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Sleeping Mat Project: Local group stitches with love

Oct 3rd, 2016 | Category: Community

by Carol Frey

Five women sit around a large conference table, plastic shopping bags and pieces of bags stacked all around. Barbara Jackson’s steady hands flatten and smooth a bag before her scissors slice it into strips. Irene Williams works beside her, cutting, looping the strips into a plastic version of yarn and rolling the ‘yarn’ into a large ball. At the other end of the table, Mary Downing wields a fat crochet needle, stitching the yarn into a six foot long, inch-thick sleeping mat that she’ll give to someone who is homeless. The mats are puffy to insulate the sleeper from wet, cold ground, their open-weave structure dries easily, and because they are plastic, they stay free of insects. Each mat has carrying loops and a waterproof tag so that the owners know the mats were made just for them.

Group member Mary Downing shows one of the mats made out of plastic bags. The plastic is cut into strips (below) and then crocheted. The finished mat includes carrying loops and a waterproof tag. PHOTOS BY CAROL FREY

Group member Mary Downing shows one of the mats made out of plastic bags. The plastic is cut into strips (below) and then crocheted. The finished mat includes carrying loops and a waterproof tag. PHOTOS BY CAROL FREY

The Sleeping Mat Project began this January when Maria Breznau, past coordinator for the Faith In Action committee at First United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon, began searching for a project that served the community but would not be as expensive as recent drives had been. She learned of volunteers in other states making sleeping mats from recycled shopping bags and brought the idea before the congregation. Service to the homeless is already a large part of First United Methodist’s outreach, and Sue Erickson said it got an immediate positive response.

“This young man,” Mary holds up a photograph, “just showed up with an entire van, full. The entire back was full of bags.” One school held a plastic bag drive; the students collected about 1,000. “It hit a response in everybody.”  Barbara said.

Demand for their work is greater than the group can supply. Early on, Mary called around to see who might be interested in receiving the mats. One agency called back and asked for 20, right away. “Twenty!” Irene repeated, still incredulous.

Each mat they make takes 600 to 800 bags and many hours of work. When asked how long it takes to complete just one, the women’s responses varied.

“It depends on whether I do crossword puzzles or crochet,” Irene answered.

Sue claimed that Mary finishes one a week. “No I don’t,” Mary said, “they’re hard on your shoulders.”leeping mat project 2 web

“They’re heavy!” declared Irene, who just turned 96.

Barbara agrees. “I ended up with a really sore shoulder. I’m mostly a cutter now.”

One point they all agree on: the work is rewarding, especially on delivery days. At the first delivery, a young homeless man came out of the agency to help bring the mats in. As soon as he saw them he became very excited, according to Barbara. “He took one of those right away with great joy,’ she said, her own eyes shining. Another time, a different young man visiting the church saw a completed mat that was already pledged to a recipient. He wanted it so much that Mary went home and finished one as fast as she could. Altogether, they’ve delivered about 15 mats since the project began.

The group is open to additional help and volunteers of all kinds. Mary said that some people bring bags, others cut bags, others crochet them and still others make tags. Sometimes they arrive at the church to find bags full of shopping bags sitting at the door, quietly donated after hours by someone in the community.

The current FIA chair once remarked that it sure would be nice if there was a machine that could crochet the mats, so that the women didn’t have to put so many hours into making them. Mary couldn’t disagree more. “I put a lot of love in those stitches!” she said.leeping mat project 3 web

As the meeting breaks up, unusable scraps are bagged for recycling, cut sections are folded, sorted by color and neatly lined up in a box. Mary rolls up the mats. Some are ready for delivery but others will go home with the women so that they can continue their work, every stitch a tiny act of caring cast into a sea of need.

To make donations

People interested in helping with the project or donating bags can contact Mary Downing at (360) 428-8942 or at


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