Jeanie Shaffer doesn’t watch television. She’s too busy making tiny hats by hand.
“It gives me something to do, and it’s needed,” said Shaffer, who lives in Hyndman, Pa., about a 15-minute drive from the hospital in Cumberland, Md.
Several nights a week, the nonagenarian sits in silence, carefully cutting 10-inch pieces of white fabric. She uses a folding technique to create a dome-like shape with no seams — which is safer for delicate newborn skin, then fastens colorful ribbons around the top to secure everything in place. It takes her about 15 minutes to make each hat. No sewing is involved.
Although the process is simple, Shaffer said, it’s meaningful knowing her handmade hats will be placed on the fragile heads of infants, just seconds after birth.
“I get a happy feeling when I’m making the hats,” she said. “I love babies, and I just want them to have a warm head and a good start to life.”
Plus, she added, the hats aren’t solely for show. They serve a medical purpose and are critical for regulating body temperature.
“Babies come from being inside a nice warm mom to a cool environment, and they can lose heat very quickly,” Heidi Quinn, a nurse at UPMC Western Maryland, explained. “We’re very conscious of their temperature control, and a hat makes a world of a difference.”
For parents, “it means a lot knowing that someone took their time to make the hats,” Quinn continued. “It’s one of the things they want to take home with them. It has a lot of sentimental value.”
If not for volunteers, the hospital would purchase premade hats, or nurses would make them during rare breaks, Quinn said. But thanks to Shaffer’s dedication, UPMC Western Maryland is well-stocked with tiny toques.
Shaffer first started making the hats in 2006 at her church, after a labor and delivery nurse enlisted congregants to make newborn hats. A group of volunteers met once a month, “and I just said, ‘Well, I could also make them at home,’ ” Shaffer recalled.
So began her regular hat-making routine. In addition to doing daily word-search puzzles, Shaffer said her primary hobby for the past 15 years has been crafting caps for newborns.
The hospital provides her with rolls of white stockinette stitch fabric — which is the optimal material to regulate body temperature in babies — and Shaffer purchases her own blue and pink ribbon at Walmart to add a personal touch.
“I generally buy three or four of each color, and that lasts for a good while,” Shaffer said.
About once a month, a hospital employee delivers fabric to Shaffer’s home, in exchange for a box of 80 to 100 of her completed hats.
“It’s always good to get another box done,” Shaffer said, adding that making the hats gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
For several months during the coronavirus pandemic, Shaffer had to stop making the hats, as the hospital avoided bringing in outside materials. But in late February, she resumed.
“I couldn’t wait until I was able to do it again,” Shaffer said.
She takes the hat-making process very seriously and remains laser-focused on the task at hand — no background music, no cup of tea and no side conversations are had, she said. It’s all about the hats.
“When I’m doing the hats, I’m really doing them. That’s all I do,” said Shaffer, who lives with her husband of nearly 70 years. They have seven children, 15 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren — a number of whom were born at UPMC Western Maryland and were recipients of Shaffer’s hats.
But the vast majority of the cap-wearing infants are total strangers. In fact, until recently, Shaffer never saw photos of the fresh babies, warming up in her handmade hats.
To honor Shaffer’s continued volunteer efforts, staff at the hospital decided to create a photo album for her, filled with images of hatted infants.
The hospital called out to parents on Facebook, asking for photo submissions of babies born any time after 2007, wearing their hospital hats. Within a day, nearly 1,000 photos poured in of tiny newborns in their first minutes of life.
“What she’s been doing for 15 years is very special, and I wanted to show her that,” said Tracey Clark, who works in the hospital’s marketing department and spearheaded the photo album project. Clark’s own daughter wore one of Shaffer’s hats when she was born, and it’s still tucked away in a baby box, along with other cherished items from their hospital stay.
“My daughter is almost 6, and I still remember the very moment they put that hat on her,” she said. “Each hat really is made with love.”
Other parents shared similar sentiments.
“There is something so heartfelt about handmade things,” said Penni Lewis-Smith, 46, whose wife gave birth to their son Jeremiah on May 7. “The hat just snuggled right up to his little head. It fit perfectly.”
“Knowing this lady is 90 years old and made 11,000 hats, and one of them was for my child, it was a special connection,” Lewis-Smith added.
Wendy Ruberg, 39, whose daughter Palmer was born in December 2019, agreed.
“You think it’s just a hat, but it’s such a special part of the whole birth experience,” Ruberg said. “As soon as she was born, they put that little hat on her, and she was warm and happy. It was a really wonderful experience.”
The hat is now displayed in Ruberg’s home in a shadow box frame, along with a pregnancy test, hospital bracelets, a sonogram image and other newborn paraphernalia.
“I don’t think Jeanie realizes how grateful parents are to have her doing this,” Ruberg said.
Recently, Shaffer learned the impact of her labor of love. When hospital staff presented her with the photo album as a Mother’s Day gift in May, she realized just how appreciated her tiny hats truly are.
“It was really a shock to me that they had done something like that,” said Shaffer, who said she was teary while looking through all the photos. “It was a great feeling. I’m just glad that I can do something to help people.”
The show of gratitude, she said, has encouraged her to keep going.
“I’ve always said I want to live to be 100,” Shaffer said. Either way, she vowed, “As long as I’m able to make them, I will.”
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