SOUTH PORTLAND – It all began with a red Santa bag.

Deborah Ivy’s grandmother bought the bag in the Old Port in the 1970s to put a Christmas gift in for a family member. Then she started making her own fabric bags by hand out of remnant fabrics. Then Ivy’s mother started making them.

Pretty soon, the entire family had given up the Christmas-morning tradition of ripping wrapping paper off gifts in favor of handmade fabric gift bags that can be used over and over again.

“When I was young,” Ivy said, “all the toys from Santa were either in a bag or unwrapped.”

A couple of years ago, Ivy, an environmental sustainability consultant and the wife of radio personality Herb Ivy, decided to share their family tradition with the rest of the world by starting her own business making the reusable gift bags.

The motto of the business, which she named Tiny Olive, is that using fabric bags is “a tiny green thing that you can do.”

More families are showing concern about the impact their holiday celebrations have on the planet and are trying to have a greener Christmas, says Sarah Brown, director of the Green Alliance, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based group of more than 100 businesses trying to reduce their environmental footprints. The group recently sponsored a Green Families Holiday Crafting Party.

The average adult, Brown said, generates 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions through holiday activities.

“From our perspective, yes, folks that care about the planet and who are integrating those values into every aspect of their lives certainly try to reduce, reuse and recycle for the holidays,” she said, “especially considering there is an incredible amount of waste and excess during the holidays.”

Ivy’s bags come in festive holiday colors, but they are not traditional holiday designs, so they can be used at other times of the year as well. There are no Santas, ornaments or reindeer on them.

One design called Maude Dot, for example, is bright red with big white circles. While it looks very Christmas-y, it could also be used for Valentine’s Day.

Plaid Daddy looks like the pajamas your dad wears on Christmas Eve, but it got its name because it’s the design men most often choose all year round.

Ivy uses the bags to put shoes in for traveling, and to manage her tangle of electronic cords and adapters at home.

“I’ve spent years, before I had the business, making bags for kids’ birthday parties,” she said.

But the holidays bring her products the most attention.

Ivy has an online store, but also sells her gift bags to retailers in Chicago, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Now that wholesale orders have increased to the point she can’t handle them alone anymore, she has started working with a factory in India.

BUT IVY STILL makes a lot of bags herself, especially custom bags, in a home workshop just off her bedroom. The room has a desk with a sewing machine and a large work table where Ivy cuts fabric. Along one wall is a large shelf filled with completed gift bags that are ready for sale.

Over the sewing machine table hangs a photo of her grandmother, the inspiration for the business.

Next to the table is a live Christmas tree; piled underneath the tree are gifts wrapped in fabric bags. Christmas music plays softly in the background.

Ivy keeps her family’s personal bags in a large trunk in the work room. Some of the bags get “sent to Santa” along with her children’s wish lists, so Santa will have something to put the children’s gifts in under the tree. The rest are used to wrap gifts for her in-laws, parents and two siblings. Some of the bags are 25 years old.

Every year, the extended family gets together on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, to exchange gifts wrapped in the fabric bags.

“We all open our gifts,” Ivy said, “and at the end of the day, we divvy up the bags — it doesn’t matter whose is whose — and we put them in our trunks.”

Part of the fun of recycling the bags from year to year, Ivy said, is saving old tags so she can preserve special messages, inside jokes, nicknames or a particular family member’s handwriting.

Customers have found their own creative ways to use the Tiny Olive bags.

Sometimes, each family member will get his or her own design — a son gets the plaid bags, for example, while a daughter gets the birds. One customer made an Advent calendar with the bags. Another bought all the blue bags one year to use for Hanukkah gifts.

“I have some weird-sized bags,” Ivy said. “I have one that had skis in it. I have one that covered my dad’s table saw.”

Her most unusual special request was for a bag to hold a curling iron. That one had to be made with thermal fabric.

Ivy is always on the hunt for new designs, and likes finding little extras to add to the bags, such as ribbons, pom poms and Christmas ornaments.

She visits local fabric shops and makes occasional trips to the garment district in New York looking for designs that are fresh.

“I always like to keep some of the standards, because people like to add to their collection,” she said. “This year, I added burlap — a totally different type of fabric. A different style, a different feel. I had a lot of requests for a natural look, and I love it anyway.”

The fabric bags are more expensive than paper gift bags up front — a small fabric bag is $5.99, medium is $6.99 and large is $9.99 — but Ivy feels they pay for themselves over time, especially at a time when rolls of wrapping paper are shrinking.

“Everyone wants to do their own little part (for the environment),” she said, “and this is just one little nugget. This is something you can feel good about.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com