A mattress made out of plastic bags

in conversation with Debbie Barberee, Holly Cypret

Make it yourself (Issue IV/2021)

  • Poto: Debbie Barberee

    Poto: Debbie Barberee

  • Photo: Seth McConnel / Denver Post / Getty Images

    Photo: Seth McConnel / Denver Post / Getty Images

How did you first get the idea to make this object?

Debbie: There are many groups in America that make these mats. They are crocheted out of old plastic bags and we make them as a group and then donate them to homeless people. I first saw them in Tennessee. I stopped off in a little restaurant and a group was in a back room, busy working. I was curious and asked them what they were doing and they taught me how to make the mats. After that I started a group in Florida, we are a group of 850 women but around ten come to our weekly meetings in the local library. It went from strength to strength. We don’t go to the woods where the homeless live to hand out the mats, which are also called Mercy Mats. Instead, a homeless shelter gives them out. 
People have been making these mats for years. It’s not our design, we think it originated from India. 

What materials do you use? 

Debbie: We use plastic bags - lots of them. It takes around 700 bags and about 100 hours to make one mat. We loop the circles of plastic bag together to make something called a “plarn” - short for plastic yarn. We talk about “plarning”. Sometimes if we want a design we get certain colours of bags in. The stores around here only have brown, grey or yellow bags. Sometimes you can get white ones with red or blue writing on them. We order boxes of grocery bags to get colours we need. 

Holly: We meet together, first we flatten the bags then we cut them up. Many people take the bags home and plan what colours or style they want. Everyone designs them in their own unique way.

Debbie: Plastic is a great material to use. For one thing, by making these mats we keep it out of the landfill and out of the seas. For another, it gives people a comfortable night’s sleep. For us it's an important social activity. We call ourselves the bag ladies. It’s quite an easy process but it’s really time consuming so we like to do it as a group. During our meetings we discuss everything under the sun!

Holly: We are all around the same age, and are mostly retired. We’ve become very close. Our group has given rise to other groups. People visit us, learn how to make the mats and then take the idea elsewhere. 

What impact have your mats had?

Holly: Here there are many people who live on the street or out in the woods, some of them have tents but many don’t. I met a guy in a store once who used it every night to sleep on - he was very positive about it.

Debbie: The mats are practical. They can be carried around, they insulate from the cold. If they get dirty then you can hose them down and quickly dry them in the sun. When it rains, you can cover yourself with them to stay dry. Some people even stretch them between trees to make a hammock out in the woods in the summer.  It also repels insects. You can sleep on these mats out of doors without getting bothered by ants, or any type of crawling bugs. In October, it will be six years in October that we’ve been meeting up to make these mats. To date we have given out 2,234 of them. We’re really proud of our group and we’re going to keep going!

Interview by Jess Smee

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