In 1984, California yarn store owner Bonnie Greene was trying to figure out what to do about people who wanted to return a single, unneeded cone of yarn to her store.
She could not take the the yarn back, but decided if customers could be convinced to knit a simple children's cap from the extra string and donate it to the needy, everyone would be happy.In the past six years, the "Caps for Kids" Foundation Greene started has donated more than 70,000 caps to needy youngsters.
Recently, Greene was in Salt Lake City where 200 machine knitters put a spin on her idea, and - in a 24-hour "knit-a-thon" - made 363 sweaters for needy Utah youngsters.
"Making these sweaters gives us a warm feeling and we're happy we can help a lot of children keep warm this winter," said Peter Foss, president of Passap Knitting Machines-West, Inc.
Switzerland-based Passap and several other firms supplied the 200 mechanized knitting machines for the marathon.
The machines were placed side-by-side for more than 100 feet down the center of a shopping mall. The knitting apparatus clicked and clanked, their operators stretched and yawned, and the pile of red sweaters grew higher and higher.
"I'm so happy we have this wonderful opportunity to spread the word about `Caps for Kids,' " said Greene, taking a break from the knitting. Sitting on a folding cot in a vacant mall shop, Greene said nearly 400 stores nationwide participate in the program, as well as stores in Canada and New Zealand.
And while the program's primary product is caps, "Caps for Kids" encourages volunteers to make anything they choose to contribute.
The recent popularity of machine-knitting will benefit "Caps for Kids" greatly, said Alicia Bremer-Davis, spokesperson for the Knitting Machine Council of America.
The KMCA is sending free patterns called "Knits for Kids" to anyone requesting them.
The patterns include, of course, one for a cap, as well as instructions for making sweaters, blankets and scarves.
"As `Caps for Kids' becomes better known, it receives more and more requests for items like sweaters, scarves and baby blankets," Bremer-Davis said. "Providing free patterns for these items seemed like a great way for the Knitting Machine Council of America to support a really wonderful program."
The sweaters were presented to representatives of Head Start, Neighborhood House, the Salt Lake City Family Homeless Shelter and the University of Utah Hospital Children with Aids program.
While the major benefactors of the knit-a-thon are the children, companies selling knitting machines will benefit from the exposure, Bremer-Davis said.
"It's a wonderful hobby, something the whole family can enjoy," she said. "There's a real satisfaction in making an item of clothing for yourself, and there's even more satisfaction when you make something for someone who really needs it."
The stereotype of little old ladies in rocking chairs with knitting needles is being rapidly broken down as machine knitters become more popular, said Mary Beth Hayes, marketing manager for Elna Inc.
A knitting machine can cost from $200 to $2,000 or more, but it gives home knitters much more productivity than hand-knitting, said Hayes, who added that novices can create beautiful items, even if they aren't creative.
"You'll find children, fathers, doctors and lawyers using machine knitters," Hayes said.