One person’s garbage is another’s creative inspiration. Artists and artisans are using old methods with a new material-the plastic grocery bag…
Like any good New Yorker, Kristin Leigh Jordan cleans up after her dog, Daisy. To help with that task, she recycles plastic grocery bags. But after Earth Day
this year, Jordan thought of another way to use those masses of polyethylene. She creates skeins of plastic yarn (also known as “plarn”), which she then
knits into sturdy, multicolored handbags.
Jordan, 34, received donations of bags from friends and family to start her adventures with this man-made textile. “I used to have mountains of plastic
bags,” she said. “I’m a bit of neat freak, so it was a problem.”
Jordan is not the only one who has found that a growing supply of plastic bags can become a nuisance. As local and international governments explore ways to
reduce plastic-bag waste, the crafty and artsy alike have been transforming these pliant containers into creations that promote ecological awareness, make
political statements or simply look stylish.
MyRecycledBags.com, for instance, sells crocheted items and offers patterns for a variety of objects,
including baby bibs, coasters, lunch sacks, totes and even a bag keeper for holding-what else?-plastic bags.
“There is so much you can do with those plastic bags,” said crocheter Marlene Harelick, 68, of Fairlawn, N.J. Among her favorite creations is a bath mat she
made from the blue plastic bags that her New York Times comes delivered in. She knotted the bags then crocheted the “thread” into the bath mat.
Those seeking guidance in the ways of the plastic bag can find it on several crafting Web sites, including Craftzine.com. One of Jordan’s muses was the
Knitty Gritty section on the Web site for the DIY (Do It Yourself) Network.
Turning the bags into a workable material is sometimes not a task for the impatient. Earlier this year, Cathy Kasdan, who was working toward a master’s
degree in textile design at Kent State University in Ohio, transformed more than 400 plastic grocery bags into workable yarn. To do so, she snipped off the
tops and bottoms of the bags and then spiral-cut each bag about 1 1/2 inches wide all the way around.
Using double-sided tape, she attached the spirals
together. “Sometimes I tied the two ends in a knot,” said Kasdan, 33. “But I liked the flatness of using tape for knitting.”
With her plastic yarn, Kasdan created a 1950s housewife ensemble that included a white short-sleeve blouse and a wavy blue knee-length skirt. She
accessorized with a red belt, pillbox hat and clutch.
Kasdan chose red, white and blue plastic bags as her medium because she wanted to incorporate the patriotism of post-World War II America into her clothing.
In the 1950s, she said, the use of plastic moved from the war front to the home front. “I wanted to say, ‘Here we go! Yay, America!’” Kasdan declared with a
“Plastic is a good material because there is so much of it that I had an unlimited supply,” she added. “I could make 10 dresses.”
Kasdan actually had prior experience working with plastic bags: She was a supermarket clerk in high school. “I’d be ringing people out, and I would think,
‘Oh my God, we go through tons and tons of bags,’” she said.
Plastic bags have been a mainstay of the consumer experience since they were introduced in 1977, according to the Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group
of plastic-bag manufacturers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. consumes about 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps a year. A
plastic bag can take 1,000 years to decompose, according to the EPA.
Plastic bags can also be lethal. According to a 1997 complaint to the South Dakota Solid Waste Management Association, a cow died after swallowing a plastic
bag. The bag blocked the cow’s digestive track, and it starved to death.
Governments have been taking action to combat the waste of plastic bags. Several African countries, including Botswana, Eritrea and South Africa, have issued
regulations against the use of plastic bags. So have some states in India.
Ireland imposed a tax on plastic bags, and earlier this year, San Francisco
became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags in large supermarkets and pharmacies. Several other cities in the U.S. and abroad are
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Shaun Muscolo, 49, of Simi Valley, Calif. “I think it’s a matter of time before it happens nationally.”
Muscolo is a designer for Haute Trash, which defines itself as “a troupe of resourceful artists who produce runway fashion shows featuring haute couture made
from society’s trash.” Muscolo, along with artistic collaborator Judy Nielsen, has created a line of dresses that includes a wedding gown made from white
plastic grocery bags and a shimmery black cocktail dress made from videotape.
“The dresses have tiny holes that act as air-conditioning,” Muscolo said. “The models never complain.”
Wearing the clothes is less important than sending a political and artistic message. “Haute Trash shows are all made out of garbage to show how much excess
trash there is,” Muscolo explained.
So when a friend of Muscolo’s wanted to borrow the white wedding dress for her nuptials, Muscolo declined. “I mean, this is a joke,” Muscolo said. “A person
should have a real wedding dress with respect.”
Muscolo did let a friend wear a dress knit out of bags from the department store Nordstrom to a party. Afterward, Muscolo hosed the dress down in her
backyard, which is certainly cheaper than dry-cleaning it.
Recycling scrap materials is not a new idea. Rag rugs made from old clothing, for instance, have been around for hundreds of years. Weavers in western
Maryland have used such materials as funeral ribbons and Stroehmann bread wrappers in their rugs, according to the book “Weaving Rag Rugs: A Women’s Craft in
Western Maryland” by Geraldine Niva Johnson.
Knitting with plastic isn’t for everyone. Bella Fruchter, 85, who has been knitting since she was 10, makes ponchos, sweaters, shawls, hats and booties. But
Fruchter knits only with wool. “Plastic is baby stuff,” she said. “I don’t do that.”
Each to his own, plarn knitters might say. Such naysayers have certainly not deterred Kristin Leigh Jordan. Jordan, who works full-time as a lawyer, recently
started Daisy’s Bags, named after her dog, with the aim of creating an upscale-accessories business. Her first bag sold for $75. Not a bad price for a
“I’m hoping the time is right with everything going green,” Jordan said.