While Americans battle the enemy and howling desert winds in the Middle East, Leesburg resident Joan Williams sits in her cozy living room and knits. And knits. And knits. Making clothing for the troops is a role she's grown used to. She also performed it in the two world wars.
As a child, Williams, 84, helped her mother knit in Britain during World War I. She knitted socks and sweaters a generation later in Loudoun County during World War II.
Today, she's again putting nimble fingers to work, producing head warmers. The four-inch-wide headbands fit over the forehead and ears to help a soldier get through the cold desert night.
"People are desperate because they feel there's nothing they can do" while the Persian Gulf War wears on, Williams said. "Here's something they can do," she said, to weave physical and emotional links, one yarn loop at a time, with relatives and neighbors in the Middle East.
The energetic widow, who moved to Leesburg 53 years ago but retains a distinctive British accent and demeanor, works part time at the local hospital and at historic Oatlands Plantation.
Still, there's always time for knitting.
"I can watch television and can read while doing this," she said. "All my brains are in my hands."
Williams was recruited for her third wartime project by Judy Brinegar and Laura Edwards, who own the Knitting Place in Leesburg and are giving out free yarn and directions to people willing to spend two hours to produce a head warmer.
The headbands will be shipped individually to front-line troops by Loudoun Help From Home, a volunteer group.
Since the effort began last week, according to Brinegar, several dozen head warmers have been completed and about 400 are in progress.
The idea originated with the Rev. Gary Hensley, a chaplain stationed in the Saudi Arabian desert.
Hensley wrote to his sister, LaVerne Hensley, an avid knitter in Pennsylvania, asking that she and her friends make some of the headbands.
The project has spread rapidly. Organizers say nearly 3,000 head warmers have been completed nationally in the last two weeks.
Air Force Capt. Sigmund Adams, a Pentagon spokesman, said he "can't imagine there would be a problem" with the troops wearing the head warmers to bed, though he said their use might be restricted during duty hours.
The bands are designed to fit under helmets and are being made in muted colors, such as gray and off-white.
Knitters are asked to use acrylic yarn rather than wool because it washes well.
Brinegar and Edwards, who have been swamped with requests for headband kits, have persuaded four yarn manufacturers to donate materials.
Each kit includes a card that the knitter can sign. The message concludes, "May God bless you and bring you home safely."
"People feel so helpless" watching and reading news about the war, but knitting the head warmers is excellent therapy, Edwards said. "At first we were thinking maybe we'd get enough just for the Loudoun County troops" who number fewer than 100, Brinegar said. "It's just mushroomed . . . . We may have to yell uncle."
Williams, a Quaker and pacifist, recalls knitting for her family and others in the cellar of her home in the English village of Longmelford during World War I bombing attacks.
The Suffolk countryside "was on a direct route to London for the zeppelins," Williams said. "If they got driven back, they dropped their bombs on our village" to lose weight before recrossing the English Channel.
"My grandfather started me knitting. He was a gorgeous knitter," she said. She can still recall the comforting sound of her mother "click-click-clicking" to pass the time during air raids.
Williams, who sailed to the United States in the late 1930s, said she came in "one of those shipboard romances you're warned against." In Loudoun, she became one of the county's unofficial coordinators for World War II sweater and sock production. "We were in every town and village," she said. "My word, this county knitted . . . .
"The Red Cross gave us a 'can't-go-wrong' sweater" to mass produce. "They always came up too tight in the neck or too short," Williams said. She and compatriot Mary Metzger "never actually knitted a sweater. We were alterers."
The pair put their best knitters to work producing socks with a complicated pattern, but discovered that some soldiers were using them to shine their shoes. "I just thought that was a poor do," she said.