Knitters have long known about the health benefits of their hobby: reduced depression, anxiety and blood pressure and an increased sense of wellbeing, to name a few. But now, more and more knitters are finding a way to help both the environment and the homeless — by using recycled plastic yarn, or plarn, and knitting mats and sleeping bags for people sleeping outside.

A plastic bag sits on a table. The words printed on the plastic bag reads "reduce, reuse, recycle" and underneath that "Reusable bag"

What is plarn?

The origins of plarn are hazy. The material mentioned on the internet for more than a decade, but there’s no official inventor. It’s probably that multiple people came up with the idea independently.

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So, here’s how to make plarn. First, sort your plastic bags by color. Then, choose a first color. Let’s go with white. Lay your first white bag out flat. Fold it in half lengthwise, then in half again. Use scissors to cut off the top handle. Then, cut your folded bag into strips about an inch wide. This will form loops. Once you have a nice pile of loops, you link them together using a lark’s head knot.

See the whole plarn making process in this YouTube video. Once all your white bags are looped together, you roll the plastic string into a ball of plarn. Repeat these steps with your other color bags and soon you’ll have a whole basket of different plarn colors. Depending on your project, you might want thinner or thicker plarn, so cut accordingly.

You can use plarn for knitting, weaving and crocheting to make your own chair covers, placemats, purses or just about anything you’d make with fiber.

A homeless man lays on a cement floor with a plarn blanket draped over his lower body

Plarn for the homeless

Or you can knit plarn for a good cause. Many organizations around the country have started projects to make sleeping mats for homeless folks.

The National Council of Jewish Women of Michigan (NCJW) took up the cause. Carrie Kushner, vice president of NCJW, knitted for as long as she can remember.

“It’s the exact same thing,” she said, as reported by Fox 2 Detroit. “But it’s shaped differently and for a much better purpose than an extra sweater or an extra scarf.”

Her chapter, based in Southfield, Michigan,  is making mats measuring about six by three feet and donating them to local groups like Corner Shower and Laundry that serve the homeless in Detroit. They’re accepting donations of used plastic bags from the public, and also looking for volunteers to make plarn.

Janet Ray, cofounder, board member and volunteer at the Corner Shower and Laundry, said that not only do the mats provide comfortable bedding, they help to keep people’s clothes dry and presentable.

“But more than that, the mats are a message that people care,” said Ray, as quoted by C&G Newspapers. “They are saying, ‘You are important enough to me for me to make these mats.’”

In Texas, the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) hosted a series of plarn making parties, resulting in 65 mats being crocheted and donated to local homeless veterans. More than 110 DAR volunteers joined with Girl Scouts and 33 children from a nearby community recreation center to turn more than 46,000 bags into useful mats.

Making the mats

According to Marilyn Mossman, the co-chair of NCJW’s Green Committee, grocery-style plastic bags work best for making sleeping mats. Newspaper sleeves are also okay.

“When you think of how much plastic is already on our planet, and yet we are creating more plastic every day, the problem seems insurmountable,” she said, as quoted by The Jewish News. “We must start somewhere to rid our planet of this waste. Being able to take something that is harming our environment and using it to help people in need makes me think we can make a difference.”

According to Kushner, making plarn is easy. You just need scissors and plenty of plastic bags. Crocheting the mats is quicker, but they look nicer when knitted.

“During the pandemic, I’m not out and about as much as before, so while I’m watching TV, I might as well be doing something that is helpful to people, like knitting the mats,” she said. “I am in a position that my life is blessed and because of that, I feel I have a need to give back.”

Plarn movement picks up momentum

If you Google “plarn for homeless,” you’ll see many groups are making organized efforts to create and distribute plarn mats. They have great potential for anybody sleeping rough, from houseless people in Los Angeles to folks in refugee camps worldwide.

Knitted or crocheted plarn mats create a barrier between a person’s body and the ground, which helps retain body heat. Plastic is less attractive to bugs than textiles. And when the mats get dirty, it’s easy to hose them off and dry them. Since plastic is lightweight, plarn mats are more portable than heavier padding. At the same time, they keep plastic bags out of landfills. If you’re feeling inspired, start or join a plarn mat making group near you.

Via C&G Newspapers, Fox 2 Detroit and The Jewish News

Images via Pexels