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Notable Knitters group provides clothes for people in need

The Lakehouse West group has become a makeshift family since the pandemic.

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  • | 9:54 p.m. August 2, 2021
Top row: Florence Kinney, Marion Houston, Rosemary Thierry, Janet Short and Phyllis McIlraith.  Bottom Row: Hope Byrnes, Gwen Kelly, Helen Fleder and Linda Halfast
Top row: Florence Kinney, Marion Houston, Rosemary Thierry, Janet Short and Phyllis McIlraith. Bottom Row: Hope Byrnes, Gwen Kelly, Helen Fleder and Linda Halfast
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It hasn't been the case for everyone, but pandemic times have been times of emotional and physical isolation.  In spite of circumstances, though, connections have still been made. 

Such is the case in the Lakehouse West retirement community in Sarasota. The retirement home is relatively quiet as retirement homes go, but step into the card room on the second floor, and you'll hear something else entirely — hours of warm conversation amongst a group of close friends as they knit together.

Helen Fleder keeps conversation lively and makes sure everything is running smoothly. Hope Byrnes often breaks out into a cheery songs to keep spirits high. Rosemarie Thierry designs the group’s small hats. Phyllis McIlraith sits at the corner and works on a shawl while proving knitting material for the rest of the group. Linda Halfast, a new member to the group, watches McIlraith and other members work as she knits her own garment. 

For many of them, it's the best part of their week.

The Notable Knitters group, a band of women around the ages of 80, meet on Mondays to sit, converse, and of course, knit.  It’s a time for the group to share stories, jokes and knitting needles.

“We’re all so close, if someone has a birthday, we celebrate it,” Fleder said. “It’s unusual for (around 10) women who never knew each other to become as close as we are. We just blended.”

The group's time knitting together benefits the community. When the women finish a batch of garments, they’re sent out to be donated to two groups. 

Matching blankets and hats are donated to premature babies born at Sarasota Memorial Hospital while wraps and shawls are given to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy at the Lakewood Ranch Cancer Center. By this point, the group has knitted more than 100 garments,

“Whether you’re an infant baby or someone with chemo, you want something soft for them,” Fleder said.

The group found its start during the pandemic where Fleder, McIlraith and a few others wanted to do a clothing drive to help people in need. The retirement community had recently hosted one anyway so it was back to the drawing board. 

“(Fleder) mentioned knitting and I said ‘Well, I can do that’,” McIlraith said. 

A small group of women assembled — most of whom had never met — and they’ve stuck together since. McIllraith, who knits for her church, provided all the yarn, needles and other knitting materials for the fledgling group. The group's title is inspired by members' humble opinions that what they do is fairly notable. 

The Notable Knitters all come from different backgrounds. Before retirement, McIlraith was a nurse, Byrne worked on Capitol Hill while Linda Halfast was a choral director.

Members go about knitting their garments in their own ways and at their own paces. For some it can take less than two weeks to put together a shawl or blanket whereas for others it can take much longer. There's not so much a timetable as a desire to get them done quickly to be donated.

“Nobody said ‘This is what you’re going to do’,” Fleder said. “There’s no assignment.”

The group’s layout has changed along with the pandemic. They sat separated from one another while wearing masks at the start of the pandemic but now sit around tables together after being vaccinated.

Byrnes notes that they make shawls and blankets in more masculine colors for the male cancer patients just in case it makes them more comfortable. The group has had a couple of men give it a go as well, who Fleder jokes tried their best. 

Linda Halfast joined the group only a couple weeks ago and has slowly relearned the skill she used to years ago. She’s enjoyed learning from McIlraith and joining in on the conversation that goes on throughout each session. 

“We’re women, we can multitask,” Halfast said. 

It was never anything planned but staying together each week has bonded the women in a way they never expected. Making the shawls, blankets and hats is satisfying enough in the moment but nothing quite beats hearing that their creations are being worn by cancer patients or young babies. 

Sarasota Memorial Hospital staff have sent the group photos of premature infants wearing the Notable Knitter’s hats, which never fails to make the group’s day.

“When we dropped off the hats and blankets for infants, a staff worker said ‘God Bless you,” Fleder said. “What else could you want but that?”


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