Stitches of hope

Birmingham senior knits unusual blankets for those in need

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 21, 2016

 Mae Lyons learned a little more than a year ago how to knit blankets from used plastic shopping bags for the homeless.

Mae Lyons learned a little more than a year ago how to knit blankets from used plastic shopping bags for the homeless.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BIRMINGHAM — Ella Mae Lyons is something of a regular over at Next.

Better known just as Mae, she can be found every week over at the Birmingham senior center with her cohort of knitters and quilters.

She considers the group’s members good friends, but sometimes Lyon admits she wonders what her pals think as they pull out skeins of yarn and she pulls out plastic shopping bags.

“They probably think I’m a little crazy. But they’re all so nice, they would never let on. They just let me do what I do,” said Lyons.

At 92 years old, Lyons has been knitting for decades. She was raised in Alberta, Canada, where knitting warm clothes was part of the culture.

These days she devotes her time to knitting blankets from plastic bags for homeless people around metro Detroit.

“I started because of a friend, and she has a friend that goes down into the city and finds people who need the blankets,” she explained. “I think they’re mostly used as mats to lie on. They’re waterproof, so you can just shake the water off of them. And they’re warm. Even having it on my lap while I’m working, it gets warm.”

Lyons’ blankets are beautiful and intricate creations, each made from around 400 plastic shopping bags that you might bring home by the dozen from the grocery store. Every one of them tells something of a retail story: The gray sections are Kohl’s bags, the red ones are from Target, and so on.

She gently smooths out each bag one by one and cuts off the handles and the bottom to create a large loop. Then she slices that loop into thinner ones, less than an inch in thickness, and connects those together at each end to create a thread.

After that, she just knits.

“It doesn’t slide as nicely (on the needle) as yarn, but you can go pretty quickly,” she said.

Every blanket takes about a month and a half to stitch together, but Lyons has plenty of time on her hands. Her husband passed away about 20 years ago, and she now lives with the eldest of three children. The two share an apartment in Birmingham, the same city she’s lived in for nearly 50 years.

She’s dabbled in painting, beading and watercolor quilting. Lyons is also an accomplished seamstress, having made all of her daughter’s clothes from childhood through college.

But she doesn’t call herself an artist, really more of a copier. She described an instance when she saw a beautiful woman on the streets of New York who was carrying a tote with a funny phrase on it. She laughed and thought she’d like a bag like that, but instead of scouring stores to find it, she got back home to Michigan and bought a silkscreen printer to make her own.

The plastic bag blankets are a new endeavor she took on a little over a year ago. Since they’re so time consuming, she estimates she’s created about five blankets since then. It’s not a quick process, but she thinks it’s worth it.

“The fact that there’s someone sleeping down on the cement (keeps me going),” said Lyons.

And she’s got plenty of support for her generous undertaking. Her daughter, now in her 50s, sends plastic bags from her home in New York.

That’s a treat, Lyons admits, because the stores there have different-colored bags and it allows for a bit of variety in her designs.

“She’s my daughter, but she can’t do a thing with a needle,” Lyons said. “So this is her contribution. And all of her friends in New York loved the idea because it’s good for the environment.”

After about 12 years as a member at Next, you better bet Lyons has them on her side too.

“I was amazed when I saw what she was doing,” said Peter MacFarlane, communications manager for Next. “So many of our members are generous with their time and talent, but this goes above and beyond.”

Before he knew what she was up to, he said, he would wonder about Lyons, sitting in the needle arts group cutting up plastic bags. Now he knows that he could almost set his watch to Lyons’ routine, coming in every week like clockwork to knit her blankets.

“I thought to myself that this is something people need to know can be done easily and cheaply,” he added.

Lyons said she would be happy to teach anyone who wants to learn how to make the bags. For her, the project is as much a selfish endeavor as it is a humanitarian one, since it gives her the chance to come chat with friends at the center during the week.

“It’s kind of a fun thing to do,” she said. “But I wish more people would do it too, because there’s a great need.”

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