Committed Knitters Blends Community, Cause and Craft
By: Barbara Flom, Owner, Yarnify!
For the last 14 years, Committed Knitters, a volunteer organization in Chicago, Ill., has taught knitting and crocheting to detainees in Cook County Jail. The program, which runs for three hours per week on Sundays, was conceived to address the lack of weekend programs for detainees. The individuals Committed Knitters instructs have been charged with crimes but not yet convicted, and often wait years for trial. They are separated from their families, have few positive activities to fill their time and often struggle with issues like substance abuse, low self-esteem and mental illness. Many say that having something enjoyable to look forward to every week means a lot, and are very appreciative of the organization’s time with them.
Starting the program required us to convince Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart that detainees would learn useful skills, take pride in their accomplishments and build constructive social relationships within the jail community. The program began under the auspices of the Women’s Justice program, which had approximately 30 participants and one volunteer who only knew how to knit, but it quickly began to grow. The perennial appeal of the program is demonstrated by the fact that, once it started, it has continuously had long lists of individuals wanting to participate. Currently, Committed Knitters has 17 volunteers — both knitters and crocheters — working with approximately 80 detainees each week.
In these weekly sessions, Committed Knitters provides detainees an opportunity to learn new skills or improve their crafting, and to use their talents to create things for themselves, their family members and their friends. Detainees strengthen their self-confidence and self-esteem, while practicing a skill that helps them relax and escape for a while from the stressors of jail time. The crafting and social accomplishments of participants is recognized by the volunteers, officers and staff of the jail, and the shared activity helps the group to build a positive community of knitters and crocheters in an unorthodox setting. At times, detainees have even taught members of the jail staff to knit and crochet!
The Committed Knitters program also connects generations. Many participants have recalled stories of their great grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and fathers, who all at one time or another used to knit or crochet. One even shared: “This program brought me back to what I was taught as a young girl, and it brought me so much joy!”
When a participant finishes a project, Committed Knitters will send it out to the intended recipient. Often, the items are worn during visits with the detainees at the jail. Offering a way for them to make items for their children, grandchildren, or other family or friends helps the women feel like they are still connected to the people they love.
All the materials the program uses — yarn, craft tools and notions — are provided by Committed Knitters through an annual fundraiser that we call “Knit Around the Clock,” as well as through sporadic donations throughout the year. The next “Knit Around the Clock” event falls on Saturday, April 27 (yes, that’s Local Yarn Store Day!) from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. at Yarnify! in Chicago.
In addition to hosting the fundraiser, Yarnify! supports Committed Knitters by providing resources for former detainees to continue their craft. Program participants can get yarn for one project at a time from our store in order to keep knitting and crocheting. Staff have embraced the program and, in working with participants, we not only assist with yarn selection and projects, but also share endeavor to show participants that they are accepted out in the greater Chicago community.
But it doesn’t stop there… Committed Knitters has taken its efforts beyond participants’ time in jail and now sponsors a community group of about 25-30 knitters and crocheters that meets weekly at the Arts Incubator on Chicago’s South Side. The group welcomes detainees after they have been discharged, and allows them to continue advancing in their craft and sharing their skills with others.
Here are just some things participants have shared with us:
Committed Knitters means sticking to a goal and seeing it through. Build on it little by little until it’s complete. There’s no feeling like completing a goal and that’s what Committed means to me.
Stitching yarn together helps me free my mind. Making blankets for my newborn grandson lights up my heart, and I pray with every stitch I make.
This group helps with peace of mind, and provides items for our families; it helps our families not miss us so much.
This program gives me a vision that when I go home I can be a productive part of society. I have a skill now that could possibly turn into a business.
The volunteers make us feel as though we can do anything with the skills we are learning and give us hope for our future.
The program has helped me stay connected with my family; it has taught me patience.
One anecdote sums up what Committed Knitters is all about
Several years ago, there was a very young woman in Cook County Jail whom the sergeant felt could benefit from the program because she never talked to anyone and kept to herself. She came and took to crocheting so rapidly that it was as if she had done it all her life. She made purses, scarves and hats for her young daughter, who was in the foster care system, and Committed Knitters sent the items to her daughter through her social worker. We brought the young woman a book with patterns for tea cups, cookies, plates, etc., and she was astonished that we would care enough to give her the book. She made a lot of the items in the book for her daughter, then one day during a session a volunteer was admiring her work. The woman started talking about herself, the trauma she experienced as a child, her feelings of sadness at being in jail and being separated from her daughter, and she started crying.
The program showed her that she was cared about and listened to, and the experience empowered her. She was encouraged to share her thoughts and feelings with those working on her case.
We hope to expand Committed Knitters throughout the jail and reach every detainee who wants to participate.
Interested individuals can contact Committed Knitters about volunteering at 312-882-9966 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be sent to Committed Knitters, P.O. Box 15051, 1510 E. 55th Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60615-2598.