Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Buy Nothing Back-to-School and Lunch Bag Tutorial

This post revised 9/10/09 after I made two more bags and found some areas that could use clarification. New additions in italics, new photos are in cowboy or jungle fabric.

Before M started kindergarten, I dutifully did what my mom did every August--I trooped to Target and bought all of the school supplies from the list the teacher mailed to our house, loaded up on jeans and t-shirts and searched out the perfect lunchbox. To my surprise, I found that they no longer make lunchboxes; instead they supply an endless array of thick, bulky insulated coolers (honestly, when did peanut butter and jelly sandwiches suddenly require insulation?).

I had visions of M walking to school (which is ridiculous since we live five miles away) with his metal Superman or Scooby Doo lunchbox dangling from his hand, banging against his knee, the way I did when I was a kid. I had a metal Holly Hobby lunch box, with the matching thermos and my banana sticker collection in the lid. In second grade I forgot it on the playground and it got stomped (by an eighth-grader, I was sure) and from then on I carried my lunch to school in brown paper sacks (except on those most humiliating days when we ran out of my bags and I had to take my lunch in a clear Safeway produce bag).

We already had a couple of insulated coolers which I had bought when he was a baby, so for the last two years he has taken is lunch in those. Last year I resisted the back-to-school shopping urge altogether--M never wore any of the jeans I bought in kindergarten (he has a very particular sense of style, which is based not on fashion, fit or cleanliness, as far as I can tell) and though I remember acutely the agony of sitting outside his kindergarten classroom while he went through screening that first day, and watching all of the kids go by wearing there shiny new shoes and clothes, knowing M was inside in a ratty t-shirt and shorts (because it was still too warm to wear those new jeans even if he would wear them) and old sneakers, I know that the time to buy kids new shoes in Maine is in spring, when you can actually wear them for several months, not in the fall when they will soon be supplanted by snow boots. I didn’t need to buy any first grade supplies--he re-used his pencil box and scissors from kindergarten and I have a whole stash of unopened boxes of crayons, markers and colored pencils because for some reason we often get school supplies as gifts, and because pencils are the new candy (at Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s) we will never have to buy pencils again.

This strategy worked again this year--my back to school shopping consisted of a pack of shoelaces (for the shoes I bought him last spring--an exemption in the Buy Nothing Year rules) because one broke (damn organic cotton) and a box of tissues for the classroom. However, I did want to replace the old insulated lunchboxes which were starting to fall apart, were getting kind of snargy and are probably made out of lead-filled PVC (although why this suddenly matters after having used them for 7 years I have no idea). I wanted something machine-washable, non-bulky when empty and big enough to hold a couple of plastic sandwich containers with room to spare. Because this is Buy Nothing Year, and because I’ve never seen anything that was exactly what I wanted (although I did briefly lust over this and this), I decided to make it myself, using all materials I had on hand.

I know this isn’t a craft blog, but I’m going to show you how I made it in case you get inspired to make your own (skip to the bottom to see the final picture if you're not inspired):

Outside fabric 1/3-1/2 yard
Lining fabric 1/3-1/2 yard
Strap fabric (can be cut from lining fabric if desired) scrap at least 4" wide by 20" long
Cord (I used cotton clothesline) about 40"
Heavy Duty Zipper at least as long as top width (it's OK if it is longer; just tuck the end in the lining)

Seam allowance: 1/2 inch unless otherwise noted

Construction tip: Even though the instructions aren't written this way, I do all of the cutting first, then all of the ironing, then all of the sewing.

Get started: Determine your desired finished size. Mine is roughly 11 inches wide at the top, 7 inches wide and 4 inches deep at the bottom and 7 inches tall. Cut one rectangle from each outside and lining fabric (A=outside; B=lining) measuring: 2 x top width + 1 -by- height + 1/2 depth + 2 (my rectangles measured 24" wide x 13" high)

Outer BagHandles: Cut two strips of fabric 2 inches wide by about 20 inches long (you can vary this depending on your desired handle length). Fold in half lengthwise; iron. Open up and fold edges in about ¼ inch; iron. Cut two pieces of cord about 18 inches long (or 2" shorter than your fabric strips) each. Lay along inside fold of fabric strips; fold over fabric along length; fold ends under about 1/4 inch twice; sew along length. Sew to sides of bag (I placed mine about 3 inches in from the edges and 4 inches down from the top; and sewed from 1 ½ inches down to the bottom edge of the handle), reinforcing several times along the length (once at the bottom of the handle, once at the beginning of the seam and once in the middle of the two).

Zipper: (Note: I used a heavy-duty zipper that was a couple of inches longer than I needed; a properly-sized zipper would probably be neater. Also I just made this up as I went along; if you know how to actually do zippers, you should just skip this part and do it your way).
Sew a small square of fabric at the top (open) end of zipper.
Find center of outside fabric (A) top; align with center of zipper (right sides together) and pin.
Align one edge of zipper with top edge of bag on one side. Pin.
Repeat with other edge.
Pin around bottom and side of bag (Fabric A; right sides together). Sew around bag from bottom corner.
When you reach the top corner, fold fabric into a box shape to align with zipper.
Sew along sipper fabric and around both ends. (Yes it looks like hell, but will be hidden by the lining!) There is probably a better way to do this.

Now take the bottom corners and pull the fabric apart to form a triangle. Sew across the bottom of the triangle where it is your desired bag depth (4 inches across--that is, the longest side, or hypotenuse, of your triangle). Repeat on the other corner.

This gives you a square bottom. Turn fabric A right side out.
Pockets: I put two pockets inside my bag, a wide one for a napkin or lunch money and a tall one for a fork or spoon. Cut fabric A desired pocket size (mine are about 4" x 7"; one tall, one wide); iron down ½ inch along top and ¼ inch along sides and bottom. Fold top edge under 1/4 inch, then 1/2 inch, sew down. Place on fabric B at desired location (centered on half of bag, about 5 or 6" up from bottom edge) and sew around sides and bottom.

With right sides together, sew along bottom and side of lining; repeat square bottom, as in outer bag. Iron down ½ inch along top edge of fabric B and place inside fabric A (wrong sides together).
Align seams and pin to zipper fabric all around the edge. At the bottom end of the zipper, I had extra fabric, which I folded into a pleat.
Sew all the way around.

It turned out exactly how I wanted, in terms of size and functionality. A better zipper technique might make it look a little cleaner at the top, and reinforcing all of the seams (which I didn’t do) would probably make it more durable. Now I just have to figure out what to put in it that M will actually eat!!

E and Z required a place mat to eat their lunch over, so I sewed a rectangle of outer fabric to a rectangle of solid fabric, right sides together, leaving a 2-3" gap, flipped it right side out and top-stitched around the edge.


  1. You are an Eco-Super-Mom, I'm afraid. Super-moms come in all stripes and are to be feared. But I still love you. That is actually really cool.

  2. I say, let him eat burritos.

    Nice work mom.


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