LEBANON — When most people think about local grocery stores, they're concerned with the quality of produce or the price of a gallon of milk.
But Shirley Callahan of Albany thinks about their plastic bags — the color, texture and stretchability, to be exact.
Callahan, whose nickname is the "Bag Lady," recycles plastic shopping bags into handiworks such as handbags, hats and drink covers.
On a recent afternoon, Callahan shared the skills and knowledge she has picked up over the past 19 years with 11 women at the Lebanon Senior Center. Four card tables held examples of the more than 40 items for which she has designed patterns — at first in her head and now compiled into a book.
The tools of her trade are minimal — sharp scissors, a variety of plastic bags, and crochet needles.
"There are definitely some no-nos," Callahan said, offering samples of the types of bags that don't work well. "Some are too noisy. They're scratchy, listen. Garbage bags are usually too thin and stretchy."
Although many grocery bags are white or clear, Callahan showed off samples of colors including yellow, teal, black, burgundy, gray and tan. Boutiques often provide the snazziest bags in the widest variety of colors, she said.
Callahan showed off a smartphone cover she made from produce bags from a local grocery store.
"The little spritzes of color are from the store's logo," Callahan said.
Callahan crafted her own large, reusable grocery bags, and she is often asked where they came from.
She also made beach bags for towels and other items — and they're waterproof.
In a rencent class, Callahan passed out a variety of colored bags to each of the women and taught them how to fold the bags to cut them into strips about a half-inch wide. She said most bags produce about 18 to 21 strips, eight of which are then hooked together like rubber bands to form longer strands. Tying a slip knot into one end provides a notch for a crochet hook to grab.
Although 83-year-old Pat Barth of Lebanon has been crocheting for more than 70 years, she was having a hard time getting the hang of hooking the bags together.
"I've seen these bags before, and I think they're attractive," Barth said of why she signed up for the class.
Mary Ann Earls of Lacomb teaches crochet classes for Linn-Benton Community College in Lebanon and Albany. She usually has about 60 students in three classes.
"I wanted to see if she had any new ideas I haven't picked up," Earls said.
Earls, 74, said her mother and grandmother taught her to crochet when she was 8 years old.
The class stuck to the basics — no giant handbags or beach hats. Instead, each of the students learned to make a doily.