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The Place I Go: Michelle's Project Knitwell Story

The Place I Go: Michelle's Project Knitwell Story
In conjunction with launching Project Knitwell Presents: The Comfort of Knitting, we asked members of Project Knitwell to share their stories on how knitting helped them through a difficult time. Here, executive director of Project Knitwell Michelle Maynard shares how knitting a pair of socks for husband came to mean much more.

When my husband Matt, then a fit, healthy 53 year-old called me from our home in Virginia to tell me he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one of the first things I did was head for the yarn store.

It was December 2009, and I was in Rhode Island helping my mom who had undergone a lumpectomy.  After hanging up the phone, I left my mom in my dad's care and headed for a Providence yarn store.  I was looking for a dose of “yarn therapy.”  I knew I would feel calmer after squishing some alpaca and merino, and that I would walk out of the shop with some yarn ready to tackle a project and be productive.  And I knew that project would be a pair of socks for Matt.

I had been promising Matt handknit socks for several years – ever since he started teasing me about how he was going to give me $5 for a package of store bought socks so I didn’t have to spend hours knitting them.

But my need to turn to my knitting in the wake of this news wasn’t just about the socks.  For me and many others, knitting is a way to cope with stress, increase focus, and engender a sense of accomplishment during uncertain times.  Scientific research has started to back up what we knitters already know about the positive effects of knitting on the brain.

I am a life-long knitter.  My mom taught me when I was a girl, and I have turned to knitting during times of stress:  I knit Icelandic sweaters during during exam study breaks in college.   I made scarves and baby sweaters for friends in the 1990s as I traveled to international hotspots for work.  A year or so after adopting our daughter from Russia, I started an evening knitting group at a local coffee shop to help deal with the stress of being home all day with a very active, headstrong three year-old who had spent her first 17 months in an orphanage.  In those years, I knit mostly fun fur scarves and little girl ponchos.

During Matt's cancer journey, I knit a lot of thank you gifts: hats, shawls, cowls, and fingerless gloves for friends who offered meals, rides, and other support.  Of course, I knit several pairs of socks for Matt, who after receiving that first pair, never again offered me $5 for a store-bought pair.

I did a lot of knitting over the last 5 plus years in medical waiting rooms where inevitably from a screen overhead the local news is issuing a live report on the latest shooting, or the talking heads are screaming about health care or a fake judge is yelling at some guy about how he needs to pay his child support.  Knitting never failed to calm me during those waits.  I could always count on someone to start up a conversation about the color of the yarn or how they'd like to learn some day.

Medical staff usually got in on the conversation too:  “What are you knitting?”  “Is that knit or crochet?”  "How can you do that without looking?" "My wife makes fingerless gloves.”  Amid conversations about test results and scans and surgery, it was reassuring and calming  for both my husband and me  to have these humanizing, equalizing encounters with the doctors and caregivers.  I think it was to the doctors too.  My knitting provided an icebreaker, and leveled the playing field a bit.  It helped me be a quiet, supportive presence to my husband.

In Matt's final weeks, I didn't knit much because of the demands on my time that his care entailed.  In those last couple of days of his life, however, there were more quiet moments.  I picked up the needles again as I sat by his bedside, and clicked away on a pair of socks.  It gave us both great comfort.

Michelle Maynard is the Executive Director of Project Knitwell, a Washington, D.C. area non-profit that provides knitting instruction and quality knitting supplies to people facing stressful situations  in hospital, community, and other settings. Her husband Matt Sunter died in May 2015.

Knitting to Heal: Carol's Project Knitwell Story
Project Knitwell Presents: The Comfort of Knitting, is a unique book that focuses on  how to alleviate stress and offer comfort to families and caregivers facing difficult situations. More on Project Knitwell's mission, as well as 7 new patterns are included in this publication. All proceeds from Lion Brand's sale of this book go directly to Project Knitwell and the Alzheimer's Association.

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  • Ann Szkutnik Gallo

    I know exactly what she went through. My husband also had cancer. I kept a started project in a bag in the car at all times. Countless hours waiting & waiting. My husband died May 5, 2012. I now quilt as well as crochet.