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Whenever I throw away a good, clean plastic bag, I’m always overcome with guilt, knowing there are groups like “Bag Ladies With a Cause” that are putting them to good use as a way of making a difference in the lives of homeless individuals.

Donna Harki of Lincoln Park and Jeannine Ayers of Wyandotte had worked with two groups, one in Lincoln Park and the other in Taylor, helping them turn plastic bags into what's referred to as "plarn" (plastic yarn), and then using it to crochet sleeping mats that would later be distributed to persons living on the streets of Detroit.

But, then one day, Jaclyn Malnar, the librarian at Bacon Memorial District Library, 45 Vinewood in Wyandotte, contacted Ayers, in hopes of having such a group work out of the library, making mats that would be given to homeless individuals in the downriver area.

"We've noticed a lot of homeless people down here," said Harki, and so with that in mind, she and Ayers formed Bag Ladies With A Cause about 10 months ago. 

Word about the group got out, and now an estimated 30-40 participants meet every  from 6-8:30 p.m Tuesday at the library. "We just ask them for whatever free time they have," said Harki. "A lot of them think of it as ladies night out. Our goal is to come and have a good time for a good cause. Occasionally, a man will stop by and help. It only costs your time, and we try to make the process fun, and keep them (the bags) out of the landfills." 

Not everyone in the group is a crocheter, but everyone has a skill that will help with the assembly line-like production of the warm, cushy mats. "Right now, we have at least a dozen crocheters. We have about three who come and bring their mat (project) and just crochet," said Harki. "There's a process to making the mats, and so people who can't crochet are as helpful as a crocheter because we need people to donate bags, people to straighten and sort the bags, and people to cut the bags and make plarn. When you come in you get to pick what you want to do."

Each finished mat measures approximately 6 feet long by 3 feet wide, and it takes 700 bags to make just one. Additional plarn is used to crochet a strap that's attached to the mat so it can be rolled up and carried as a backpack." 

"Proud to be a bag lady," Harki, has cranked out close to 100 mats in the past two years. She recently made one with a pocket attached at one end, which becomes a pillow when stuffed by its owner with maybe a shirt and pair of socks. If she already has the plarn, she said she can crochet a mat in a week, if she works on it every night.  

How is plarn made? First, the plastic bag should be neatly flattened into its original shape with creases, folded twice length-wise, and then the handles and bottom are cut off. The remainder of the bag is cut into 3-inch wide strips/loops and then looped together, as you would rubber bands.

A size Q crochet hook is used to crochet the mats, and in terms of bags used for making the plarn, Harki said, "We use any plastic bags, as long as they're clean. The library takes bag donations for us. The library is in a Victorian House, (and) they gave us a whole room for storage.

"We (also) have an academy school in Brownstown (Summit) that collects bags for us. They don't degrade, so this helps the planet, and helps someone in need because they're warm and keep the dampness off. Recycling centers won't accept (plastic) bags anymore because they plug up their machines."

The color of the bags doesn't matter. Harki, who prides herself on being able to identify any bag by its color, said they're especially fond of the brightly colored ones that newspapers are delivered in. 

Summit Academy started donating bags to Bag Ladies With a Cause after members paid a visit to the school. "We always take a mat and talk about how they can help save the environment. We had a fifth grader (from Summit) crochet her own mat!" said Harki. "We've also met with a couple Girl Scout Troops, some ladies groups, and a lot of National Honor Society kids. When they have to make their hours, if they can't do things during the day, they come to the library (in the evening), and put in hours of community service." 

And finally, how are the mats distributed? In an email, Harki wrote, "We deliver the mats. So far, we have given (to) ChristNet (in Taylor), a band of churches who alternate helping the homeless with (the) cold. We also have donated to FDDR (Feeding Detroit & Downriver). Again, we delivered. (It's) an organization that feeds the homeless six days a week, year round. They know who sleeps outside, so they know who to give them to."

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or Facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade. 

Contact Bag Ladies With a Cause on Facebook. 

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