Laura Payson has always enjoyed knitting for others. As a college student, she made argyle socks for boyfriends. Later she turned her talents to baby clothes for relatives. Now she has a different focus: knitting for those in need. Every Saturday morning at 10, Mrs. Payson joins more than a dozen residents of the North Hill retirement community in Needham, Mass., for an hour of charity knitting. The women, known as the North Hill Knitters, stitch caps, mittens, scarves, and blankets for families who are homeless or struggling.
"I love to knit, and to know that I'm doing it for something worthwhile is really nice," Payson says as she knits and purls her way through rows of a yellow baby blanket bordered in white.
Across the country, groups like this are finding pleasure in what is sometimes called community knitting. Other knitters, including men, stitch at home and during lunch hours. Collectively they form an invisible army, creating afghans, caps for newborns, security blankets for ill or troubled children, and clothing to provide warmth and comfort.
"There's a huge population of socially minded people," says Betty Christiansen, author of a new book, "Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time." "They have this gift and want to share it."
Charity knitting has an illustrious history. During the Revolutionary War, Ms. Christiansen says, farm women stuffed saddlebags with hand-knit socks, breeches, and shirts, then rode to the battlefield to deliver them. Martha Washington even organized officers' wives into a war knitting group.
Knitting needles flew again during the Civil War as women in the North and the South made socks, gloves, mufflers, and blankets. During World War I, John D. Rockefeller welcomed knitters into his Fifth Avenue mansion. President Wilson allowed sheep to graze on the White House lawn. Their shorn wool brought $1,000 a pound at a Red Cross auction. During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt set an example by knitting for soldiers.
Today, Jeanne Dykstra continues the tradition at Elegant Stitches, the yarn shop she owns in Miami. Customers gather on Wednesday mornings to knit for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every week she ships boxes filled with thin beanie hats, warm hats that troops can wear while sleeping. and thick knitted socks. As one soldier commented in a thank-you note, "It's nice to have something on your feet. A sleeping bag doesn't keep them warm."
Ms. Dykstra devotes a wall in her shop to a sampling of the thousands of letters, e-mails, and pictures she has received from troops. "It's quite heartening to make friends with these people, and to realize that you're making their lives a little bit better," she says.
One American nurse in Afghanistan thanked Dykstra for the children's socks, sweaters, and caps she has been sending. "It really helps the camaraderie," the nurse wrote. "If we give them warm clothing, their uncle is not so likely to shoot us."
Another charity-knitting program, afghans for Afghans, is collecting 900 wool sweaters and vests for schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 18. Contributions are due in San Francisco Friday for a shipment that will arrive in time for Afghanistan's harsh winter. The group also collects hats, mittens, socks, and blankets.
"People feel really grateful to have the chance to do something constructive and tangible in response to the news of such violence and deprivation and need in Afghanistan," says founder Ann Rubin. Donors range from third-graders who produce "superb" woolen hats to people in their 90s. Men also knit for the group.
"They're giving sweaters that they would be proud to have their own children wear," Ms. Rubin says. "It's a sign of respect and friendship for the Afghan people." One woman, a sailor heading to Iraq, just sent a beautiful hand-knit Aran sweater.
Another effort, a nationwide grass-roots program called Warm Up America!, has, over the years, distributed more than 250,000 afghan blankets to people in need, says Mary Colucci, executive director. Some donors contribute knitted and crocheted squares, each seven by nine inches. Volunteers then sew 49 squares together to make each afghan.
On Nov. 12, Michael's craft stores across the country will host "joining parties" for volunteers to assemble afghans. Warm Up America! will give the finished afghans to charities.
In another effort, called Caps to the Capital, Warm Up America! is collecting knitted caps for newborns in developing nations. These often are credited with saving infants' lives, according to "State of the World's Mothers 2006," issued by Save the Children. The caps will be distributed through Save the Children programs.
"We felt we could, through our network of volunteers and our long association of guilds nationally, all work together to help them," Ms. Colucci says. She adds, "I'm amazed at the generosity of knitters and crocheters. You see it in the way they share their talents."
That generosity is evident on a rainy autumn Saturday at North Hill as Payson and 15 other women gather around a long table. Their projects range from a white cable-knit sweater for a child to a red cap, a turquoise scarf, and a blue-and-white cap. As they knit and purl, hands and needles move in quiet, rhythmic arcs. In a corner of the room, the fruits of their labors fill boxes and shopping bags with a rainbow of goods for area shelters and social-service programs.
"This group has turned into a factory," coordinator Donna Kent says with a laugh. She notes that a local shop, Black Sheep Knitting, donates 90 percent of the yarn. The rest comes from individuals.
Donated supplies are common – and often essential – to these groups. Some knitters contribute leftover skeins, Christiansen says. "Or someone's grandmother will die and leave behind her stash. It often ends up with charity knitting groups."
Some charity knitting takes place in unlikely settings – prisons. At Redgranite Correctional Institution in Redgranite, Wis., about 20 men crochet hats, mittens, scarves, and blankets. They meet daily and also stitch in their cells.
"A lot of the guys like the program because it lets them give back to the community," says Mark Hess, recreation leader. Most items go to local schools, charity events, and state-sanctioned auctions that donate money to charities.
Even pets become beneficiaries of knitters' generosity, says Rae French, founder of Hugs for Homeless Animals in Franklin, Wis. As part of an international program called Snuggles, people knit, crochet, or sew blankets for animal shelters.
"The 'snuggle' gives the animal psychological and physical comfort," she says. "When they come into the shelter, they're pretty frightened. As soon as they have something tactile, it calms them down." Blankets also make the cages homier and more attractive. Pets are more likely to be adopted if there is a blanket in the cage.
The stories that warm Christiansen's heart the most involve nursing-home residents. "They've got no one left to knit for, but they keep on knitting for others. Sometimes it's the thing that keeps them going."
She suggests that those wishing to get involved in charity knitting check with local shelters, transitional housing groups, and nursing homes to see if they accept knitted items. Yarn shops and local branches of the Salvation Army, YMCA, or Red Cross can suggest places to donate. Churches and schools are also aware of those in need in the community.
Summing up the benefits of charity knitting, Christiansen says, "The things that tend to divide our country so much don't matter when you're knitting for others. You're all working for a common cause. In a world where there's so much division, knitting for others is pulling people together in a way that transcends their differences."