EAGLE RIVER - You typically find cotton or denim running through her sewing machine, but Chris Gaffron has been sewing a lot of plastic lately.
"It's just straight stitching, so anyone can do it," Gaffron said.
The "StitchIt" custom embroidery store owner worked on sewing old plastic feed bags from a friend's horse barn, which don't biodegrade. Gaffron and her friend talked about ways to make better use of the trash and came up with an idea to help the homeless.
"[My friend] was kind of thinking something to sit on, maybe put over their head and I said, 'Why don't we come up with something they can get into?'" Gaffron said.
Gaffron ultimately came up with the design for the "Sack Shack", which is essentially a waterproof sleeping bag made from six feed bags, which are washed.
The Sack Shack can fit a person and even their dog. Gaffron and a group of volunteers sewed 11 in one day at her Eagle River store. It takes about two hours to assemble each one. Gaffron does the work for free.
"Can you picture having to sleep outside now?" Gaffron said. "You know, now is not even that bad. Picture in the middle of winter. So, it's definitely a need."
Gaffron sent one of the Sack Shacks down to Chicago where she said it was pretty well received, but she'd like to focus on helping the homeless here in the Northwoods, particularly in Vilas County.
Northwoods Alliance for Temporary Housing Executive Director Tammy Modic told Newswatch 12 that about 70 people over the last seven years who came to stay at Frederick Place in Rhinelander spent the previous night sleeping in Vilas County. That's out of 626 individuals who came through Frederick Place since 2011.
Modic says, because of that, the Sack Shack might go to better use in bigger cities like Madison or Milwaukee (where more people end up sleeping on the streets), but she's happy the idea itself came from the Northwoods.
"It never surprises me when they come up with something like this," Vilas County Economic Development Corporation Project Manager Barry McLeane said.
Gaffron rents space in the VCEDC's "Eye on Entrepreneurs" building, where McLeane says creativity is encouraged. The building also features an artist, a studio, and a "computer geek" as McLeane describes it.
"[The business owners say] what do you think of this? What would you think of this? And then they work together to solve problems. It's just great," McLeane said.
Gaffron's next problem to solve will be making many more Sack Shacks. She'd like to make 70 for Vilas County and eventually get people to make them worldwide.
"When you're a sewer, crafter, you like to be able to use that craft to help other people and I love being able to pay it forward," Gaffron said.
Gaffron is working on an electronic template for people to download and make their own Sack Shacks. She plans to bring in Girl Scouts and the 4-H club to make the next round of sacks.