‘Bag ladies’ upcycle donated fabric into nearly 19,000 bags in fight against plastic. Their charge? Nothing

Home Arts ‘Bag ladies’ upcycle donated fabric into nearly 19,000 bags in fight against plastic. Their charge? Nothing
‘Bag ladies’ upcycle donated fabric into nearly 19,000 bags in fight against plastic. Their charge? Nothing

Mary Banks was 33 years old in 1965.

A lot was happening back then — the Vietnam War, a dance craze called “the twist” and the first polyethylene shopping bag.

Hailing from Sweden, single-use plastic bags spread beyond Europe into the United States and eventually Kingston, Mary Banks’ seaside hometown on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.

A cheaper alternative to cloth and paper bags, she remembers their arrival clearly.

“Well, to start with, they were fantastic. We thought it was just wonderful,” Mary says.

A woman with white hair wearing a knitted jumper stands at a table holding some fabric, smiling.
Mary Banks returned to Kingston with her husband after growing up in the seaside town the 1940s.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Now well into retirement, Mary is part of an unexpected, yet devoted, force combating the use of single-use plastics.

Kingston SE Small Steps, affectionately known around town as the “bag ladies”, turn donated materials into hand-sewn recyclable bags.

When local Liz Wingard founded the group in October 2019, she thought they’d make a few hundred.

An aerial photo shows a township with large green areas and a river running towards the coastline.
Kingston, South Australia, is home to the “bag ladies”.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Prior to South Australia’s single-use plastic ban, one of Kingston’s supermarkets was issuing 3,000 plastic bags a week. A large amount for a small community with roughly 2,000 people.

“So our aim was definitely to reduce them,” Liz says.

The group’s gone on to make nearly 18,000 shopping bags and 8,500 produce bags out of recycled materials — everything from old curtains to tea towels and duvet covers.

A lady standing in a street holds a white canvas bag with a retro print on it saying 'Kangaroo Island S.A'.
Bags are made out of all sorts of used materials, like this Kangaroo Island tea towel.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“We’re able to save that and recirculate it, reuse it, and hopefully encourage others to do the same thing.”

Meeting at a retirement village every Monday for several hours, it takes five women roughly 15 minutes to make each recycled shopping bag.

“We have people who cut the fabric, someone who stitches the handles, and the next person turns the handles for us. Then we stitch the bags, we overlock bags, we give the bags back. And then they’re ready to go,” Liz says.

Assorted strips of fabric with all sorts of colours and patterns on them line a cardboard box.
Fabric handles ready to be sewn onto the bags.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Starting in the supermarket, the bags are now offered free-of-charge in two-thirds of Kingston’s small businesses.

As well as making the bags, they offer an amnesty box at both the supermarkets where people can return the bags they’ve used.

“We encourage people to bring them back … providing the quality is still there,” Liz says.

“We wash them, re-iron them and put them back into circulation again.”

A lady's hands hold a cream and red canvas tote bag with the words 'the smoker's prayer' on it.
No two bags are the same. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Much more than just sewing

While the environmental impact would be enough to motivate many of the women to take part, it’s the social element that keeps them there.

Of the women involved in Small Steps, several live alone.

For Mary, who lives at the retirement village, the passing of her husband was hard.

“It’ll be eight years in October he’s been gone. And we did everything together,” Mary says.

A couple of older ladies gather around a sewing table, a kettle and chocolate muffins in the foreground.
Don’t be fooled by the tea and muffins, there’s a lot of hard work happening here.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Despite not being a sewer herself, Mary makes herself useful.

“I iron, I turn handles, I make coffee. Not that it’s that good a coffee really,” Mary says.

“It’s a lovely group and we have lots of fun. And at the same time we’re doing things.

Four older women dressed in Christmas bag costumes with the word 'Reuse' on them.
A few bag ladies getting the message out at Kingston’s 2021 Christmas Parade.(Supplied: Liz Wingard)

Something for everyone

Mary represents the higher end of the age spectrum. There are some younger women in the group.

Having owned her own fabric shop, Clair, from Melbourne, was glad to find the Bag Ladies when she moved to Kingston earlier this year.

A lady walking a large suitcase stands on a path leading to a building, smiling.
Joining the bag ladies has helped Clair settle into Kingston.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

When homesickness fell, the group made all the difference.

“They’ve just turned everything upside down and made it lovely, they’re wonderful,” Clair says.

“Having just moved here and knowing nobody, not a soul, Liz has hooked me up with all the clubs and activities, every interest that I mooted.

A woman in a pink shirt stands under the trade of a tree holding two fabric bags, smiling.
Liz’s mother taught her the importance of recycling things, a legacy she continues.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

These days the bag ladies show no sign of stopping.

Far from an exclusive group, their doors are open to any who are interested in joining.

“If there’s ever any younger people who would like to learn a skill we have skilled people here that would be more than happy to show you the ropes,” Liz says.

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