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A Wary Crafter

January 18, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 3

I recently started sewing items from oilcloth, the material used in the 1950s and 1960s for picnic tablecloths and the like. As with so many other things from "the good old days," oilcloth is enjoying a renaissance among crafters. It is available in many patterns and colors from a number of online fabric stores as well as chain stores catering to those of us who enjoy sewing.

While innocently "surfing" among the many websites and blogs by and for people like me, I was amazed to find that there are some real concerns regarding the use of oilcloth for food-contact applications, especially its use for lunch bags. The problem seems to hinge upon the vinyl used to coat the cotton "web" that is printed with the pattern. Of course, the vinyl coating is the feature that makes oilcloth so attractive to use in lunch bags because it is moisture resistant. Children 12 and under are considered to be at the greatest risk—exactly the group most likely to use lunch bags!

Other fabrics, such as "laminated cotton," PUL (which I believe is an acronym for polyurethane laminates), and even rip-stop nylon are also suspected as being hazardous when used in direct contact with food. Built ( is a brand of very attractive neoprene-based lunch bags and other items. The company says neoprene is safe, but after reading your article on leachates from packaging I don't know what to think (C&EN, Aug. 31, 2009, page 11).

The underlying motive for sewing and using these articles for lunch bags is to minimize the millions of single-use plastic and paper bags used to package foods to take to school and work. As virtuous as it might be to limit disposables, however, I don't want to replace one hazard with another.

Would lining an oilcloth lunch bag would make it safe for use? Can these fabrics be used to sew aprons, placemats, and other products that are used with food, but not directly to package it?

I contacted the Department of Agriculture but was referred to the Food & Drug Administration because the USDA apparently is concerned "only" with the safety of the food itself (for example, Escherichia coli in meat) and not the packaging. I have yet to reach anyone at FDA.

Thanks in advance for any advice you can give me. I never would have expected my sewing hobby to lead to such concerns!

Opal Rosenfeld



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