Quiet laughter and light conversation drift from the common area of the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center (CERSC). Seven women sit around a large table on the first floor, knitting needles clicking as fingers deftly wrap yarn and pull stitches. These are the Knit Witz, and they’re up to something good.
Barbara Franklin sits at the end of the table crocheting squares that will be sewn together into a blanket as part of the Linus project – a national drive to get blankets to critically ill children between ages 2 and 18.
Across the table are Tina Parks and Trudi. Parks holds up a blanket with a zigzag design. When finished, it will be a gift to someone who needs it.
Trudi’s daughter, Renee, is working on a circular loom. She is able to produce warm, knitted hats by working yarn over a series of pegs on the loom. She doesn’t knit, but the loom allows her to create hats and join her mother in the knitting circle.
Knitted squares gather on the table and Patricia Railing finishes the edges of each square with a strand of pastel-colored yarn.
The women try to place the time they started gathering. Several minds are better than one as we age.
Years ago, in 2007, Sarah Eliassen was recovering in a local hospital.
“I was going ape because there was nothing to do,” Eliassen said.
As soon as she could get out again, she and her friend, Dee Bowns, started attending exercise classes at the senior center. After a few weeks, the women decided they wanted to gather more often and toyed with ideas.
“I can knit,” Bowns said.
“I can pearl,” Eliassen replied.
And a small knitting group started.
Betty Burke, known lovingly to most residents at CERSC as Nurse Betty, gave them the name their name.
“Knit Witz with a Z,” Railing noted.
The circle started with Bowns, Eliassen, Thelma Hodges, Catherine Platel and her husband, Walter, Railing and Doreen Lowe.
“She (Lowe) was quite the knitter,” Eliassen said.
The women taught each other, and anyone who wanted to learn. They started sewing 9 by 7-inch squares for Warm Up America and continued to knit for different charities. The group has made hundreds of blankets for social services, police and fire departments. Blankets are used to comfort children in trauma.
The Knit Witz produced blue and gold scarves and hats for the Alaskan Special Olympic athletes. They’ve made hats and scarves for Covenant House and hats and mittens for the children at Chugiak Children Services. Trudi is working on shawls for children and adults undergoing cancer treatment.
“Of course, we may spend time on our own projects as we get close to the holidays,” Franklin said with a smile.
As word of the charitable knitting group grew, donors started bringing spare wool and thread to the senior center. An extra closet was cleared out for the yarn. Former staff member Ray Johnson built shelves and the group acquired plastic bins to store the yarn.
The room is now arranged by type, weight and color. Bins separate baby yarn, from heavier weights. A few bins hold bulky skeins good for colorful scarves. There wasn’t a shortage of colors. Railing gave a tour of the room, pointing out an empty space near the door.
“New yarn goes here, and then we sort it,” members of the group explain.
Yarn is never wasted. Parks points to a small, multi-colored blanket on the table.
“This is all made from ends,” she said.
Gloria Fierro tells a story of a young man moving to yet another foster home. He wouldn’t leave the building until he had “Grandma’s blanket” that had been with him for several homes. It represented a single constant in an unpredictable world. Gloria says that story of a gifted blanket comforting a child reminds her of how important their work is.
A few feet away Railing stands over nine squares, arranging and rearranging them until she backs up, tilts her head for a different view and asks the women for feedback. Nods and approval answer her request. She carefully stacks the squares in the correct order for sewing.
“Oh. My clothes!” Franklin exclaims recognizing conversation has taken her attention away from timing of the dryer where her garments are.
Franklin sets down her crocheting and heads to the laundry room to put her clothes in the dryer. Some of the women live at the senior center, others come just for knitting days.
Lowe drops by during a walk through the halls. She doesn’t knit much anymore. Life has its challenges and knitting has become difficult. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you she was the best knitter of all, teaching many of the knitters over the years.
According to the group there are probably about twenty knitters and crafters who gather twice a week for the sessions.
Anna Marie Oudel sat down to knit for an hour. Daisie Barnes had to leave for an appointment. Lowe and her aide moved on and Tina started to pack up her project. It was nearing 5 p.m. – the end of the session. They women each offer to take something to the storage closet, and one by one, they head home. They’ll be back. The yarn never stops coming. As long it shows up, so will the Knit Witz.
The Knit Witz meet Monday and Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. Anyone of any skill level is welcome to join them.
Editor’s Note: Gretchen Wehmhoff is a member of the ECHO News team and a long-time resident of Chugiak. She is a former long-time teacher at Chugiak High School.