Warmth from a Maker’s Hands: The Gift of Charity Knitting
Something about the end of one year and the beginning of another reminds us to connect with loved ones. On Giving Tuesday, let’s not forget the many people who have suffered tragedy this year. Charity knitting lets us hold out helping hands—and not just to the individual who receives a handmade donation.
What happens to the hats, mittens, scarves, blankets, and other items that people make and donate to charities? How can charity knitters know that their time and effort actually helped someone? Many knitters don’t ever see the person who receives what they created, so they can’t personally measure the impact of their work.
As it turns out, charity knitting and crocheting can involve a lot of folks. When I followed the lifecycle of some mittens, I found that they traveled from charity knitters to the nonprofit organization Mittens for Detroit and then to the Children’s Center in Detroit. I interviewed people at each of these stages and discovered that common goals knitted them together.
THE KNITTERS: JEANETTE AND DONNA
What makes a charity knitter? There are two essential ingredients:
1. A passion for knitting.
Jeanette Skutnik of Macomb Township, Michigan, has been fascinated with yarn since childhood. She watched her grandmother and mother crochet and learned knitting from her grandmother. Donna Davis of Roswell, New Mexico, started knitting at the age of thirty, when she was pregnant with her first child and wanted to make baby clothes.
2. A deep desire to help others.
“The first time I knitted for charity was for the giving tree at church during Christmastime. I made five hat, scarf, and mitten sets for a family in my community,” says Jeanette. “I have always loved to volunteer my time and talents for others, and this seemed like the perfect fit. Since then, I have made chemo hats for hospitals; lapghans for veterans; and endless numbers of hats, scarves, and mittens for others in need.”
Donna, too, has knitted extensively for charity. She says, “I found one group that needed hats for African newborns and another group, Children in Common, that needed wool items for orphans in Eastern Europe and Russia. Then I saw one for St. Anthony’s in San Francisco called Scarving Artists. I’ve always liked San Francisco, and scarves are fast and easy. I would take up to 200 scarves to a show and sell them to help cover the postage of other things I was sending by mail, and leftover scarves went to St. Anthony’s. Next, I donated scarves to local groups like the nursing home and a group that helps kids with a parent in prison. After about a year, I started to do mittens.”
Both Jeanette and Donna take a thoughtful approach to charity knitting. Jeanette chooses her projects based on need: “The way I usually decide which project to knit or crochet next is what is in demand at the moment. If Mittens for Detroit needs fingerless mitts, which pair well with the Dollar Store gloves they receive, I knit those. Fortunately, it’s one of my favorite patterns to knit.” Donna realized that she could improve her knitting as she made items for donations. She says, “I learned a lot about different yarns and how they knit up, how to put several yarns together, and what size needles to use with different yarns by knitting scarves. I like the two-needle pattern (Lion Brand Yarns’s Toasty Knitted Mittens) for mittens, and DK or worsted is my favorite weight. I really enjoy working with wool. And I love bright colors and self-striping yarns.”
THE COLLECTORS: MITTENS FOR DETROIT
Mittens for Detroit (MFD) collects and distributes tens of thousands of new mittens and gloves, either commercially made or handmade, every year. As of this writing, it has distributed nearly 170,000 pairs, and may go over that number by the time Interweave Knits Holiday 2017 goes on sale. The charity began its life in 2010, when actress Erin Cummings, moved by trick-or-treaters with cold, bare hands, began passing out mittens and gloves to folks in the metro Detroit area. Her simple act grew into an enormous charitable effort that Erin knew she couldn’t handle on her own; to help her manage the day-to-day operations, she hired Wendy Shepherd as executive director. “Stitchers in Michigan as well as around the country send us hundreds of handmade mittens every year,” says Wendy. “Our volunteer sorters always stop and comment on the kindness and generosity of the knitter. This leads to conversation about how it must make the recipient feel to receive these warm gifts of love. We are so touched by this giving.”
MFD’s volunteers include people such as Barb Caddy, whom Wendy calls a “mittens ambassador.” A knitter herself, Barb happily promotes Mittens for Detroit everywhere she can. She sets up raffles to raise money for the charity. She shares Wendy’s MFD Facebook posts on her personal Facebook page and on the Facebook page of a Detroit-area knitting guild, the Black Sheep Knitting Guild. “And I mention [Mittens for Detroit] at the different knitting circles and groups I belong to,” Barb says.
Barb and many other volunteers also participate in The Big Sort, an annual series of sorting parties. At these events, helpers go through all the mittens and gloves donated during MFD’s collection season (October 1 to January 31) and distribute them through their network of charitable partners. Barb loves “seeing the number of mittens that are donated; it makes me feel good that my work might be encouraging others to help.” Sue Schneider, another volunteer at The Big Sort, finds the handknitted donations especially inspiring. She says, “I am a visual artist and a sporadic knitter. Knitting for a cause is good incentive [for me] to keep it up. Volunteering for Mittens for Detroit inspired me to finally finish [and donate] a pair of mittens that my kids outgrew years ago. There’s a lot to be said about helping others. It gives me a sense of purpose and connection to my community.”
LAST STAGE: THE CHILDREN’S CENTER
Donated and sorted mittens leave Mittens for Detroit and head for a partner charity such as The Children’s Center in Detroit. This wide-ranging organization offers foster care, Head Start and after-school programs, and behavioral health services; annually, it assists 7,500 children and their families living at or below the poverty line.
How do handknitted mittens fit into the Center’s mission? Families served by The Children’s Center can find free mittens in the Boutique, a clothing closet and food pantry, or in December’s Holiday Shop, where parents can select gifts and stocking stuffers for their children. Holly Gorecki, who has been the Center’s director of volunteer and community engagement for over five years, oversees the volunteers who staff the Boutique and the Holiday Shop; she also works directly with kids who benefit from these programs. Holly clearly recognizes the value of charity knitting for the recipients. When I asked if she’d ever seen someone take home a handknitted donation, Holly’s voice grew warm and enthusiastic. “It’s so amazing. One child who came into our boutique—I think she was in second or third grade—had just received a new coat that day, and [then] she got to pick out accessories. We had a selection of knitted items. I can still remember the smile on her face when she got to pick things that matched her new coat. I remember her picking up one of the blankets and just hugging it.” Holly also appreciates the knitters: “The fact that these are handmade, with the intent to give to somebody in need, is even more special. I think it’s incredible that people have a passion and a talent that they’re putting to good use. And they’re thinking of others who can benefit from their talent. Many could sell what they make at craft shows, but they choose to give them to a charity. I think it’s a phenomenal thing that we need.”
The act of creating for charity seems simple enough: yarn crafter creates item and donates it to charity; charity distributes to person in need; someone’s life improves.
But the stories I heard from people involved with MFD and The Children’s Center show that the recipient isn’t the only person who benefits. Everyone involved in delivering mittens to someone in need—from the knitters to the staff and volunteers at several charities— shares in some of the special joy that comes from helping others. A handknitted pair of mittens might travel across the country from Donna in New Mexico or just across the state from Jeanette’s Michigan address. Along the way to its final destination, however, it can touch many more lives with love, understanding, and hope—Wendy, Barb, Sue, and Holly all remarked on the gift’s impact. Ask any of these women if it’s worthwhile to knit for charity, and I think they’d reply with a resounding “Yes!”
NICOLE HASCHKE is darned near obsessed with charity knitting. She blogs about the topic at www.KnittingForCharity.org, publishes a weekly newsletter called Knitting Nuggets, and released an e-book, Knitting for Charity: One Stitch at a Time, on her website in February 2017. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, Eric; her daughters, Kiersten and Elena; and their black terrier mix, Winnie.