Select volunteers across South Georgian Bay are participating in a creative way to reduce waste and serve the community’s homeless population: milk-bag mattresses.
Using patterns provided by Toronto-based non-profit MILKBAGSunlimited, volunteers weave together old milk bags to create waterproof, reusable mattress pads for those in need.
The initiative was launched by Kleinburg resident Angela Kesthely following the devastating Haitian Earthquake of 2010. In parts of Canada, milk is sold in strong, UV resistant plastic bags that do not disintegrate in landfills. When this plastic is woven, it becomes a very soft and comfortable sleeping mat with a long lifespan. The concept of making sleeping mats from these discarded milk bags has been around for quite some time, and a chance meeting at Kesthley’s son’s basketball game a few years prior introduced her to the “up-cycling” project.
Kesthely started researching the concept further and found a way to make the mats more efficiently. She would weave the mats using a wooden frame, a process much gentler on the body than the traditional crochet method, so she began to share her process with others and soon after, was invited to an eco-day at a local school to speak about up-cycling in front of over 1,000 students and staff.
“I remember being terrified to speak in front of that many people, but when I started talking, the words just flowed,” said Kesthely. “And it just took off from there.”
A process that used to take a week to make from start to finish now only took a handful of hours, and in the first week Kesthely began weaving, she made nine mats in a matter of days.
Milk bags are cut into strips and knotted together in lengths of four before they are looped and fit onto a frame. Each mattress takes about 400 milk bags to make and has a lifespan of approximately 25 years. They are also waterproof, bug-proof and can be easily cleaned and dried.
In collaboration with other charitable organizations, MILKBAGSunlimted sends mats of different sizes to over 40 countries and to Canadian organizations that cater to homeless people.
“Our biggest year, we had 11,000 mats that we sent,” said Kesthely.
Hundreds of organizations across Ontario and parts of Eastern Canada are now taking part in the volunteer effort. One such group is called The Bag Ladies, which is a part of the Helping Hands Craft Club based in Owen Sound.
“I started the craft club in the community to be able to help individuals and families in need, in any way we can,” said Beth van Aalst, founder and president of the Helping Hands Craft Club.
She first learned how to make the milk bag mattresses from her aunt, who was still using the traditional crochet method at the time. Then van Aalst discovered MILKBAGSunlimited and got connected with Kesthely, and she said once she started using the weaving method, it was a “game changer.”
“I thought, this is really great, so I had a couple of girlfriends from the craft club over one day and taught them all how. They loved it,” said van Aalst. More and more women in the community showed interest, so The Bag Ladies were born.
Prior to COVID, the group used to meet twice a month for what they called “stitch and b*tch” sessions. They were able to meet a few times outside in the summer months while it was safe to do so over the past two years, but otherwise the ladies have continued to weave on their own at home. However, val Aalst said fewer mats are produced this way, especially without the accountability of the group, so she is excited to start the group sessions again when it is safe to do so.
“People not only need the mats, but The Bag Ladies need that socialization and connection,” said van Aalst. “It’s the whole kit.”
Seeing the impact The Bag Ladies have had on the Owen Sound community and beyond, van Aalst has been inspired to help others start a group in their communities as well. She encourages anyone in South Georgian Bay who is interested to reach out to the Helping Hands Craft Club for information and advice.
That connection is the driving force for Kesthely as well.
“It’s therapeutic, I really enjoy it,” said Kesthely. “We have all learned to share in each other’s sadnesses and happinesses. It’s not just about the mats, it’s about people coming together.”