With needles and yarn, group spreads warmth

September 5, 2011

A pack of Northern Virginia women toting knitting needles, spools and bags stuffed with yarn take over a small conference room Friday mornings at a senior center in Sterling.

For two hours once a week, this is their factory. And they mean business.

They belong to the Cascades Senior Center’s Knit and Crochet Group, an organization of about 35 women who provide hand-knitted items to those in need. Founded in 2001, the group has donated more than 3,500 hats and 2,700 afghans to homeless shelters and hospitals and soldiers overseas.

“We lose count with the other items,” said founder Judy Hayes, 72, of Sterling. “But I assure you, we keep a real fast pace around here.”

One of the group’s most industrious members is Hong Liew, who doesn’t use patterns but instead makes up the designs as she goes along. Liew, 77, was born in Vietnam, where, as a young girl, she whittled her first knitting needles out of bamboo.

“Vietnam is a small country, and we didn’t have these things available,” she said. “So, I bought sand paper and knives and made them from scratch.”

In 1975, she and her family came to the United States so that her husband could work for a U.S. company. She has been a member of the Cascades knitting group for nearly a decade and calls it a home away from home.

“I feel so warm here,” she said, “like it is a big family. I look forward to this time every week.”

Members must be seniors and although men are welcome, be warned: It’s girl-talk time. Members must have some knitting experience. To maintain a quick pace and high output, instruction is generally not a part of the curriculum.

“If someone needs a refresher, of course we all help out,” said Fran Schmidt, one of the original members, who lives in Potomac Falls. “But we try to make sure everyone keeps up.”

Typically, Hayes said, smaller items such as hats and scarves can be made in one session. Larger and more complicated items, such has afghans, quilts and sweaters, can take several weeks.

A 40-year resident of Sterling, Hayes decided to form the group after retiring from the Department of the Interior 10 years ago. For yarn, she reached out to the Good Shepherd Alliance, a nonprofit organization with thrift stores in Northern Virginia, and asked the Cascades Senior Center to provide a meeting ground. She used the newspaper to get the word out.

“I knew we had talent here,” Hayes said. “It was just matter of getting us together.”

Within weeks, the Cascades Knit and Crochet Group blossomed into a senior sorority of sorts, and it now draws around 20 women each week.

“We keep a real sense of humor about it,” she said. “But, in the end, we want this group to be about who you knit for rather than what you’re knitting.”

Even though the group’s members have no shortage of people in their lives to knit for, they give all their items to charity.

“There are a lot of people out there who just don’t have these things, things we take for granted like hats and scarves to keep warm in the winter,” said Ann Marie Williams, 84, of Ashburn, who is expecting her seventh great-grandchild but rarely knits for family members. “I come here to help,” she said.

They hail from all over the world, including Colombia, India and Nigeria, and knit for the homeless, premature babies, long-term care residents and hospital patients. Last year, they also crocheted camouflage hats for troops in Afghanistan. Longtime member Carlas Starling, who grew up in Tysons Corner, has a son overseas.

These personal connections tie the group together. Although each member has her signature tools, patterns and styles — Schmidt likes to make Redskins-themed hats; Marianne Simons, 72, is known for her dazzling colors — together they resemble a patchwork quilt. They are a checkerboard of characters woven together by a few common threads: knitting, charity and motherhood.

“Mothers love to cover people,” Simons said, laughing. “And boy, is this a group of moms. This way, we get to cover up people we don’t even know.”

The Knit and Crochet Group plans to complete 180 projects this fall and seeks donations of yarn, preferably full-ply acrylic. Donations can be taken to the Cascades Senior Center, 21060 Whitfield Pl., Sterling. For information, call 703-430-2397.

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