Karen Blaser held up her phone to show photos of the work she’s been a part of for the past few years. Flipping from picture to picture, Blaser showed homeless men and women under a bridge near Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, holding and using handmade mats that had been woven by residents at Lanier Village Estates back in Gainesville.
The independent- and assisted-living facility in North Hall has two different Mats for the Homeless groups that make the woven mats, some crochet and some use peg looms. But it’s the material they use that makes them unique: grocery bags.
“People just drop bags off,” said Barbara Heartz, 95, who helped put the groups together and got others interested back in 2016. “Bags that they use, we take them, flatten them and cut them.”
It’s as simple as that. They take recycled grocery bags and weave them into a tool to take a bit of the sting out of on-the-streets homelessness.
Before starting a weave, the bags are cut, flattened and sliced down the middle to create even strips. They tie the strips together, end-to-end, to make what they call “plarn.” From there, it’s used just like yarn in a crochet.
“It takes about 60 hours to do a whole mat, when you’re crocheting,” Gail Werner said. “And you can’t do it for more than three hours at a time because your hands hurt. But it’s a good thing to do in the evening. You just sit there and watch TV while you do it.”
Janet Hutts, 93, said she can’t watch TV like Werner, though. She is legally blind, so it’s hard for her to do much of anything while she’s working on her mats.
“I like to take a nap,” she said, laughing.
But still, even though she can’t see well, Hutts has used a peg loom to make five mats for the homeless and she’s working on her sixth — that’ll be 360 hours on the loom, if you’re counting, or 15 solid days of work. She likes to use the bright-yellow bags because she enjoys the colors.
“I like to be busy and this is a great way to be busy and do something for somebody,” Hutts said. “And I know it’s appreciated because I’ve heard some of the remarks from people who receive them … It’s my way of being happy by doing for somebody else.”
Blaser said one of the mats Hutts made brought one man to tears because he couldn’t believe someone, especially at Hutts’ age, would make something for him.
The mats are meant to be slept on, but they can be used as blankets or even rolled up and used as pillows, too. And since they’re made of plastic, they can be washed off and air-dried quickly.
Altogether, the residents at Lanier Village have crocheted 88 mats and they plan on continuing until they can’t find any more bags to use.
One of the most important things Blaser tells everyone who talks to her about making the mats is that it doesn’t matter what they look like at they end of the day. As long as they hold together and serve their purpose, the mats will be used.
“There’s no right or wrong,” Blaser said. “My motto is, ‘They may not be perfect, but they’re made with love.’”