TANEYTOWN — Four women gathered around a card table at a retirement community’s clubhouse in Taneytown on Wednesday, Feb. 13, intently sorting through a mountain of plastic grocery bags.
“When I started this, I didn’t think I would become a connoisseur of bags,” said Sharon Schaeffer, a Taneytown resident.
Schaeffer is part of the group, composed of a handful of women who call themselves the “Bag Ladies,” started by Carroll Vista resident Rosemary Orner in October 2016.
Sorting is just the first step in transforming the recycled grocery bags into sleeping mats for the homeless. After the women sort, they fold. Then they cut strips, knot the strands together and form a roll of plastic string — like a ball of yarn.
Considering the mats are made exclusively from plastic, “they can be outside and get wet and they won’t get yucky,” Schaeffer said.
One sleeping mat requires approximately 700 grocery bags. Until recently, the women crocheted the plastic strands, which was arduous and exhaustive.
“Crochet is hard on your wrists,” said JoAnne Ward, who joined the group last year after retiring.
“And your shoulders,” added Sue Morris, a member from the start.
Thankfully, Ward brought new ideas to the group. She only had experience knitting, but looked up how to weave using a loom on YouTube. Ward’s brother made the women half a dozen wood-peg looms.
Ward and Schaeffer have become the designated weavers. After the women meet each Wednesday morning, the two weavers leave with containers of balled-up plastic string. At home they load the looms and weave the grocery bag remnants into 6-foot-long, 4-foot-wide sleeping mats.
Weaving instead of crocheting increased the group’s output. They now produce one mat per week.
The Shepherd’s Staff in Westminster, the Taneytown Police Department and the Taneytown volunteer fire company have received mats.
Brenda Meadows, executive director of The Shepherd’s Staff, called the Bag Ladies’ efforts “pretty incredible.”
“It’s a full circle kind of situation here,” Meadows said, pointing to the recycling aspect, the altruism and the functionality of the sleeping mats.
“We distribute the mats to the folks that are sleeping out in the weather,” Meadows said. “The mats help keep them off the ground … the plastic serves as an insulant.”
Meadows said the mats have a profound effect, beyond keeping the people that opt not to sleep in the Carroll County Cold Weather Shelter warm during the winter.
“I can tell you from conversations with folks that are distributing them,” Meadows said, “folks [that receive mats] are quite moved because of the amount of work somebody put into making these on their behalf.”
And there might be more sleeping mats to come, as the Bag Ladies have yet to achieve maximum productivity with only two of five currently doing the weaving.
“We’re going to have Looming 101 at some point,” Ward explained.
Schaeffer, who has experience weaving baskets, and Ward have become consummate weaving pros. Both like to watch movies or television programs while working their looms.
“Sharon’s woven one in two movies,” Ward said, lauding Schaeffer’s speed.
The prep work — folding, cutting, stringing and rolling — is a complete team effort. The women consider it all: the width of the strands of plastic bag, which translates to the thickness of the mat, the quality of the plastic and colors.
“When [a bag] crunches,” Schaeffer said, “it’s too stiff and too hard.”
“I wouldn’t want to lay my head on that,” Ward added.
The ladies consider color patterns as they string the plastics together.
“This ball, I’m doing three white [bags] to one turquoise,” Schaeffer said, picturing how the pattern would show in a rectangle.
White and gray bags get boring, the women agree. So, many have convinced their children who live in other states to recycle theirs — from as far away as Minnesota, Morris said.
“My daughter lives in New Jersey and she gets nice yellow bags,” Schaeffer explained.
The Bag Ladies won’t accept plastic bags without handles, but otherwise they are open to donations, said Sadie Jackson.
“A big help is for people to fold the bags,” she said.
The recycled bags can be dropped off at the Carroll Vista clubhouse at 1 Clubside Drive between 9:30 and 11 a.m. every Wednesday — when the Bag Ladies meet.
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Donating recycled bags to the altruistic group could help someone in need. And as a bonus, Schaeffer said, it prevents “the bags from blowing around and waving in the trees.”