CARBONDALE — Hazel Grant is busily crocheting what looks like a brown, grey and white Afghan rug, the huge, light blue needle she is using moving deftly through the fabric.
On closer inspection, it’s not fabric, but strips of gray, light brown and white plastic bags, knotted together to form a ball of continuous plastic yarn — 'plarn,' some people call it — being crocheted. Her hands and fingers have been doing this dance for almost an hour Tuesday morning and, by her estimation, within a few more hours the project should be completed.
She is part of the Carbondale Mat Makers, a group formed a few months ago by Pastor Kate Jeffrey, also known as “Mother Kate,” of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Carbondale, to make these relatively inexpensive mats for people who are homeless. Since forming, the group has made a little more than two dozen of the mats.
“It beats (sleeping on) wet grass, grass, rocks,” noted Martha Campbelll. “(It provides) some comfort if you’re on the bench, if you’re lying on the bench, and you can even cover with that.”
“(They’re also good for) people who are in houses and don’t have beds,” added another mat-maker, Gayla Borgognoni.
The first mat was made in the spring of 2016, according to Mother Kate.
"The mats are both functional and attractive, and the homeless people seem to appreciate them," Mother Kate sad. "The mat-makers have a great time together each week. Recycling the bags keeps them out of the landfill. I imagine we will keep at this for quite some time."
Mats given away to homeless
The plastic bags into sleeping mats concept has been around for a few years, documented as early as April 2014 by a newspaper in Salinas, California.
Locally, the mats have been given to the Good Samaritan Shelter and Victory Dream Center in Carbondale, the Lighthouse Shelter in Marion and other places that interact with people who are homeless and directly to the homeless themselves, group members say. Once, Mother Kate was going to a meeting to showcase the mat and a man who was homeless knew she had one. He asked her for the mat, and she promised to give it to him once she'd shown it. He was waiting for her and the mat when her meeting ended, she said.
Seven women were assembled in a meeting room at the church Tuesday morning, Becky Pirmann neatly pressing the plastic bags flat; Laura Depolo folding the bags and cutting them into strips; Gayla Borgognoni and Nancy Mitchell folding the strips into neat squares; Martha Campbell looping those strips into knotted links to create a plastic yarn that was rolled into balls; and Grant and Becky Hamilton crocheting the strips into mats.
Many hands make light work, but the plastic mats can take hours to make, the women said. They had no definitive amount of time, but noted that one might take a least a week to make, working several hours at a time.
Sometimes they take part of the work home to complete, they said.
500 plastic bags a mat
Each mat is made of about 500 bags, crocheted 6 feet-long-by-3-feet wide, allowing a person enough space to recline or lay on one, as Grant demonstrated. Each mat has straps that fasten the bundle when it is folded and rolled, and has a handle for hoisting over one’s shoulder to carry. The group noted that they are lightweight for easy carrying.
In addition to the obvious benefit of the project, it gives folks like Hamilton fellowship and a sense of purpose, she said, and it helps with recycling, Mitchell noted.
“Just think of all the bags that are not going into the trash,” Hamilton said.
The group received a letter of appreciation from The Lighthouse Shelter in Marion, thanking them for the mats.
Only one of the women said she had seen someone around the area with a mat, carried by a man she presumed to be homeless.
The group is welcoming of all volunteers, Depolo added.
“All volunteer work is needed and welcomed," she said. "It’s not a sex-restricted activity. Men can participate, too.”
Some help comes from college students, who meet at the church on Sunday afternoons to make mats. Pizza is served.
No special skills are needed for the projects, even though the group mentioned one mat-maker who uses differently colored bags strategically to create patterns in the mats. Each finished mat is affixed with a small red heart or white angel and a bookmark with a Biblical inspiration.
Though the mat that Grant was crocheting looked as if it had an Afghan pattern, that is not the case, or at least, not intentionally.
“This is as they come,” Grant noted of her design created by the differently colored bags. “This one is called ‘serendipity mat.’”