During World War I, when Elva Hendershot was a high school student, she knitted scarves and socks for U.S. soldiers fighting overseas.

This week, Hendershot, 88, a great-grandmother crippled by arthritis in her left leg but still able to use her hands, sits in her wheelchair knitting a green cap for one of Washington's homeless people.

"It's a godsend to me, because I spend so much time in bed and this is something I still can do," Hendershot said. "I'm grateful I can at least do that."

Hendershot is one of about 30 elderly women at Thomas House, a retirement home in downtown Washington, helping to supply the homeless with hand-knit woolen scarves, caps and mittens to survive the freezing weather now gripping the area.

The Thomas House knitters, most of them in their eighties, "produce an enormous number of things. The last batch from them included 52 items they did in two weeks," said Peggy Moghadam, volunteer services representative for the American Red Cross service center at 2025 E St. NW.

Since their knitting unit began two years ago, the Thomas House women have turned out about 1,400 items, said Mildred Hoyle, the unit's resident director.

Elizabeth Smith, 79, a retired biochemist at the National Institutes of Health, has knitted more than 400 pairs of mittens. Smith, who can knit while reading, said, "The trick is, if you have knitted long enough you don't have to look at it."

Several other women said they routinely combine knitting with other activities.

"You can sit down and do it without thinking about it while you are watching television or talking or waiting for someone," Hoyle said.

The knitting goes quickly, the women said. Muriel Poland, 81, a retired college administrator, said she typically can complete a scarf in less than a week.

The Thomas House women provide nearly half of the knitted items distributed by Health Care for the Homeless, a public-private venture that runs clinics in several District shelters for the homeless and operates a van that makes evening visits to the parks, grates and other areas where the homeless congregate.

"This week, with the cold weather, we've been giving out about 60 items a day from the van," said social worker Sharon Winget, a member of the van outreach team.

Among the homeless men waiting Wednesday evening for the van to stop at Lafayette Park were Larry O'Dell, who needed a scarf, and William Brown, who received the last pair of mittens.

"We have scarves and caps, but we need more mittens," Winget said.

Winget said the Thomas House knitters and other volunteers who supply the caps, scarves and mittens "have done a really wonderful thing for the people on the street" because most of the homeless do not have the warm clothing they need for this kind of weather.

The Thomas House knitters said their project was started in October 1985 by Elva Marquard, a retired federal worker who lives at Thomas House and who had been doing volunteer work for Moghadam at the Red Cross office.

"Peggy {Moghadam} had just had a request from Health Care for the Homeless for 600 garments -- 200 scarves, 200 caps, 200 pairs of mittens -- and she was looking for knitters," Marquard said.

"I said maybe somebody at Thomas House would be interested," Marquard said. "So Peggy gave me a poster that said, 'Knitters Wanted,' and I put it on our bulletin board."

The sign first attracted Vivian Deimel, 81, a retired bank employee, who agreed to participate and who then brought in another resident, Marquard said. "One knitter would recruit another, so I didn't have to work at it," she said.

Eventually, a production system evolved, with the Red Cross office on E Street providing the yarn and the residents at Thomas House, 1330 Massachusetts Ave. NW, doing the knitting.

Marquard served as courier, making the 30-minute trip on foot and by bus, hauling yarn from the Red Cross office to Thomas House, then taking the completed work from Thomas House back to the Red Cross.

"I put the limit at 15 skeins of yarn -- that is only about three pounds, but it is bulky and handling it on the bus isn't easy, especially when it is raining and the weather is bad," Marquard said.

Three months ago, Marquard turned over the knitting project to Hoyle.

"The best part of the job is the attitude of the people and why they are doing it -- because they know they are helping someone they couldn't help otherwise," Hoyle said. "They can't get out and go to a lot of meetings, but they can stay at home and do this."