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

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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.

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:


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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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