Recycled Plastic-Bag Weaving
I have a considerable yarn stash of wool, cotton, linen and silk, carefully stored in baskets and on yarn trees. But to my surprise, I’ve come to regard hundreds of plastic bags, stored in a big floppy cardboard box in the garage, as part of this stash. The box holds newspaper bags, shopping bags, grocery bags, and every other plastic bag that I’ve brought home or collected from family and friends for the past several years. (They know I’m a packrat.) In an attempt to reduce the size of this collection and keep them out of landfill, these bags are reused and recycled. I keep a bunch close to the vegetable garden to bring in the day’s harvest. They’re handy for picking up dog waste. They’re a good substitute for Styrofoam peanuts and plastic bubble wrap in packaging. I take some when grocery shopping for bulk items and produce. But lately—I’m also seeing them as potential weaving material.
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Plastic “yarn” tutorial
Turning a plastic bag into one continuous strand can be done with scissors, but it’s easiest to use a rotary cutter and self-healing mat. After learning this method of turning tee shirts into yarn, I realized it would also work for bags.
Turn the bag on its side, with the open end to the right (or left if you’re left-handed). Smooth out any wrinkles. If there are handles, cut from bottom to top below them, separating the handle from the body of the bag.
Some bags have a heat-sealed fold at the bottom corners. If yours does, cut it off the bottom of the bag. You should now have a smooth tube. (You can recycle the trimmings.)
Use the rotary cutter or scissors to cut from bottom fold to within about an inch or two of the top fold. Don’t cut all the way to the top fold!
Continue to cut strips all the way across, leaving them attached at the top fold.
The width of strips you need varies depending on your loom and the thickness and flexibility of the plastic. I suggest weaving a sample using one-inch-wide strips before committing all of your bags to the same width. My strips vary from three-quarters-of-an-inch wide to one-and-a-quarter-inch wide. You can just eyeball this measurement; it does not need to be precise. If your strips waver between thick and thin it's okay. Just make sure you don't get too thin or the "yarn" will break during weaving.
Pick up the bag and rotate it so that the previously folded, uncut edge is flat on the cutting surface. It’ll look kind of like a grass skirt when you pick it up. Push the loops to the left, out of the way of the cutting blade.
Cut from the side edge, diagonally upward, ending between the first and second top strips. This will release the first loop. There will be a 2-to-4 inch angled strip connecting top and bottom loops.
Continue cutting diagonally from bottom to top, all the way across the bag, pushing strips out of the way as you go and releasing loops to the side.
Ta Da! Yards of plastic "yarn" ready for weaving, knitting, crochet, braiding, or whatever fibery use you can imagine.
Plastic-bag yarn can be used as weft on a traditional shaft loom. It cannot be used as warp on a shaft loom because the "yarn" would not surving the rigors of going through the heddles and reed.
The plastic-bag yarn can be used as both warp and weft if you weave it on a simple frame loom.
I have sucessfully used this yarn on the following frame looms: Weave-It Rug Loom, U-Weave, Whiting (a metal potholder loom with pins close to the corners), and a seven-inch-square Hazel Rose loom. It will work with any frame loom that has corner pins and a one-quarter-inch spacing between pegs or pins.
You could make your own loom out of a small picture frame with one-and-a-half-inch finishing nails spaced one-quarter-inch apart around the perimeter.
You will also need a blunt tipped, large-eyed, sturdy needle that is longer than the width of your loom. Lacis's online catalog has a good selection.
The simpliest way to weave on a frame loom is to wind the warp strands vertically around the pins, and then needle-weave weft strands from side to side. (This is also how you can weave multishaft weaving patterns, such as twills, on frame looms.)
If you are weaving plain weave, however, a faster and easier method is continuous weave which uses one strand of yarn to make both warp and weft. The basic steps are as follows:
- Lay in the first half of the warp
- Lay in the first half of the weft
- Lay in the second half of the warp
- Needle-weave in the second half of the weft
The benefit to this method is you are needle-weaving only half of the weft.
The following tutorial illustrates how to make a four-layer continuous weave fabric on a frame loom. For clarity, I am using a thinner yarn than I would normally use. The loom used is a seven-inch Hazel Rose square loom.
Using this method, you can make a continuous weave on any frame loom that has corner pins or pegs. The number of pins may vary from loom to loom, but the important points to remember are at which corner each wrap ends and whether there are an odd or even number of strands.
To make it easier to keep track of where I was in the continuous weave, the first thing I did was number the corners of the loom with a marker: 1, 2, 3, 4. (Make your tools work for you!)
Beginning to the right of the corner pin at Corner 1, wrap around two pins and skip two pins, back and forth across the loom, almost to the end.
The last wrap will be around three pins at the top and skip three pins at the bottom. This wrap finishes at Corner 2. There are fourteen parallel strands (an even number.)
Wrap around two corner pins at Corner 2 and rotate loom one-quarter-turn to the right. Wrap the second layer perpendicular to the first layer, again around two pins and skipping two pins, back and forth across the loom, almost to the end.
The last wrap will be around three pins at the bottom and skip three pins at the top. This wrap finishes at Corner 3. There will be thirteen parallel strands (an odd number.)
Wrap around three corner pins at Corner 3, rotate loom back to original position and wrap the third layer in the same direction at the first layer.
This layer will be offset from the first layer by one pin. You’ll be able to see the first layer between strands of the third one. End this layer at Corner 2 with thirteen strands (an odd number.)
Wrap the yarn around the perimeter of the loom three-and-a-half times to measure the length needed for needle weaving the last layer.
Thread a ten-inch needle. Go over the outside loop and carefully weave across, just inside the pins. You’ll be weaving the first strand at the bottom.
Pass the needle OVER the loop outside the pins and come out in a space throughout the needle weaving step.
Turn the loom 180 degrees. Skipping the next strand (previously laid in with the second wrap), needle weave the third strand, entering over an outside loop and coming out in a space at the end of the row.
Continue in this manner, needle weaving every other row of weft. The last row will be needle woven right next to the pins. If you take your weaving off the loom and it falls apart, it’s undoubtedly because you forgot to weave the last row!
When weaving is done, needle weave the tails back into the fabric. Beginning at one corner, use the needle to lift the outside loops over the nail heads along two adjacent sides until you are able to freely lift off the entire piece.
Plastic-Bag Weaving Tips
Plastic has its own set of challenges, so if you have never woven with the continuous weave method, practice it first with yarn and become comfortable with the process before tackling plastic.
Some plastics are too flimsy and soft and some are too stiff to needleweave easily. But most only need an adjustment in the strip thickness. You’ll quickly learn to sort them by look and feel.
Plastic stretches and breaks easily under the stress of needle weaving, so don’t start out with the full weaving length (three times the perimeter of the loom) for the last layer. It’s much easier to start with a comfortable length and add on when it runs out. Overlap old and new strips for a few inches and go again. Change colors and mix it up.
You can join the woven pieces together in a variety of ways, crochet it in slip stitch, single crochet, sewn back stitch, or sewn overcast stitch.
What to make with woven plastic? Anything that you want to be lightweight and/or water and dirt resistant. Some ideas: beach mat, picnic cloth, outdoor furniture cushions, pet food mat. Water can still seep through the spaces, but most will stay on the surface to evaporate or be wiped off. By the way, my woven plastic bag pillow is stuffed with—what else? Plastic bags!
Jana Trent lives in Colleyville, Texas, where she messes around with yarn and tools that use yarn. She shares her yarn space with her husband and three dogs and is teaching her grandsons that yarn is not a girly thing. Jana maintains an information website about handheld looms—eLoomaNation—as well as the eLoomanator blog where she is hosting the Square Deal Weave Along.