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Retired Cortland High teacher crafts bags out of ‘trash’

Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Susan Eligh of Scott taught herself how to make “plarn,” a yarn out of plastic. She also taught herself how to crochet so she could make tote bags out of discarded plastic shopping bags, seen below.

Susan Eligh said she doen’t think there’s anyone in Scott who doesn’t have one of her crocheted tote bags.

The retired Cortland High social studies/law teacher uses discarded plastic shopping bags to make her totes.

“Somebody’s trash is someone else’s treasure,” she quoted.

But in her case, her 2-foot-wide tote bags benefit a youth choir in California, where she lives part of the year.
“I want to stop people from doing away with plastic bags,” she said. “Save your bags for me!”

The Scott woman has been making the bags and sending them to the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, Calif., for about two years. Their sale benefits the youth choir there, which just went across the United States for a special chorus camp.

Eligh spends her winters in Southern California, where her nephew lives. The Church of the Messiah has Mass in Spanish and English. Her nephew said, “You have to hear the junior choir!”

They were phenomenal. And they needed to raise money, Eligh said.

While there, she saw the kids getting homework help, getting fed, learning English. The neighborhood surrounding the church is poor, she said.

“This church goes above and beyond,” she said.

Eligh went to the church and taught the women there how to make “plarn,” or plastic yarn, out of the bags. And they taught her a better design for her bags.

The women in Santa Anna make totes, selling them for $15 to $20, to benefit the church.

“The stores in Southern California have stopped providing bags,” she said, and people need tote bags. “Now I have a mission.”

Eligh wants to sell her tote bags here and send the money to the church. It’s more cost effective that way. It costs her $30 to send 10 bags to the church.

People can recycle their grocery bags at any of the stores in town or contact her through Facebook if they want to help her. She will pick them up.

Eligh got her start in the project by needing a bag to carry her goods. She spends the summer in St. Lawrence.

“Amish farmers everywhere have the best produce, but no bags,” she said. She needed some. “Tomatoes were rolling around in the trunk.”

“I wonder if I can make a bag like the Europeans have,” she said to herself.

Eligh went to the internet to learn to crochet. She discovered how to make “plarn,” or “yarn” out of plastic bags.

Bags are laid out flat and cut into strips. The strips, in loop form, are connected to each other so they become a long plastic strand. They are then rolled up into plarn balls, until Eligh crochets them into a bag with a big crochet hook. One tote uses 50 to 60 discarded bags.

“It takes me about six hours to crochet a bag,” she said.

It’s the cutting, folding and stringing of the bags that is so time consuming, she said. She would like a volunteer to help. A woman in Pennsylvania does that for her.

Lori Megivern of Virgil, a retired history and law teacher, has been good friends with Eligh since 1981 and collects bags for her.

“She’s like a high-powered lady. She has all the elegance: politeness and decorum. But she has the ability to make things move. Move mountains. Get people inspired. The follow through is phenomenal,” Megivern said. “The whole taking something that’s thrown away and finding a use for it. That’s one thing. But crime stopping. Getting kids on the right track. Using this found money, found resource to get them to concerts!”

She has two bags from Eligh. She needs only one for her Aldi groceries. People watch her stuff food in there.

“It grows. It stretches,” Megivern said. “It’s kind of like a pregnant woman. It stretches until you have this awesome product.”

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