Knitting as Public Service

Photo via Becca

Today’s guest post is from Becca Freed, who was there for the birth of Help a Mother Out, even if she (and we) didn’t know it at the time. As she describes below, this past spring Becca organized a learn-to-knit benefit party for the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, which both Lisa and I attended. With apologies to Becca — who was a thoughtful, extremely patient instructor — for us the most salient lesson of the day was about the crucial work done by the WDDC, and about their urgent needs. That day, everything clicked, and a few days later, Lisa and I started sketching out a plan for a Mother’s Day diapers-and-wipes donation drive, newly dubbed Help a Mother Out. We may not have quite gotten the hang of knitting yet, but only because we’ve been too busy trying to make good on the connections and inspiration we got that day.


Some knitters seem to think there is no problem that can’t be solved by knitting something. Whether it’s for servicepeople deployed to combat zones or a neighbor who’s lost everything in a house fire, a certain type of knitter will always leap into the breach and organize a drive to knit socks or a cozy blanket or a prayer shawl.

I’ve been knitting and crocheting since childhood, and don’t get me wrong–I’ve done my fair share of charity needlecraft, starting with granny-square lap robes for my local nursing home when I was in junior high. I just don’t think that knitting is the right response for every problem. For one thing, it’s slow. Do you know how long it takes to knit even a preemie cap? If handknits were really the solution to a problem, there would be a serious imbalance between supply and demand. That’s a bit facetious, but I wonder if all that knitting time wouldn’t be better spent lobbying or protesting for change, and whether knitted donations aren’t more about gratifying the the donor than fulfilling a need.

I had these doubts in mind when I approached the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center and asked if they needed a knitting teacher. I suspected my own motives and wondered whether I was offering something frivolous. But the volunteer coordinator assured me that to teach knitting to homeless and low-income women was to give them something of value –that the center’s clients needed more than just food, clothing, and shelter. I was reminded by this that homeless women and children are whole people; by offering a knitting class I would be honoring their creative impulses.

I’ve been teaching knitting and crochet at the center for about a year and a half now, and I see that the women and older kids do benefit from it. I’ve seen a piece of knitting in someone’s hands that takes their mind off anxieties and drug urges. Knitting can fill time waiting in social service offices, or waiting for the overnight shelter to open in the evening. A handmade hat or bag could be something to sell. But more frequently the clients benefit from knitting or crocheting the same ways that I do: acquiring a new skill is stimulating and satisfying; needlecrafting with a group is a nice way to socialize; and there’s just plain sensual pleasure in having beautifully colored and textured yarn running through your fingers.

Teaching at the Drop-in Center is fairly different from conducting a class at, say, a yarn store. Unstructured is the name of the game. I never know who will be there or what their skill set will be, so having a specific lesson to get through or project to finish is out of the question. Most of the time I teach casting on and the basic knit stitch (the very first steps to learning how to knit) over and over–and that’s OK. The clients at the center don’t know where they will be from week to week, and sometimes their stuff gets stolen because they’re living in a shelter with no secure storage. It’s fine with me if they take their supplies with them, or I can hold onto them from week to week. If I have to give someone a fresh set of needles and yarn every time they come, that’s not a problem. I rely on donated materials (but fellow knitters keep me supplied with yarn), and I’ve found some cheap sources of needles and crochet hooks.

I have to be ready for anything, including women who challenge my skills; I’m not a great crocheter, so I’ve had to brush up in order to help them. Often women have learned from their mothers or grandmothers and just need a refresher, and then it’s very possible that they’ll surpass my know-how.

I also get challenged personally on occasion, maybe by a client who’s in a volatile mood and ready to argue. That’s one of the ways that this volunteer gig has forced me to stretch and step out of my own comfort zone. I’ve learned to stay calm (at least on the outside) and communicate assertively. Even if my first impulse is to get out of the conflict by leaving the situation, I can ride it out and retain a respectful relationship with the client (and still mostly respect myself).

As much as I doubted my motives when I began, I also doubted my abilities. I doubted that I would know how to talk to women with lives so different from mine, and I was afraid of inadvertently saying something insensitive. With the volunteer coordinator’s help, I came to understand that it doesn’t take any special skill to meet someone where they are. You just listen to them, and respond the way you’d like to be talked to yourself.

I’ve also never thought that I had what it takes to be a teacher–I lack patience, and I can have a sharp tongue. But I’ve learned that I do know how to impart this particular skill, step by step, to another person. I can say “No, that’s not it–do it this way” nicely and without frustration, and I can cheer a client on when she gets the tricky part, and makes it to the end of the row. The opportunity for this kind of personal growth has really been a gift from the women to me. And more than anything else, being able to share my enthusiasm for knitting is very rewarding–I get a charge out of watching the clients ooh and ah over yarn or admire what they’ve made.

Of course the center is constantly scrambling for funds–it takes a lot of money to provide services to 150 women and children a month, including lunch every weekday. Last spring I hosted a “learn-to-knit” party with a good friend, to raise funds for the center and raise its profile among my friends and acquaintances. As a moneymaker it was modestly successful, but snagging the support of Rachel and Lisa of Help a Mother Out was a huge win.

I hope my tale shows that sharing your passion with the world is not frivolous, and can reap benefits you never expected.


You can help the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center by purchasing supplies off their wishlist here. Enormous thanks to Becca for introducing us to both the WDDC and the world of knitting.