December 16, 2012

Earth-loving way to give

A family tradition grows into an enterprise that makes reusable fabric bags for gift wrapping and many other uses.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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

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Deborah Ivy makes fabric gift bags in the workshop of her South Portland home. Ivy, an environmental sustainability consultant, grew up in a family that wrapped gifts in fabric bags instead of paper, and she decided to start her business, Tiny Olive, to spread the practice.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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A photograph of Dot Delano, the grandmother who inspired Ivy’s bag making, hangs on a board in her workshop.

Additional Photos Below


TO VIEW Deborah Ivy's designs, go to


HERE ARE FIVE simple green holiday tips from Green Alliance, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based group of more than 100 regional businesses that are doing their part to reduce their environmental footprints:

Each year, 35 million Christmas trees -- each of which can take up to 10 years to grow -- are cut down, used for a few weeks, then thrown away. Meanwhile, millions more plastic Christmas trees end up in landfills, where they'll take centuries to biodegrade. Looking for an alternative? Check out the Eco Xmas Tree book, which gives you step-by-step instructions on how to create your own Christmas tree with pine branches.

The average American couple sends out 50 holiday cards each year. Not only is that a lot of paper, it requires a lot of energy to deliver. Consider electronic greeting cards instead. They have 1/16th of the carbon footprint, and in many cases, they're much more customizable.

Time to get new lights for the holidays? Choose LED lights. Not only are they more efficient, they also last longer. It might cost a few dollars more, but this simple seasonal investment can add up to big savings down the road.

Shopping for electronics? Make sure they're EnergyStar certified. These days, everything from lighting to televisions and heavy-duty appliances include EnergyStar options.

• Save all that wrapping paper. Instead of tearing the package open, make sure everyone opens their presents gently and that the boxes, paper and ribbons are saved. This not only helps save resources, it will also help save you the time and hassle of having to run out for wrapping next year.

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.

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Additional Photos

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Burlap wine bags are new to Tiny Olive’s offerings this year. Ivy’s bags are more expensive than paper gift bags up front, ranging from $5.99 to $9.99 each, but she says they pay for themselves over time.

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Bags made by Ivy are used to wrap gifts for occasions throughout the year, and also for carrying items on trips and for storing things at home.

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Deborah Ivy sews a fabric gift bag in her South Portland workshop. Her business has grown enough that she can’t produce all the bags herself, so she’s working with a factory in India.

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Ivy says she’s always looking for new fabric designs, like this toile for a large bag.


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