My Grandmother’s Hats

Near the end of her life my grandmother made hats – lots of hats. Most of them made from cheap acrylic yarns and most sized for children. She lived alone and spent much of her time sitting in her apartment watching C-SPAN and knitting. At the time her apartment was a few blocks from my office so I went to visit her about once a week and we’d chat about current events, politics, and whatever else was on her mind. If you went to visit her during the winter and you were not wearing a hat when you arrived (and since she was on the 19th floor I usually took my hat off in the elevator) you were strongly encouraged to take a few to keep warm when you left.

Blue and white handmade hat.
This is one of the hats I still have, made from yarn my mother had used several years earlier for her own project.

My mother and aunt would bring her yarn from various sales and the ends of projects, and I would occasionally take a bag or two or hats with me after a visit. I tried giving them away on the street to homeless people who often slept near her apartment or my office but they weren’t usually interested. I sent a couple bags to Afghans for Afghans (before I realized they needed items made from better fiber). We sent some to a friend who taught in Buffalo (Nanny loved the picture of children wearing her hats sent in the thank you note).

Even having given away a couple bags full, when it came time for her to stop living alone we discovered there was a closet full of grocery bags stuffed with hats. We laughed at the large number of hats she had stashed away but as her last charitable act – even though it was one she never knew about – we gave them away. My wife and I gave them to school teachers who had children in need. My sister took a few hundred to a women’s shelter. And we donated them to other useful causes when we could find people about to use them. Slowly my grandmother’s work was spread across several communities.

Fibre on the shelf
Fibre in our house that isn’t used promptly may become a decoration.

In addition to working in technology, I also spin – as in make yarn from wool and other fibers. I get more or less done depending on the ebbs and flows of life, but I generally have some fiber in the process of becoming yarn on a spinning wheel. My fibre stash is small compared to some spinners’ but since lots of my fiber is either a gift or a random purchase from events like the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival instead of a specific project, I usually have extra yarn around too.

spinning wheel
My Ashford traditional, a gift from my mother-in-law. This is my primary spinning wheel, although I have a few others.
Wool yarn I made recently.
Wool yarn I made recently from fibre my mother-in-law gave me a couple years ago .

I also knit. And yes, I knit hats. Visiting in her apartment talking about the hats she was making Nanny shared – more than once – the pattern she used to make all those hats. She’d memorized it from some magazine or another years earlier (or at least a pattern like it) and so I typically make them about them same as she did:

  1. Pick a size needle that works with the yarn you have, and will result in the size you want (this takes trial and error if you aren’t an experienced knitter who knows their gage).
  2. Cast on 96 stitches (she sometimes said 76, but usually it was 96 and that appeals to my techie nature).
  3. Work 2 inches in Knit 2, Purl 2.
  4. Work 3 inches in Stockinette.
  5. Knit 2 together, Knit 6, repeat to the end of the row. Purl back.
  6. Knit 2 together, Knit 5 repeat to the end of the row. Purl back.
  7. Continue this way until, decreasing the number of stitches between each gather until your gathers start to collide. Then knit 2 together every stitch (still purl back).
  8. When you have 4 or 5 stitches on the needles, cut the yarn with about a foot of extra.
  9. Pull the end back through the remaining loops, and stitch down the open side.
This is one of mine made from some yarn that was started during a workshop I did on spinning with a drop spindle for high school kids.
This is one of mine made from some wool left over from a workshop I did on spinning with a drop spindle and some singles I used to teach a friend’s kids a little about spinning. Once plied together the variation in the singles formed a surprisingly good yarn with interesting color mixes.

I’ve made hats for friends and family, although certainly not in the volume she produced them. Last winter I realized I could use some of my stash of fiber to start making them to give away like we did with hers. And so now I have a slowly growing collection of hats (some with matching scarves) in the hopes that I am able to do something half as useful with them as we managed with my grandmother’s.

Here's one of the matching scarves. These are sized for child, but I'll probably make more sizes over time.
Here’s one of the matching scarves. These are sized for child, but I’ll probably make more sizes over time.

My grandmother was a challenging person in many ways. But she always tried to be nice to strangers and people in need. So this has become my tribute to the parts of her that I loved most.

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