Loni Galloway has a bag problem.
"I used to be involved in craft fairs, so I would save all my grocery bags," Galloway said, referring to the white or tan plastic sacks in which groceries are bagged.
"I had bags and bags of bags."
Loretta Goldie Mattson uses plastic bags as the raw material to crochet the handbags above and the plant basket below.
The solution? As it turns out, more bags.
While flipping through the course catalog for Soldotna Community Schools, Galloway came across a listing for "Making purses from grocery bags," which promised to teach participants "to take plastic grocery bags and turn them into fashionable handbags."
"I thought, 'This is perfect,'" Galloway said.
Shauna Bryers uses a crochet hook and a ball of grocery bag yarn to make a small handbag.
What Galloway discovered, along with about a half dozen other ladies and one somewhat out of place male reporter, is that her accumulation of plastic sacks can become a fashionable and practical work of art.
'Something to do'
Loretta Goldie Mattson led last week's Community Schools class, sharing a hobby she said she picked up as a way to stay awake while watching TV in the evening.
"It's like a craft. It's something to do in the evening to keep busy," Mattson said.
Mattson helps Loni Galloway with her crocheting during a Soldotna Community Schools class earlier this month.
Mattson said she started working with plastic bags about 10 years ago. Her creations have been limited only by the colors of plastic bags she's found to work with. Tan grocery sacks look like a natural fiber when woven into a purse or shoulder bag; other types of bags lead to colorful, fun projects. Orange plastic sleeves in which newspapers are delivered were turned into a Halloween jack-o'-lantern bag. Blue plastic bags have been woven into small make-up bags. The white bags with the red "thank you" printed on the side resemble peppermint candies as they're woven into a project.
Other of Mattson's creations include multicolored baskets, a water bottle holder to bring to yoga class, and a container to hold an arrangement of dried flowers.
Mattson said she isn't sure how she came to start using plastic bags instead of yarn.
"I just did it. I had a lot of them, and I had to figure out something to do with them," she said.
Mattson used orange plastic newspaper sleeves to create a Halloween-themed bag.
The craft is pretty widespread, Mattson said, and a quick Internet search turns up quite a few hits. Mattson shared some of the better Web sites with her class.
Mattson said friends and family save lots of plastic bags for her. Her daughter, who lives out of state, sends yellow plastic sleeves from her local newspaper. There's no waste from her projects either: any parts of the bags she's unable to weave, she saves and uses as stuffing for plush toys or small pillows.
Most of her creations she gives away to family and friends. Occasionally, she'll sell a handbag for a few bucks. In fact, one of the class participants received a purse made by Mattson as a gift and was so intrigued, she decided she had to learn how to do it herself.
Mattson said she calls the purses she makes from grocery sacks "trash bags," and the large tote bags, "garbage sacks."
Mattson said she does enjoy working with real yarn, too.
"When I get tired of that, I'll take some yarn, make some mittens and donate them to a school," Mattson said.
Several participants in the Community Schools said the idea of keeping plastic grocery bags out of the landfill was appealing.
"I'm a person who does some recycling," said Dottie Titus. "I don't want to throw them away and fill up the landfill. This is kind of nice. You can reuse something, and these are really nice bags."
"I do a lot of knitting," said Shauna Bryers. "I spin wool, and work with natural fibers. Then I saw this recycle, and keep it out of the landfill."
During last week's class, Titus was replenishing her supply of "yarn." She started by trimming the handles and bottom seams from a pile of plastic bags. She then cut the bags horizontally to form several plastic loops from each bag. She then slipped one loop through the next to create a strand, which she rolled up into a ball, ready for her crochet hook.
"I've crocheted before, but I haven't ever done this," Titus said. "It's fascinating."
"I was just intrigued, and I wanted to find out how to make a purse. ... It's just really awesome doing it with trash bags," said Jamie Morton.
Learning the technique
With the mystery of the materials solved, class participants the next step is to start with the bottom of the bag. Some without much experience crocheting chose to start with smaller projects Galloway said she was working on a change purse for her first project.
"It's nothing I've really done before. I knitted a hat once when I was 5 years old," Galloway said.
Galloway said she'd like to make a bigger bag, and would take the class again if it's offered next spring.
Lacy Grubb the recipient of one of Mattson's creations said learning to crochet had been challenging.
"My friend gave me this purse, and I was interested in how she made it," Grubb said. "... It's been quite the learning process. It's mostly crocheting with grocery bags, but I've never crocheted before."
Pat Weimer said she took a crochet class last year, and was putting those skills to good use with her stash of grocery bags.
"I'm incorporating my crocheting into this," Weimer said. "I'm trying to find my niche, trying to find something to do in winter."
Weimer said there's also a social aspect to crafting.
"It's always fun to get a group of women together. We're laughing, and our teacher is excellent," she said.
With the basic techniques down, Mattson spent some time going over various ways to make each project unique.
Bryers had brought along some different colored plastic bags to add a stripe to hers.
Mattson showed the class participants how to sew a lining together to finish off the inside of each bag. She likes to include an inside pocket that can fasten with a strip of Velcro.
Some bags get zippers or other types of fasteners; some are left open at the top. Mattson shared several techniques for making handles. Sometimes, she opts for pre-made handles purchased at a local fabric store. Other times, handles are woven in to the project. She also passed around a 27-strand braided cord made from grocery bags that could be used to top off a nice tote bag.
Mattson also showed the class how to weave patterns into their work with a contrasting color of plastic. The appearance of any bag, Mattson said, is limited only by the maker's imagination.
"It just becomes yarn," Mattson said of working with plastic bags. "You can use it anywhere you use yarn."
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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