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From Bags in Yarn - Plarn!

Updated: Feb 26

Transforming plastic bags into yarn and weaving them into unique, eco-friendly creations is a meticulous process that lies at the heart of RAD's sustainability mission. For those passionate about environmental preservation and intrigued by the intricacies of this process, here's a detailed look at how we transform these everyday plastic bags into extraordinary, handwoven pieces of sustainable art.

The Plastic Bag Source: Our journey begins with a prevalent waste material used commercially in massive amounts: thin plastic bags. These are the familiar vegetable bags at the grocery store, bread bags, shopping bags, and protective shipping plastics. What many perceive as disposable waste becomes a valuable resource in our eco-conscious workshop.

Plastic Bags sorted by color
Plastic Bags sorted by color

From Bags to Plarn (Plastic Yarn): The initial step in our recycling alchemy involves cutting these plastic bags into loops & strips. Strips are knotted into loops, and like-colored loops are then daisy chained together to create a continuous strand of one majority color, speckled with all the variations inherent in the print. This chain is then spun with a foot-powered spinning wheel, reminiscent of the spinning wheels our ancestors used for crafting wool into yarn. This method is chosen not only for its sustainability & low energy input, but also for the connection it provides to age-old textile traditions.

The result is bobbins full of color sorted plarn. We can produce either a thread or yarn gauge base ply. We can also ply up, creating 3 or 9 ply thread or yarn, in any color. This plarn serves as the raw material for our weaving endeavors.

Weaving Process showing a basket in progress upside down on an armature, with a bobbin of 3 ply white plarn, and RAD's country spinner wheel
Weaving Process showing a basket in progress upside down on an armature, with a bobbin of 3 ply white plarn, and RAD's country spinner wheel.

The Weaving Process: With a bobbin of plarn on the Lazy Kate, we begin the art of weaving. Our weaving techniques vary depending on the product. For items like Pillows, we employ a traditional rigid heddle loom, and use 3 ply plarn thread, which offers precise control over the weaving process. It's a bridge between centuries-old craftsmanship and modern eco-conscious design.

For our hanging pots & 14” planters, we take a more innovative approach. We custom built armatures for each product, a testament to our commitment to sustainability, and also our desire to grow and improve, since we are able to modify the armatures as we progress. This armature often finds its origins in upcycled materials, such as repurposed bicycle wheels, salvaged chair parts, or reclaimed cardboard. When necessary, we leverage modern technology, including 3D printing and bolt assemblies, to ensure both functionality and aesthetic appeal of our products. The Hanging Pots are woven upside down over a custom 3d printed bowl form. We crisscross 1 ply thread in a spirograph pattern, including the full length of the arms, to form the warp. Then we weave a bobbin of weft plarn thread in a circle, over under style, transitioning bobbins with elegant knots and increasing to 3 ply and finally 9 ply. Then we gather the remaining warp in bundles of 5 and do a 5 plait (strand) French Braid to create beautiful and sturdy arms. These 5 arms are joined in a redundant top knot which includes a center hole for hanging on a hook. Finally, we sew the brim of the pot closed by hand with a hooked needle.

Hanging Pot in process of being woven, over an armature made from a bike wheel and k'nex
Hanging Pot in process of being woven, over an armature made from a bike wheel and k'nex

The Planters are also woven upside down over a custom shaped form. To increase rigidity, we use 1” plastic strips, which we hand cut with scissors from plastic bottles, as the warp. These strips are laid crisscross between bolts, and set out to create a generally flat surface, not all piled up together, and without large gaps. We then use industrial magnets to temporarily clamp the strips in place. Then we begin weaving, with a 1 ply plarn on the base, over under the plastic strips. When we turn the corner, we switch to 3 ply plarn, but continue the over under process, joining strands with elegant knots. At the 14” rim we tuck all the plastic strip warp back into the pot to double it's strength and let you pick it up by the rim. Then we pull the pot off the armature and re-tighten every strip, adjusting the plarn for an even & gorgeous finish.

Sourcing the Bags: One may wonder, where do these bags come from? At RAD, we've established partnerships with local businesses and institutions to collect plastic bags. We've also initiated a grassroots effort within Bend, Oregon, encouraging residents to actively collect these bags and contribute to our mission by donating them directly to RAD. It's a community-driven initiative that aligns with our vision of collaborative sustainability.

Conclusion: Upcycling plastic bags isn't just about repurposing waste. It's about reviving age-old crafting traditions, innovating with sustainable materials, and forging connections within our community. We educated others in our methods so that they may have discoveries of their own and improve the Eco-friendliness of their own communities. What can you create?

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