by Robin Messing Bogdanoff

It all started in August 2011 with, of all things, a shirt pocket. It was a very small pocket on a child’s striped tee shirt that caught my eye, because the shirt had been miraculously reinvented into a darling tote bag. What an inspired idea, to turn an iconic T-shirt into a bag! Strong and compact, yet expandable, colorful, playful, infinitely useful – and not difficult or expensive to make.

For my $10 purchase, Massachusetts textile artist Crispina ffrench included instructions on how to make more bags and gave me permission to share the instructions with our synagogue community in Bergen County, N.J. For the past two years, our congregation-wide Mishloah Manot program has been awash in handmade upcycled T-shirt totes as imaginative and useful as Crispina’s original!

Instead of purchasing baskets, boxes, or bags to contain our Purim goodies, our congregation solicits outgrown and unworn shirts. Between 2012 and 2013, our WRJ Sisterhood and religious school families enthusiastically responded by clearing more than 750 garments from dressers and closets throughout the county.

This year, we took the daring step of modifying Crispina’s original pattern in order to eliminate the need for sewing machines (even though our teens proved terrific at putting pedal to the metal and machine-seaming with abandon). Instead, we’ve been gathering in groups throughout the building, tying fringes, threading drawstrings and creating relationships as well as bags. Many dozens of individual congregants, from third-graders to grandparents, have participated in this year’s project so far.

The tee-totes are appealing both for being eco-conscious and green, as well as for the “hamisha,” the handmade touch. They are labor-intensive, although that, too, has a silver lining of encouraging participation and building community. We have been fortunate that the extra effort required by making each bag ourselves has been offset by delegating some of the administrative work to an online service. Ari Green and have been invaluable in providing database support for emailing congregants, soliciting volunteers, coordinating orders, and setting up driving routes – and their help has made it possible to put in the necessary hours for cutting and completing almost 400 bags.

We’ve made our dresser drawers a little neater and our earth a little cleaner by responsibly upcycling clothing that might otherwise have been thrown out. But truly, the best part of this project has been watching our wonderful Temple Beth Or community become suffused with the excitement of the alchemy of creating something wonderful out of something else – and watching that joy spill over to Purim holiday preparations. Now I’m just hoping that we can find snacks, sundries, and surprises which will be as much fun to receive as the T-shirt tote bags have been to make!

Make your own eco-friendly mishloach manot bags for Purim using this tutorial from textiles designer Crispina ffrench.

Eco-Friendly Mishloach Manot: Doing Good Having Fun

Temple Beth Or clergy, educators, congregants, & religious school students model their mishloach manot bags.

Robin Messing Bogdanoff is a member of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, N.J.