A different way to wrap...and some thoughts

In early November, Kristin of 'Sew, Mama, Sew!' loveliness wrote to me and asked if I'd like to help with something. She and the Green Bag Lady (also known as Teresa) were putting together a campaign to encourage people to wrap this year's Christmas gifts in handmade reusable shopping bags. The benefits of this being four-fold: you double your gift giving as the wrapping becomes a gift in its own right; you can dispense with sellotape and wrapping paper; the recipient has a lovely reusable shopping bag to use throughout the year cutting down on landfill; that reusable shopping bag is lead-free (yes, that's a shocker - many of the 'green' reusable bags have been made in China and have been found to contain lead).

So when Kristin approached me and asked if I'd be happy to put together some ideas for how one might go about wrapping Christmas gifts in reusable grocery bags (without it looking like you'd wrapped gifts in reusable grocery bags), I was delighted to give it a go. Inspiration was drawn directly from the traditional Japanese method of wrapping presents in cloth - Furoshiki - to create sculptural wrappings that don't pretend to be wrapping paper. The bag handles can often be incorporated into the wrapping to create bows and billows that add to the impact, along with ribbons, flowers and paper butterflies - all of which can be used again. My full blog post on these wrappings, along with suggestions for how to wrap some commonly shaped presents can be found here. I used the pattern written by the Green Bag Lady to make my bags (although I made my handles slightly differently to conceal any raw edges), which you can find here. You can find alternative grocery bag patterns here and then a few more here. It's worth saying that the grocery bag is probably one of the simplest items to make...it's a perfect project for someone who has never sewn a stitch before.

For those of you who, like me, regularly read the Sew, Mama, Sew! blog, you may already know that Teresa has given her working life over to this cause, but this had somehow passed me by until Kristin contacted me directly about this cause, so it seems worth mentioning again, as I find it truly staggering, as well as inspiring. Teresa has now given away (yes, completely free) over 13,000 reusable shopping bags made by her and her team of 'bagettes'.

I know that Kristin and Teresa would be delighted for you to run away with this campaign and make it your own: either by making bags to wrap Christmas gifts in; writing about wrapping Christmas gifts in reusable bags on your own blog and encouraging others to do the same; adding to the ever-growing bank of free grocery bag tutorials and patterns available....or just self-gifting and making a grocery bag for your own trips around the shops.

I find this issue a really interesting one generally. Aside from providing reusable bags that have lead in them (which I'm sure won't have been their intention) I think that the supermarkets' role in raising awareness about carrier bag use has been amazing (although I do feel affronted that they have done so little to tackle their own excessive product packaging problems). I now feel toe-curlingly embarrassed if I forget a reusable carrier bag and have to ask for a plastic one to pack my grocery shopping in, which is as it should be. To have got to this point of plastic bag use being a social embarrassment in less than a decade is a real achievement. I love that people are continuing to think of ways to change the tide further and that Kristin is now moving her thoughts to the worldwide waste that Christmas, with all its other loveliness, creates.

Sometimes things can feel overwhelmingly huge, a solid, immovable social construct of our society. Three years ago my little girl had a birthday party at home, to which we invited over 20 of her friends and my parents were both here to help out. After the party my daughter excitedly began to unwrap the 20 presents that her guests had brought for her. As she unwrapped, unpackaged, exclaimed and did all the other things involved in the process of a six year old girl unwrapping a large pile of presents, my father became increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Afterwards he told me that he had suddenly realised that this scene would be being played out in millions of homes every day all around the world...and the excessive amount of presents, the packaging and the wrapping made him feel utterly depressed. Some things seem hard to change: that was the last big birthday party we had for her, partly for that reason, but also because as she's become older her parties have naturally been smaller and as a consequence the gifts that she receives are always thoughtful and chosen with care by children and parents who really seem to know her and what she might like. For the friends that we know very well, my children often suggest something that I could make them for their birthday gift, but for those that aren't family friends, they'd find giving a handmade gift embarrassing and I have to respect that (and can understand that too....I often choose not to give handmade to people I don't know well), but I often feel I'm buying a gift that may go unused when I'm not sure of the child's tastes or interests. I'm unsure what my conclusion or firm thoughts about this ramble are as I love giving presents (and must confess to enjoying receiving them hugely too) so I have no desire to entertain the idea of a scrooge-like ban on present-giving...but I share my father's uneasiness about the whole thing. What are your thoughts? How do you give gifts? Have you found an interesting way around this that sits well with you?

Florence x


  1. I hate the overly commercial trappings of this time of year too. My girls have small parties with special gifts from their very special friends for much the same reasons you've stated. I wrap the children's gifts in last years paper that was on the gifts given to us as I feel there is something very satisfying about tearing at paper, especially when you are only small. I give gifts to the few adults we gift in shopping totes that I have made myself, you're right it increases the present and everytime they pop their shopping in the bag they remember me and the gift I made them, gifts that last for years! My friend and I stopped using gift wrap for each other about twenty years ago when I covered a shoe box in old paper and put her birthday gifts inside, she refilled it and passed it back for my birthday, the box went back and forth looking more used and worn every year until it fell to bits but by that point we both had children and had stopped gifting each other and just gifted the children instead.

    Sorry, what a long ramble of stuffage :) xxx

  2. What a good idea and don't know whay I didn't think of it myself! Might have to be an idea for next year at this stage though. That thought-provoking last paragraph has inspired me to make some more of my own re-usable bags, as I often need to supplement my supply! x

  3. I have one child as you know Florence, but there are about a zillion children on my annual birthday/xmas list ... I can't bear gift giving for the sake of it (half these children I don't even 'know', it's political!!), so I calm my worried conscience by always giving all children on my list either handmade (by me) gifts, or 'useful' gifts - ie: baking set/sewing set/making things set ... so that I don't contribute to the plastic landfil mountain, chinese economy and world pollution etc., etc., ... I am a fundamentalist when it comes to this sort of thing, and have extreme views not to everyone's taste which is reflected in their 'appreciation' .. one friend once said to me (as I delivered a handmade apron bearing the child's appliqued name, along with baking set) - pointing at a large pink plastic item "this was Lily's best birthday present" ... It makes me sad that people can be so shallow. :( (and actually that person is not my friend anymore!!) ... Great post Florence. I too despair over wrapping paper and recycle it whenever possible (therefore very rarely buy it as I find that J's present wrappings usually last a whole year for us!!) However, I have a large box of scraps that shall be put to good use this year! xx

  4. We use home-made wrapping - hand printed brown paper and newspaper as a base for collage for family presents and those to close friends. I like the bag idea very much - wonder if I've time to make some (I'm in serious present knitting mode at the moment - everyone's getting gloves and hats against the cold weather.)
    I'm often saddened by the lack of enthusiasm one encounters when giving children a handmade gift - actually it's often the parent not the child.

  5. I love your wrapping ideas.. Unique and makes it personal.. I too get frustrated with the gift giving and expectations this time of year. This year I scaled way back and still felt guilty. I gave gifts from the heart instead. My hubby made recipe boxes for our 4 daughters and I hand wrote the recipes. I told my kids that they will remember these gifts and be able to treasure them for years to come.

    My aunt created a stocking for her kids and then buys gifts that fit inside that same stocking each year.

    I do recycle all my gift bags each year. Love the idea of coming up with some thing new..

  6. I try to ask people what they want for Christmas and keep it to a pretty intimate group, surprises are great in theory but in practice I am not a mind reader and I'd rather get it right than completely wrong. At Christmas a stocking minimises some gift wrap and as we my daughter gets older gifts often get smaller and will fit inside! It is a hard line to tread between grinch, giver and eco warrior

  7. In some ways, I feel very lucky that the mr and I have such small families, keeping everything to a minimum. My mother saves up stuff she needs and asks for that at Christmas, so I know what I'm giving her will be loved and used and appreciated. For the Mr's folks, we think long and hard about what suits them best and set small budgets. We decided that we wouldn't try to do any 'matching' - they tend to spend more than us - but that we would concentrate really hard on what we thought they would really, really *like*.

    They're getting a mixture of bought and handmade this year, although I hadn't given the giftwrap much thought. We've got a roll of brown paper, so I'm thinking that (we're all recyclers) and some of my ribbon scraps might be just the ticket.

    Thank you for getting me thinking!

  8. My oldest boy asked for a party this year (he was five) so we invited 6 friends to tea (more than enough when we have three already!). I asked every parent specifically not to bring gifts and was completely ignored by all of them - their response was well you would bring a gift to a party... which I do - but usually something small like a book and because I never been told not to bring anything before!

    I get very embarrassed by it and don't want my children to ask for big parties so that they can accumulate stuff!

    I don't avoid plastic - just excessive purchase and poorly made toys. We often buy things second hand for the children at Christmas and I was thrilled when I saw so many children at the Christmas Fair clutching the results of our pre-Christmas sort out.

    I love the idea of the bags though not sure it's practical this year - if we have time we go down the hand printed brown paper route - but with three under five even that isn't easy!

  9. My daughters Birthday was overwhelming with gifts of plastic stuff.
    It's over the top and it bothers me that people need to purchase so much. Some people had more then 1 present for her!
    I am trying to make gifts now from op shop finds that are repurposed. But I'm not very creative and I am also very time poor with full time work and super active daughter. So it's a struggle.

    My aim is to not buy new as the world is already full of plastic junk - but this is hard to explain to some people who think the bigger glossy plastic present is the best present.

    I wrote a uni paper about the green bags last year. They are made of the worst plastic to break down in landfill and they are not really an eco move on the supermarket front but a great marketing tool where they earn quite well from the profit of the popular green bags.

    Love your wrapping ideas!

  10. My family use furoshiki at Christmas (and other times). We have a nice collection of hemmed, square cotton ones which make the rounds from year to year. The idea is that the gift recipient keeps the furoshiki as part of the gift and reuses it. However, I admit, I have several Japanese made furoshiki which I hord for their beauty and unusual nature. I also make bags, tote and drawstring, for many gifts.

  11. I just did a birthday gift for Miss 11, my best friend's daughter; the gifts were entirely handmade (except for the journal which went inside the journal cover), I used recycled paper for the wrapping & real ribbon to tie the gifts, because she has long hair & will reuse them - and yes, it does depress me immensely that hundreds of trees are killed each year to make something that is only used once & a petroleum by-product is usually used to tie the gifts, hence my choices. I will be wrapping all my Christmas gifts this year in brown paper with real red ribbon - it wasn't a hard choice to make! Also, plastic bags at the supermarket take the place of plastic bin liners in the bathroom & kitchen of our house, which I never buy. I don't feel bad about introducing more plastic into the world that way, and I feel like I'm having a small revenge on the supermarket & plastic bag manufacturers - those green bags are made from polypropelene, which is a petroleum by-product and not biodegradable, and I refuse to use them. I always carry two string bags for odds & ends shopping and I will have a look at your gift bag ideas! Sorry to ramble... looks like you've hit a nerve with all of us!

  12. It is the constant dilemma isn't it? To give a gift that will be enjoyed and appreciated yet knowing that for some people that must still mean something shop bought that has been packaged and then wrapped. I struggle with this regularly. Within our families we now avoid Christmas presents between adults and consult about presents for the children. Older children get vouchers so that they can choose clothes or books and music to their taste. Our presents for teachers and the like tend to be home made (bags this year with chocolates inside!) or else I will buy something like cinema vouchers that will be used and appreciated. I have also become a big fan of wish lists and regularly direct my husband to mine to make life simple for him!

    I agree with you about wrappings too and extend that feeling to cards. Handmade or unique and full of thoughtful words and they are a gift in themselves, but so often cards seem unnecessary and excessive. I use them less and less.

  13. Hi!

    My plan was to make re-usable fabric bags and wrappings for this Christmas for our little family. I somehow did not quite get there... I use a lot brown packing paper with pretty ribbons etc to make it nice, sometimes tissue paper and totally avoid papers with metallic things in them. And do all the re-using of wrappings from others.
    I give a mixture of presents, more and more hand made.
    For children's birthdays I either make something "general" which I hope would appeal, like a nice drawstring bag and "stationery" like here: http://www.blogger.com/share-post.g?blogID=8481248856919148920&postID=3981843329963759369&target=buzzand
    Now that my son's friends are older, I make maybe a pencil case with colouring pencils. I find it slightly harder with boys and their special interests, but an action figure cape for example could be a great thing to make and give.

    I am determined to increase the amount of hand amde gifts I give...I find also that the children actually appreciate it!

  14. For adults, a slightly luxurious food/drink item usually goes down well - although I suppose you might need to know people's likes and dislikes. For children I'm not sure you can go wrong with a book, but of course they might have it already.

    This Christmas I've made a lot of little tree decorations (from eco-friendly or recycled materials, eg old buttons, organic wool felt, even some felted woollen socks!). Everyone who's received them so far has been so thrilled that I'd feel fine giving them to less well-known friends, although usually I only give presents to my closest people anyway.

    For my dad's birthday last month I made a shopping bag and put a few foody treats in it.

    When I do wrap things, I use paper saved from other gifts, and either real ribbon (for those who I know won't chuck it in the bin!) or natural raffia. This Christmas I'll also be using snowflakes cut from gold chocolate papers to decorate my parcels. Last year I wrapped everything in some retro (actually from the 60s/70s) paper table cloths I found in a charity shop. Also, although it annoyingly comes in a plastic package, Sellotape Original is non-plastic and biodegradable.

  15. I've so enjoyed reading your ideas and thoughts - thank you so much.

    Nina, you are such a source of good information - I had no idea that original sellotape was bio-degradable - that's good to know.


  16. Those paper gift bags seem pretty popular over here, so I'll often just reuse one of those that we've been given over the years. I will make a drawstring bag or something for a gift sometimes, but I still wrap the gifts that go in a parcel to England in paper.


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Florence x