Crochet for Good: Craft, Make Plarn, and Help People

Nothing is more fulfilling than using your time and talents to help those in need. Couple those pursuits with diverting materials from the landfill and they become even more gratifying. Several nonprofit organizations, crocheting groups, and individuals throughout the United States know this satisfaction firsthand and have been using their crocheting skills to provide high-quality upcycled sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness.

These crocheted weather-resistant mats save homeless outreach organizations money by reusing plastic shopping bags and help homeless people with one of their greatest needs: protection from the elements. “The plastic mats are in high demand,” says Ted McPherren, warehouse manager for Joppa, a homeless outreach organization in Des Moines, Iowa.

It can take upward of 1,500 plastic bags to make one mat. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

It can take upward of 1,500 plastic bags to make one mat. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

Church organizations, nonprofit groups, and likeminded crocheting enthusiasts divert plastic shopping bags from the landfill by creating plarn (plastic + yarn = plarn). They use the plarn to crochet the mats, which are then delivered to Joppa’s warehouse in Des Moines. According to the Happy Hookers crochet club of Hastings, Iowa, it can take upward of 1,500 shopping bags to crochet one mat, depending on the dimensions, stitch (generally a single or half double crochet), and hook size.

“People and organizations from all over the state bring these to us,” McPherren explains. “We use them year-round.” The mats are particularly vital during months with more inclement weather.

Unlike their traditional textile counterparts, plarn mats are weather resistant | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

Unlike their traditional textile counterparts, plarn mats are weather resistant | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

Joppa’s ultimate goal is to eliminate homelessness and ensure that affordable housing is available for everyone. The organization is pursuing a number of initiatives to fulfill this mission, including an intensively researched pilot project to build a transitional tiny-home village in central Iowa. In the interim, Joppa distributes food, water, and other needed items to camps of people experiencing homelessness in and near Iowa’s capital city. Supplies include groundcover materials to protect people from the weather and make sleeping conditions more comfortable.

A tiny home prototype for Joppa’s tiny home village. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

A tiny home prototype for Joppa’s tiny home village. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

When crocheted plastic mats are available, they are quickly distributed. When they’re not available, Joppa distributes tarps made from other textiles, but McPherren says the crocheted mats are preferred because they are more durable and provide more cushioning and comfort than tarps. In addition, plarn mats are water-resistant and easier to clean than mats and rugs created from more traditional textiles. These characteristics have made plarn a highly coveted material for creating other crocheted items homeless people need, including tote bags to store, carry, and preserve clothing, nonperishable food items, and toiletries. Although standard plastic bags can be used, crocheted plarn bags are much more durable and can last for several years.

Upcycled textiles such as T-shirts and sweatshirts have also been used to crochet tote bags, but they are not weather resistant, and in accordance with the waste management hierarchy (a system developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rank waste management pursuits from the most preferred to least preferred), they serve people experiencing homelessness better as pieces of clothing. Upcycling material that no longer serves a useful purpose, such as VHS and cassette tapes, is the better approach environmentally.

As opposed to plarn, VHS and cassette media is crochet ready—no cutting required. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

As opposed to plarn, VHS and cassette media is crochet ready—no cutting required. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner

When crocheted, VHS and cassette tape has virtually the same durability and weather-resistant qualities as plarn. Because technology has evolved and recycling options for these items are limited, the tape is readily available in large quantities. One advantage that VHS and cassette tape has over plarn is that it is crochet-ready and, unlike plarn, requires no preparation other than being rolled into a ball. People interested in using their crocheting talents to help those in need should contact their local homeless shelter. Find a comprehensive, searchable database of shelters in the United States at www.homelesssheltersusa.org; for more information on Joppa, visit www.joppa.org.


SHELENE CODNER is an area resource specialist for the Department of Natural Resources’s Iowa Waste Exchange Program and serves as the Pixie Duster (grant writer) for the Magic Yarn Project: Homespun Wigs for Little Cancer Fighters. For more information on the Iowa Waste Exchange, visit www.iowadnr.gov/FABA. For more information on the Magic Yarn Project, visit www.themagicyarnproject.com.

This article first appeared in Interweave Crochet Fall 2018. Check out Interweave Yarn Hacks for help turning plastic bags into yarn.

(Featured Image: Plastic crochet mats are rolled for easy storage and portability. | Photo Credit: Shelene Codner)


Don’t miss the Interweave Crochet Fall 2018 issue!