Updated 4/06/2019: Made some corrections and updates after I learned more about plastic reuse and recycling from the Metro Master Recycling program.
This article will cover using plarn (plastic fiber) for textiles. Plarn is quite versatile, and can be used as yarn for knitting and crocheting, as threads for weaving, and fiber for cordage, basket making, and beyond. My goal is to show you its many possibilities, provide selection tips for projects, and share plarn-friendly textile techniques and tools.
This is a comprehensive article meant to give those new to plarn a lay of the land, and walk you through the numerous ideas online (so much plarn!). It’s broken up into topical sections, so skip to what’s relevant for you:
- Hello Plastic: Gives some background on the recycling challenges of soft plastics, the 2 basic types, and their characteristics for use in textiles.
- Plarn Many Ways: Outlines the 3 most common ways that folks make plarn: chain-looped, continuous-cut, and spun/twisted.
- Selection and Sourcing: Goes into the details of matching different plastics to techniques and sourcing strategies.
- Plarn-friendly Textile Techniques: Shares various ideas collected during our club’s month-long, plarn R&D.
- Handy Tools: Shows tools we found useful working with plarn. With links to tutorials on how to make your own.
1. Hello Plastic
Plarn is a DIY yarn made from plastic bags. I don’t know who named it, but as long as plastic bags have been around, makers have been re-purposing it for creative ends.
Most plarn tutorials exclusively use grocery bags. I want to expand your possibilities. Including all soft plastics (not just grocery bags) in your craft kit, will expand what we can use and make with plarn. This also means taking more stuff out of our trash and reclaiming it, thereby extending the material’s life.
Plastic bags are a type of soft plastic. While plastic bags are valuable for recycling into certain products like plastic lumber the complexities of plastic recycling make this a very tricky issue. Soft plastics are a problem for sorting machines used in city recycling systems. Because of this, many city curbside programs will not accept them. The private companies who are contracted to pick up plastic bags from collection depots (such as supermarkets), deal with the fluctuations of the market. Because of this, there isn’t a steady market value (and demand) for these materials. In addition, not all soft plastics are made from the same resin recipes. With any type of recycling (but especially plastic) recycling is only successful with proper contamination prevention.
Another point worth mentioning is the resource and energy differences between recycling and reuse. Making soft plastic takes a toll on the environment (any form of industrial production does). By reusing the material as it is we’re recapturing the energy and resources that already went into making it. That’s why crafting is such a great use. Handcrafts, such as weaving, are low impact, not harmed by contamination, and also fun to do!
Soft plastics come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, but are basically made from one of two types of materials: HDPE (high density) and LDPE (low density) plastic. Knowing the code isn’t important, except to know that one type (LDPE) is thicker and stronger, with a slick feel and stiffer hand, while the other (HDPE) is thinner, more delicate, pliable, and translucent. These characteristics, inherent to the materials, always show up together. I’ll cover more of this in Selection and Sourcing.
For now, just know that anytime you see a glossy, thicker, plastic bag, you’ll make stronger plarn, but it will be stiffer. When the bag is translucent, your plarn have some stretch, but you’ll need to handle it with more care.
2. Plarn Many Ways
Honestly, you can make plarn any way you wish! I’ll cover 3 common ways that crafty folks have made plarn: chain-looped, continuous-cut, and spun or twisted plarn.
The most common recipe for plarn is for a chain-looped length. You can use scissors, or get fancy with a rotary cutter and cutting mat, but the basic idea is the same.
- By lopping off the handles and the bottom of the bag, you end up with an even loop of plastic.
- You can use this whole (for bulky plarn), or (depending on the thickness desired) cut the single, large loop into equal-sized, thinner loops.
- Take each loop and link them to the next, in a chain, using a slipknot at each link.
- What you’ll end up with is a long chain that has knots at regular intervals.
What It’s Good For:
- This is quick and easy to make and all-ages, all-abilities friendly.
- Longer lengths can be rolled into balls for knitting and crocheting.
- Shorter lengths (3-5 loop chains) can be organized into skeins for weaving on a cardboard loom.
Things to Note:
- Looped plarn has knots, which you’ll need to account for in both your tools and your designs.
- One way is to use all the same type of bag for each chain, so that your knots are spaced in regular intervals.
- As you work on your design note where the knots fall; use it for texture and variation.
- Each chain is made of a double thread; this gives your fiber more bulk than if it was a single thread.
If you want to avoid having many knots, or desire a single-thread fiber, another approach is to cut one continuous length from each bag. You can follow this technique if you are cutting on a table or flat surface, or this one if you’re cutting free-hand. My favorite technique is with a dowel, which I learned from this video.
I wish I watched this video earlier!
What It’s Good For:
- Great when you are using tools where knots will snag.
- Ideal if you want an even-textured design.
- This also works nicely when you are spinning/twisting plarn.
- When you want a finer gauge fiber.
Things to Note:
- Making this requires more careful cutting.
- Being a single-thread fiber, the base plastic material needs to be sturdy (thick-film plastic has a leg up over grocery bags here).
Spun or Twisted Plarn
Once you have plarn lengths (looped or continuous), you can take a further step to spin/twist your plarn.
- Doing this will compress your fiber: make it thinner and stronger, and make it look more like traditional fibers.
- The key to spinning/twisting fiber is to pay attention to direction.
- Keeping all of your spins/twists in the same direction is a good rule of thumb (clockwise, to start).
- Technically, the direction you twist does change the fiber; you can geek out on the differences between S and Z twists.
What It’s Good For:
- This is great for techniques that require knotting (macrame, net-making).
- For tight-weaves or finer knits.
- Its strength makes it good as warp threads in weaving (especially in looms with a heddle, where tension is being put on the fiber from moving parts).
Things to Note:
- This is time-consuming.
- You’ll need either a sewing machine or tools to speed up your spinning.
- Beware of thick-film plastic; unless cut thinly, its stiffer hand can make spinning harder.
Plied Plarn (2 or more spun strands twisted together)
If you find spinning to be something you enjoy, there’s a whole world of fiber just having to do with spinning and plying. I won’t get into this topic except to say that there are advantages to this, but even with tools to speed things up, it’s a whole project to itself.
- If you want to make 2-ply plarn, take two spun-plarn singles and twist them together in the opposite direction from your original twist direction (your first spins were clockwise, now spin counter-clockwise). This will lock the two lengths together.
- The advantage of 2-ply plarn is that the tension from the twist in the fibers are balanced.
- This creates a fiber that’s easier to work with (won’t kink up on you).
- It’s also stronger, and you can play with color and design.
- Another way to do this by hand is using a rope-twisting technique. This is slow, but you don’t have to spin the yarn twice. You’re doing both the first and second twist all in one go.
- A drill or rope machine will greatly speed this up.
- Some people would rather buy plied plarn than make it themselves; I don’t blame them–support an artisan, divert plastic from landfills, and get on with your project!
3. Selection and Sourcing
Identify and Organize your Plastic First
Since it takes time to make plarn, a little bit of planning, first, goes a long way. One way is to think about your textile technique. If you’re not sure about this, skip ahead to the next section for some ideas.
Match your Plastic to your Techniques
Uses for Thick Films (LDPE: glossy, thicker, stiffer, stronger, a.k.a. retail shopping bags, swag bags, packed with consumer products and electronics)
Glossy films are stronger, but stiffer (harder to spin, less stretch). They often come in bright colors.
- These can be cut thinner, and often come in solid, bold colors; I like using these for thinly-cut, continuous plarn.
- For looped plarn, thinner widths keep the chained knots smaller. With thicker films the knots are stiffer.
- This is a useful fiber for weaving or coiling baskets, where thinner cuts can make denser weaves or finer coils.
- The slick texture and stiffness can be trickier to knit or crochet with; there’s also less stretch to the material than the thinner, more pliable grocery bag.
- Cordage works great for this type of plastic; it makes a very sturdy and strong cord.
Uses for Thin Films (HDPE: translucent, thinner, matt surface, more delicate but more pliable, a.k.a. grocery store bags, produce bags, take-away and resturant bags)
Thinner, translucent films actually come in 2 common forms. Grocery bags (with handles) are thicker than the very-thin-film produce bags (no handles).
- Grocery bags are ideal for looped plarn.
- It’s a bit fragile for continuous-cut, so cut it thicker (1″ or thicker), spin it, or just handle with care.
- When knotting it, be careful with pulling too tight; these bags love to snap.
- There’s a natural stretch/give to this film that works well with knitting and crochet. Also, for cordage when you want a stretchy flex to it.
- Grocery bags are best for projects with kids or folks with dexterity challenges; cut chunky (3 cuts per bag or whole bag) and looped, this makes for the shortest time in finishing projects and only requires a pair of scissors to make.
- Both the looped and continuous styles can be spun, however, the easiest for spinning are very thin produce bags.
- Produce bags can be fiddly to cut (wispy), but make the thinnest and smoothest spun plarn; only for the dedicated and patient.
Uses for Cut-offs and Other Plastics
If you’re really looking to challenge your reuse game, even hard to use items like the waste from making looped plarn (handles/bottoms) or random shaped plastic, unsuitable for lengths (wrappers for toilet paper), can be repurposed as fiber. Technically this isn’t plarn, but plarffia doesn’t have the same catchy ring.
- Cut strips of plastic are similar to raffia/grasses in texture and form, so using them as the fill material in coiled baskets work very well (or making pom poms!).
- To save time, I sort and organize as I go. While making plarn lengths, I organize my off-cuts by color and texture.
Amassing a Cache of Soft Plastics
We used two different approaches to sourcing during our plarn R&D:
- Identify your trash and design projects from that.
- Collect the type that best fits your project.
Design for your Trash:
If your goal is primarily reuse, then designing for your trash makes sense. I don’t have single-use grocery bags to make looped plarn. Thick films from consumer goods, very thin produce bags, and crunchy, stiff wrappers is what was in my house. I wanted a project to use this up, and making coiled baskets seemed like a good fit:
- The filler material would use the crunchy plastic that I cut into strips.
- The outer coil wrapping would use spun plarn made from produce bags, which I tend to amass.
As a vehicle for reclaiming my waste it’s been successful, and I’ve found that I really enjoy the baskets. They are light-weight, colorful, and water resistant.
Sourcing from Others:
For Plarn Lab, we wanted grocery bags with handles to be able to demo easy-to-cut, looped plarn. This type is banned in Portland’s major supermarkets, so short on supply in our club member’s homes. The following worked well for us:
- Ask friends and neighbors and post on Next Door. This is really helpful since everyone ends up with some bags, despite their best efforts. We found people were happy to donate. Since people have different shopping habits, you’ll end up with more variety in color.
- Ask grocery stores that serve as “recycling depots” and collect bags. Because depots are contracted by private recycling companies who are effected by market value fluxuations, you should always call first to see if the location is still collecting.
4. Plarn-friendly Textile Techniques
What will you make? During our month of plarn R&D, textile club members tried a whole bunch of different techniques, and below are some plarn-friendly project ideas:
- Crochet and knitting applications are the most popular on the internet. The best plarn for this will be lengths made from grocery bags, either looped or continuous.
- Using a cardboard loom, you have more options for weaving with plarn. Some people weave plarn as the weft threads (using looms made for traditional fibers). Making your own cardboard looms, you can use plarn for both warp and weft threads and customize for chunky looped plarn or thinner types.
- Cording and friendship bracelets can be made with plarn. Either free-hand or by using a cardboard circle template. The thick films are great for this use.
- Rope making: using a rope maker, twisting by hand, or by braiding.
- Nets, macrame, and all techniques that involve knots.
- Coiled baskets are a great use for plastic strips and off-cuts.
- Try a coiled bracelet or pom poms.
- For the advanced, the internet is filled with plarn inspiration from animal sculptures, crochet toys and accessories, lace making, ambitious fashion projects, functional furniture, and spectacular art.
- Here’s a PDF of curated plarn projects (PlarnExamples) if you want more inspiration.
5. Handy Tools to Use with Plarn
Some textile techniques are easier with specialized tools. Existing tools are made for traditional fibers, so sometimes DIY is the best match for the unique qualities of plarn.
For Plarn Lab, we had generous sponsorship from Make+Think+Code@ PNCA to create custom, plarn-friendly textile tools. They gave us access to their laser lab for prototyping and producing the tools for participants to use during the lab and take home.
Below are some tutorials for tools useful with plarn. You can make these tools at home with basic supplies, or if you want more precise versions with a laser-cutting service. I provide the cut files and instructions to do so.