Many of you may have a scratchy wool sweater, hand-knit and gifted to you by an aunt, stowed away in the back of your closet. It’s an afterthought. A relic.
But knitting is in style again. And knitters still love to share and gift their creations. This goes beyond knitting for family and friends and extends to knitting for strangers. Charitable knitting has deep roots in history. For many, knitting was a necessary skill. Today it’s more of a passion or an art, which makes charitable knitting even more meaningful.
During World War II, the American Red Cross urged women at home to “knit their bit” or knit for victory. In November 1941, Life Magazine published photos and instructions for knitting helmet liners, socks, sweaters, and even gloves. One poster emphasized the importance of knitting to the troops with a drawing of a soldier with the words, “I wonder who is knitting for me?” Eleanor Roosevelt was shown knitting at meetings or while traveling, nurses held knitting lessons while women and children bunked down in bomb shelters, even wounded male soldiers were taught to knit while they recovered. It was one of the most patriotic things those back home could do while they waited on good news from abroad. Of course, these items kept soldiers warm, but they also brought love and comfort from home.
Today, even though mass production and globalization provide cheap, plentiful goods to keep us cozy, there are many groups of knitters right here in the River Valley that still choose to dedicate time and talent, creating knitted comfort for themselves and others. Charitable knitting comes in many shapes and forms including prayer shawls, hats, or blankets to provide solace for adults or children who may be sick or recovering from trauma. Some knit to raise awareness of issues, such as suicide prevention, that are close to their heart. There are even groups that knit soft nests for orphaned baby birds or sweaters for penguins affected by oil spills or other environmental disasters. I’m a proud member of an astounding charitable knitting group myself. But our cause is somewhat more specific.
In 2012, Sharon Lloyd of Dardanelle received an email from a friend in Rogers, Arkansas, who had undergone a lumpectomy to remove cancer from her breast. During recovery, her friend found a knitting pattern for a breast prosthesis.
Yes, a knitted breast prosthesis.
Already familiar with charitable knitting, this unusual cause piqued her interest. So Sharon and her fellow knitters tested the pattern, adjusted it, selected yarn, and needles began to click. Sharon remains the lead organizer of the group known affectionately as the “Bosom Buddies.” Since 2012, the group of six knitters have crafted and delivered more than 1,000 knitted forms to women around the world. Like most missions, there is much behind the scenes.
Stephanie Bates, proprietor of Knit 2 Together, a yarn shop for fiber artists in Russellville supports the group in many invaluable ways. Tuesday nights are known as Knit Night at the shop and many fiber artists (not just the Bosom Buddies) gather to share experience, camaraderie, and coffee. The knitted breast forms are crafted from a very specific yarn which contains cotton and acrylic fiber — no wool. Stephanie places special bulk orders of this yarn in a variety of colors and allows Knit 2 Together to be a sort of home base for the group, even receiving mail addressed to the Bosom Buddies at the shop. She is far from the only supporter of the group. Many other knitters have made items bearing the group’s name, helped design promotional materials, or even donated funds to help defray the cost of yarn, fiber fill, and postage.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt knitting for soldiers, members of the Bosom Buddies make a point to knit prostheses in public to start a conversation with those around them. When asked why she chooses to create these prosthesis, Cecelia Jaffe of Clarksville says that creating the breast forms shows women that “someone cares.” Cecelia also points out that the forms are created by women for women. Unlike silicone forms, many of which are designed by men, the knitted breasts are light, washable, and more comfortable for women who have undergone a mastectomy.
All of the members of the Bosom Buddies, like Sharon, know someone who has been affected by breast cancer.
Caroline Hargus notes that she chooses to give back to women because breast cancer runs in her family. Lynn McEntire shares a similar outlook when it comes to charitable knitting. “I enjoy knitting and being able to help others through knitting is a wonderful gift,” Lynn says.
Many of the Bosom Buddies have provided knitted breast forms to family or friends, but most of the prosthesis are distributed through medical providers in Arkansas including St. Vincent’s and Baptist Health Center among others. The word about knitted breasts has spread throughout the medical community. Dr. Melanie Prince learned about them from a patient who was awaiting reconstruction. Dr. Prince commented that the patient had a great self-image in the face of challenging circumstances: “I commonly see the difficult emotional struggle that women go through after mastectomy and during the process of reconstruction.”
The breast prosthesis are not only sent to providers and patients in Arkansas. Upon request, they are sent from coast to coast across the country to states such as Ohio, Minnesota, California, Texas, North Carolina, Indiana, and Illinois. In fact, some knitted breast forms have been sent all over the world. Bosom Buddies has sent knitted breasts to patients in Honduras and Malaysia.
Each prostheses is customized based on the patient’s request. There are a variety of sizes and colors available. Most women opt for a neutral or skin tone, but the group has received requests for brighter colors such as purple, pink, blue, and even Razorback red. This is often dependent on where the patient is at in the recovery process. Each knitted breast is mailed to the patient (or healthcare provider if they prefer) with care instructions, fiber fill in the prosthesis along with extra to allow for adjustments, and a small weight to provide a comfortable fit.
Most importantly, the knitted breast prostheses from Bosom Buddies are provided free of charge. In the words of Bosom Buddy Corlene Hogg we are “women helping women.” Many recipients of the breasts donate to the cause, but this is completely optional. Many insurance plans either do not cover the full cost of a silicone or foam breast form, or they only pay for one every two to three years. And while a silicone breast prosthesis can cost around $500, each knitted breast form costs $5 to $8 to make (including postage) depending on the size.
After asking my fellow knitters why they choose to knit for this cause, I reflected on my reasons for knitting the prosthesis. While I would most definitely concur with all the comments made by the other Bosom Buddies, there are other factors to be considered. Privacy is one. Hospital gowns and exam rooms with doctors, nurses, and technicians constantly checking your breasts is bound to make patients feel exposed. Women can adjust the knitted prosthesis in the privacy of their own home. There is no paperwork required, no pain or embarrassment of undergoing a fitting.
These women have been through a difficult and painful journey. We refer to them as survivors because their body and spirit have survived a trauma. As breast cancer patients, women have so many procedures done to them, this is something that can be done for them. These women experience many unknowns and face unfathomable decisions. So much is out of their control and requires waiting either on test results, appointments, surgery, treatment, and follow-up. The knitted breast forms can be worn much sooner after surgery than silicone forms and provided to most patients within a few days to a week. There is no waiting period. It’s one small thing we can do for these survivors.
The women that receive the prosthesis often take time to share updates and appreciation. Among the comments women often say that they are not as self-conscious about hugging people. Many say that they feel like themselves again or like a new person:
“It is the first time I have felt put together.”
“I grinned like an idiot when I looked in the mirror… your thoughtfulness sent my self-confidence way over the top.”
“The comfort I am experiencing after wearing a hot, heavy prosthesis for 10 years is unbelievable.”
Bosom Buddies is an independent group of local knitters. Though we are not a 501©3 organization, we rely on kind donations. You can find more information, as well as a knitting pattern for a breast prosthesis on our Facebook page or our website www.arbosombuddies.com. Or stop by the yarn shop, Knit 2 Together in Russellville. There are also resources available through a national organization and their website, www.knittedknockers.org.