NEW FREEDOM, Pa. — For generations, animal feed bags have been recycled by creative and thrifty rural women.

Earlier generations of grandmothers and great-grandmothers turned colorful, printed cotton animal feed bags into everything from curtains to underwear to Sunday dresses, saving and matching the yardage in each bag until enough was on hand to complete the desired project.

Then, along came burlap as a feed bag material, followed by plastic feed packaging. While more sturdy and water-resistant, today’s plastic feed bags have little value for household purposes.

York County resident Mary Magenta sees them differently.

When the self-taught artist spied a neighbor disposing of some colorful, plastic animal feed bags one day last April as she was driving home, she promptly stopped her vehicle and asked if she could have the throwaways.

“What are you going to do with them?” the neighbor inquired, handing the empty horse feed bags to the avid recycler.

“I don’t know, but I’ll figure something out,” Magenta replied. A remodeler by trade, with honed skills in carpentry and plumbing, Magenta operated her own business, Women On The Level, for several years in Baltimore.

“I have a real passion for recycling things,” she said.

Back home, she began experimenting with making a tote bag from the colorful plastic feed sacks, inventing the design as she went.

“I ruined the first five or six,” Magenta said about her first attempts at tote-making. “But, as a remodeler, I’m used to having to solve problems.”

Before long, she had perfected the cutting, shaping and stitching that turned the throwaway feed bags into durable and handy multi-purpose totes, complete with handles and reinforced with cardboard secured in the bottoms for extra strength.

Magenta had already been attending a few area farmers markets with her original-art calendars, notecards, T-shirts and dish-drying towels. With their bright, colorful artwork of animals — horses, cattle, pigs, goats, dogs, cats — the plastic totes fit well as an item to offer at markets featuring local produce and handcrafted items.

“Farmers markets are ideal for what I do, because they only run for a few hours at a time. You don’t need to be there for a couple of days or a whole weekend,” Magenta said. “And, the shoppers often find they need something to carry the produce they’ve purchased.”

And, because many market customers return week after week, they have time to build relationships with sellers.

When not marketing her totes or collecting them from numerous people in the area who have learned of her recycling niche, Magenta can be found for hours at a time at one of her two sewing machines. They are her workhorse tools for stitching layers of plastic over recycled cardboard shapes for the bag bottoms, then stitching the body of the tote to the reinforced bottom. A final touch is the addition of handles.

“They are very labor-intensive,” she said of the effort involved in converting a feed bag into a carrying bag. Early on, she cut the bottoms off each bag, one at a time, with a heavy-duty, slicer-knife-type paper cutter. Having made 373 of the totes since she began, Magenta has since fine-tuned the process and now cuts several at a time, using a rotary cutter tool.

Tapping into her carpentry skills, Magenta devised a method for folding and creasing the plastic strips used as handles into multi-layers for extra strength, pulling them through a sort of “ironing” mechanism. Putting a heavy plastic carpenter’s square between two pieces of board, she C-clamped the device to a work table. By folding the flat plastic strip, then compressing it by pulling it under pressure exerted by the clamped, plastic square, the resulting creases are set neatly in the plastic strip and more easily stitched on her sewing machines. She also penciled measurements on the bottom board of the device, indicating where the handles should be placed on each tote, thus eliminating the need to measure each one

“I use all zigzag stitching,” Magenta said. “And I only use polyester thread, because it’s more water-resistant and longer-lasting than cotton.”

Once, when a thermal cup of coffee she tucked into a tote she was using accidentally spilled, she was pleased to discover that the tote was also watertight.

When a fellow market vendor asked if she could make a round tote for displaying apples, Magenta experimented until she came up with a new design for that purpose. She has since added that now-popular item to her line.

For her produce display bags, she located pre-cut, round cardboard bottoms, used by bakeries as cake bases, eliminating the need to cut each one by hand.

Recently, a Baltimore friend with a bike shop suggested that Magenta design courier-delivery bags, a sort of shoulder-bag used by bike delivery services around the city. They now are working together to perfect the design, gathering feedback from some of the bike shop’s customers. Handles on the bags need to be adjustable, so Magenta has had to reconfigure the handle design and incorporate adjustable hardware. A small tab is also sewn on the outside to accommodate a light for night delivery safety.

“I never saw this coming,” Magenta said of the rapid growth in demand for the recycled totes, along with her sales of items featuring her colorful, sometimes whimsical, paintings of everyday things. In April, she is scheduled to participate in a large convention trade show at Turf Valley Resort in Maryland with her designs.

Magenta began experimenting with paint and art mediums as a teenager, when her older brother, who was studying art in New York City, died in a tragic boating accident. His art materials were sent back home, where Magenta decided to see what she could do with paints and a brush.

One of her early projects was a calendar made as a gift, using a different painting for each month. In succeeding years, the calendars caught the attention of others, who wanted to buy them. The current one, her 44th annual calendar edition, salutes “good food,” with monthly colorful paintings of a variety of vegetables, patterned from produce she grew in her own garden.

Magenta’s remodeling business developed after she spent several years working with and learning from her grandfather, whom she affectionately calls a “master craftsman and woodworker.” He invited his 20 grandsons to come and learn the business, but it was Magenta who took him up on the offer and showed up to learn the trade.

She later spent many years in Kentucky, working with a communal farm started by college classmates, utilizing the carpentry and plumbing skills she had learned, as well as establishing her artistic sideline. Before moving back East, she lived and worked for a few years in Seattle, Washington.

“It’s good to be back here among my family,” she said about returning to her roots. She was raised not far away, in Parkton, Maryland.

While she still practices her remodeling trade, an increasing amount of Magenta’s time is being devoted to recycling feed sacks. She continues to search for new ones to fill customer requests, especially those feed bags with harder-to-find animal photos, like rabbits. Recently, she spoke with two visitors from India, and asked them what their favorite animal was. Their reply: “Elephants.”

Magenta doubts she’ll ever find a feed sack depicting one of those.

For further information, Mary Magenta may be contacted by way of a text to 270-792-1057, or via the internet at

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.