seller claimed that the bags are about 80 years old. Bemis still produces these burlap bags today.

Made from tough, durable material, the sacks had to stand up to some rough treatment and will make an excellent heavy-duty grocery tote.

Now, I must admit to having a problem with using older textiles. I often buy an old kitchen towel or curtain, thinking I will use the fabric for a project, but can't bring myself to damage it.

Today, however, I cut one of the bags to begin my sewing project. If you're looking for an easy sewing project and enjoy creating handmade gifts by recycling vintage fabrics, view the instructions below to make a simple tote bag:

Make Two Bags From One

The sacks cost $10.00 each, so using them to create two bags wound up costing $5.00 a bag. I cut it so that the stenciled label appears on one bag while the other is plain with vertical stripes on each side.

Measure before you cut so that the bags are even. Make sure that you have enough fabric for seams and hems. The loose weave easily frays, so you want to work this project in one sewing session. You can also run a line of fabric glue along the cut edges to avoid fraying.

Measure before cutting

Measure before cutting

Cutting the Grain Sacks

  • When you cut the bags, make sure that you leave enough fabric to make handles; two for each bag.
  • Measure the handles so they will be even and long enough to carry the tote bag comfortably. I made one with extra long handles so it can be used as a shoulder bag.
Cut and arrange pieces - make sure image is centered

Cut and arrange pieces - make sure image is centered

  • Cut the handles wide. That way they will be strong enough to tote a heavy load.
  • Fold each handle length-wise. Bring each horizontal end together in the center, then fold again to hide loose edges (as shown below).
  • Pin along the entire length of the handle. Iron to maintain shape.
  • Tuck in the ends.
  • Carefully sew along the open ends. Be very careful with the folded edges as the heavy fabric may break even a strong needle. You may want to hand stitch the ends.
Four folded strips for two tote bags

Four folded strips for two tote bags

Sew the Bottom of the Bag

  • Sew the bottom of one bag. The other will already be closed at the bottom. There are no side seams.
  • This fabric is very heavy so use a heavy-duty sewing needle and sew slowly. Use a zig-zag stitch for extra strength and to help avoid fraying.
  • Turn the material inside out so the seam is on the inside.
  • With a pencil, draw a line on each bottom end of the bag about 2" in, creating a triangle on each end of the bottom of the bag. Sew along this line. This will enable you to set a filled bag down without it falling over.
  • Trim off the triangle of extra material.

Hem the Top of the Bag

  • Hem along the top of each bag using a zig-zag stitch.
  • Make sure the handles are placed for comfort. Pin the handles between the vertical stripes. Try out the bag to make sure the handles feel right. Adjust.
  • Sew the handles to the bag, stitching a square pattern for strength.
This bag is made from an old grain sack, making it strong and good for heavy items.

This bag is made from an old grain sack, making it strong and good for heavy items.

There are other brands of grain sacks but most are similar. Below you can see the length of this Chase A Seamless bag. This one is a bit funkier than the ones I used for the sewing project.

There are plenty of these bags around. They can be found at estate sales, yard sales, antique and salvage shops, as well as online shops. Prices vary greatly so you may have to look around. Vintage European sacks seen featured in decorating books and magazines can be very expensive. American styles are much more affordable.

Chase A Seamless ExtraQuality Grain Sack

Chase A Seamless ExtraQuality Grain Sack

© 2012 Dolores Monet