NEW MILFORD – What do you do with a shopping bag that’s fallen apart at the seams? Well, if you’re Anita Yarrish, you turn it into an idea that has resulted in hundreds of new, eco-friendly shopping bags.
“I was cleaning out the pantry when an old shopping bag fell to the floor,” she recalled. “The glue had dried out and it fell apart at the seams.”
What she saw on the floor wasn’t something destined for the garbage, but a pattern. All the folds and cuts needed to make another flat-bottomed bag were laying at her feet. So, she broke out her sewing machine and went to work. And as luck would have it, Yarrish had the ideal material for her project – empty bird seed bags.
“The (bird seed) bags were so beautiful,” she explains. “So, I would save them to collect empty soda cans.
“I’ve always been a bag person. I always had a plastic shopping bag, clear plastic with a thick handle. I never had a pocketbook,” says Yarrish, who is an All-Star Transportation safety supervisor based in New Milford. She started out as a school bus driver in 2003 and has been with All-Star since 2004.
The seed bags provided the perfect material because they are made of woven polypropylene, giving them strength, and because they feature colorful drawings of birds. In making her shopping bag, Yarrish made the drawings a focal point. She made her first bag in 2014. It wasn’t perfect, but a new hobby had been born. She ended up making about 50 bags in the first year.
“I thought they were beautiful, and I was tickled pink with how they turned out,” she says of her first shopping bags. “My mother took the very first one even though the handles were mismatched and uneven! Then as I made a few more and got better quality, I gave 5 to Diane at Jo Jo’s Deli (in New Milford), and she was my beta tester. She raved over them, so I knew it wasn’t just me.
“I gave them away to friends to use, to strangers in Aldi that didn’t have a bag, to my daughter who shared them with her friends. We used and abused them. I am still using one of my originals. The pretty bird picture has since delaminated from the inner woven material, but, the bag and handles are still secure!”
Now, five years later, Yarrish has made hundreds of shopping bags. This past winter alone, she made 300 bags. Over the years, she’s given more than 100 bags to the New Milford Senior Center, the New Milford social services for their food pantry clients, as well as to friends and co-workers.
“I have even done custom bags for people who send me their specific bags and I sew them and send them back,” she says. “Last fall, I sewed 45 bags- inside of a week, for a business in Manhattan to use for their Christmas party! I have made bags and sent them as far away as Australia and Germany, and many states: Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Arizona seem to really like my bags.”
She also has broadened the types of bags she collects for her creations. She not only uses bird bags, but also collects barley bags from a local brewery, feed bags from neighboring farms and other bags from other locations that otherwise might have ended up in a landfill. Their common trait is that they all feature unique designs. Currently, she has rows and rows of bags hanging in her storage shed.
Yarrish makes her bags in her living room, primarily during the winter months. “Who wants to sit inside and sew all summer?” she asks. She’s also on her third sewing machine, the first two dying from the strain of the work. The latest machine is more commercial, making it better suited for sewing the tough material. She also doesn’t use a ruler to measure, instead she uses her hand to ensure the proper width for the flat bottoms of the bags.
“How ingenious is that,” she says with a laugh.
During the winter, her living room fills with the bags she has created. Her daughter, Rebecca, who is an artist, sells some of the bags on her Etsy site. They typically sell out in a matter of days. Yarrish provides bags to some other local outlets, but she has no plans to expand her hobby and go into the business of selling shopping bags full time.
“I don’t want to make a living out of it. I have a job,” she says. “This is a winter project, just to sit at the table and sew. I love it.”