Knitting Plastic -- and Friendships -- For Those In Need

Dec 18, 2018

A group of knitters in the Valley is working together to create mats for homeless people – and make good use of plastic shopping bags.  WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, a group of 10 to 20 women meet at the Price-Rotary Senior Center in Harrisonburg for a few hours to knit, crochet and talk.  Today, they’re sending off gift bags to a children’s charity before returning to their knitting needles.

ADA JONES: Come on girls, we gotta go over here.

This fall and winter, Ada Jones and about eight other women have taken up a new project -- knitting mats for homeless people to sleep on, using discarded grocery bags.

They call themselves “Craft and Chat for Charity,” and they crochet and knit everything from stockings, to baby blankets, to sweaters and “lapkins.”

The volunteers give their creations to those in need, or sell them to raise money for charities.  They knit all year long, but this special project has taken months of work.

One of the knitters, Marilyn Jarrells, approached the group with the idea of knitting the soft mats to give away at Christmas. 

Friends of Elizabeth and Bill Neff, a local couple who provide a big annual Christmas Eve meal for around 150 homeless people and others in need every year, brought the idea to Jarrells.

MARILYN JARRELS: That’s how it got started.  So I presented it to the group, and the group said ‘sure!’

It takes many hours of work and 1,300 bags for each mat, cutting each bag into strips and then knitting them into the mats.

[Watch a video of Marilyn knitting.]

They’ve enlisted friends and family to help collect and cut the bags.

MARILYN JARRELLS: It takes so many bags and it takes a long time because it doesn’t knit as smoothly.  Yarn kinda slides along. And this, like, you can tell I have a callus here. It’s harder to slide and move, so it’s slower.

Marilyn has been cutting and knitting everywhere she goes – doctor’s appointments, football and basketball games, at home, and of course, with the ladies on Tuesdays and Thursdays at their group.

Many shelters for the homeless* only have a set number of cots available. In cold weather they allow more people to come in and sleep on the floor, and the mats help keep them comfortable.  The mats are lightweight and can travel and be cleaned easily.

Lynn Hoy is the Recreation Services Coordinator for Harrisonburg’s Parks and Recreation Department.  She says the ladies don’t just help others during the winter holidays -- they donate what they make all year long.

LYNN HOY: Sometimes it’s just like a local family that we hear of that has hard times, that, you know, a fire has put them out and someone is doing charity.  The veterans -- we give to veterans all year long. We make lapkins, and we take bags and bags to Hospice. The lapkins - you know, the things that keep their legs warm, and stuff like that. While they are in treatment, or whatever.

Phyllis Bauer, one of the Tuesday knitters, got emotional when she explained how she felt being able to pay it forward.

PHYLLIS BAUER: I’ve lived a wonderful life and I’ve been fortunate. I have family that loves me, I have friends around me. I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve never really had to really want for anything. Sure you have hard times, everybody does. But to think that because I’ve been so blessed, that maybe I could help someone else feel that way too?  …Excuse me…

The ladies are always looking for more people to join their group, even if they lack the requisite skills. Tina Wright says she didn’t know how to knit, but really wanted to be part of the group.

TINA WRIGHT: It’s very hard as an adult woman, unless you have a job, to find friends. Because you find your friends through your kids.  I’ve moved around, this is like the fourth state I’ve lived in, so I have to find my friends other places.  So when I moved here I wasn’t fifty yet, so I patiently waited until I turned fifty. (Laughing) I do have a grey hair now…

Those new friendships are a welcome spin-off from the desire to help those in need, through the common passions of knitting and generosity.

*An earlier version of this story mentioned Our Community Place in Harrisonburg as an overnight shelter for the homeless, which is incorrect.  OCP is a day program providing services to homeless and low-income populations in our community.  WMRA regrets the error.