Workshop host teaches volunteers to create wigs of yarn for children with hair loss

By Akeya Dickson
Thursday, December 31, 2009

The trick to making a good Hair-Flair for Hope wig is to mix in natural blond or darker colors evenly to neutralize the magenta, electric blue or apple green strands that make the wigs pop.

"So here's the thing: when working with crazy color, these things can look clownish quick," said the charity group's founder, Sherri Sosslau. "That's why it's important to find that neutral color that blends it all together."

Sosslau, 43, sat in her living room in the District's Takoma neighborhood on a recent Sunday evening among a group of novice wig makers. All were friends or friends of friends or people who heard about her workshop through blog postings.

The 10 to 15 women -- and one man -- sat in their stocking feet on the periphery of the room, taking care to not step on the nearly 100 skeins and balls of yarn on the floor.

The group crafted wigs out of yarn and brimless caps called kufis for patients in the oncology ward at Children's National Medical Center to wear for Christmas. Sosslau said she hopes to make 100 more next year for outpatients.

"I want this to be an alternative to Locks of Love," a nonprofit group that gives hairpieces to children with long-term hair loss, Sosslau said. "Pretend play is so healthy for children, and I want teenagers to have the option to make a statement with it. Children, especially young women, can have such self-esteem issues when we don't have our hair to frame our face."

Sosslau started creating "hair falls," decorative hairpieces and wigs made of yarn and ribbon attached to elastic pieces or headbands, when she got a bad haircut. She began making the pieces for dancers throughout the country, stage performers and people who liked wearing them for fun.

She then decided to make wigs for patients who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatment, particularly children. The effort was inspired by the loss of a friend, a belly dancer who died from ovarian cancer.

"I decided in September that I was done with making the hair falls; it was a stage, and I wasn't finding it to be a true enough of a creative expression for me," Sosslau said. "When Khaihea went through chemotherapy, she wrote me a note saying that she would love to be able to wear the hair falls to feel like a goddess, but she didn't have a way to tie them in since she'd lost her hair."

Sosslau set about trying to create the wigs for the oncology patients and decided on hand-crocheted kufis after learning they couldn't incorporate wig caps with latex or elastic, which are designed for people with hair. She started putting the word out on Facebook and in knitting circles, and began hosting workshops to make the wigs, which take eight hours to make and four to 10 rolls of yarn apiece.

"I teach these workshops once a month, and the volunteers get to learn a new skill and craft in a circle," Sosslau said. "Now 70 percent of the yarn is donated, but to keep this project going, I'm going to need more volunteers, more yarn and financial contributions, too."

Mama Lucia's, a Silver Spring eatery, donates pizzas to each workshop, and a woman from Plymouth Yarn Co. donated her private stash of high-quality yarn to the sessions, Sosslau said.

Melissa Joseph, an art teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and Lincoln Middle School in Northwest Washington, found out about the project through a friend of Sosslau's and brought three fellow teachers, Georgina Sanchez, Janeth Diaz and Andrea Molina, for something different to do on a Sunday evening.

"My mom's a cancer survivor," Joseph said. "She has had it twice, so I like to volunteer with things that are cancer-related."

Aaron Gutierrez, 24, a public policy fellow with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, chose red yarn over yellow to accent the black dreadlock-looking boy's wig that he was making. "A friend told me about this," he said. "And I was really interested because it hits close to home since I'm a cancer survivor."

Gutierrez said he had eight tumors in the middle of his brain and endured two surgeries, three rounds of chemotherapy and 15 days of radiation while studying international political economy at Colorado College. He took a semester off to focus on recovery and graduated on time.

"I was actually trying to find something to volunteer for related to cancer," Gutierrez said. "I did the American Cancer Society Relay for Life for three years after I returned to school.

"I really want to make sure that I take advantage of everything out there and do everything I want to do," he said. "Being positive is half the battle."

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