Dean Kahn

Women make ‘knitted knockers’ for breast cancer survivors

Knitted Knockers volunteers sew, stuff, and package fabric prosthetic breasts on Wednesday, June 17, at Apple Yarns in Bellingham, Washington.
Knitted Knockers volunteers sew, stuff, and package fabric prosthetic breasts on Wednesday, June 17, at Apple Yarns in Bellingham, Washington. The Bellingham Herald

Four years ago, Barb Demorest of Bellingham expected to wake up in the hospital with her cancerous breast removed and a reconstructed breast in its place awaiting her appreciative gaze in the mirror.

Instead, because of complications, she would require a breast implant later. When she asked about wearing a prosthesis in the interim, she was told she would need to wait at least six weeks.

“Six weeks!” she recalled thinking. “I need to get back to work. I need to get back to life.”

Soon after, Demorest talked to her Bellingham physician, Dr. Cary Kaufman. He told her that some women consider silicon prostheses hot and uncomfortably heavy. They also require special bras or camisoles with pockets.

When Demorest asked about other options, Kaufman asked her if she knew how to knit. Demorest does, so Kaufman showed her a picture of a fabric prosthetic breast and told her how to find the pattern. Kaufman had learned about the knitted prosthesis from a former patient who made one for herself.

Still shaky from her operation, Demorest asked Phyllis Kramer, a longtime friend and a superb knitter, if she would knit her a replacement breast, one made of cotton with polyester fiber filling.

The following Sunday, Demorest put a sock in her bra and wore a jacket to the church that she and Kramer attend. Kramer, who lives in Lynden, arrived with two knitted breasts stashed in a Victoria’s Secret bag. Demorest took the bag into a bathroom and placed one of the knitted creations inside her bra.

It was lightweight, soft, and fit without problem. Inside her bra, it took the shape and feel of a real breast. The moment changed her life, both personally and professionally.

When Demorest’s doctors said they would give knitted breasts to interested patients if she provided a steady supply, she knew what she wanted to do. She now volunteers full time finding people to knit and crochet the breasts, and doctors willing to give them free to breast cancer patients.

Kaufman calls her endeavor a “sisterhood network.”

“A person with breast cancer has an anonymous sister out there who feels this concern and provides this service,” he said.

Spreading the message

Demorest, 63, moved to Bellingham from California in 1970. A CPA, she recently retired from her tax business and from her job as controller for a chain of auto dealerships so she could focus full time on Knitted Knockers, a nonprofit organization.

Other people have knitted breasts and called them “knitted knockers.” What sets Demorest apart is her determination to create a national, even international, network of knitters who will make them, and doctors who will provide them to breast cancer survivors.

Knitters pay for their yarn, while Knitted Knockers covers the cost of mailing the breasts to women who request one or a pair online.

So far, there are Knitted Knocker affiliates — individuals, knitting guilds, fabric stores, cancer centers — in 25 states and 12 countries. Overall, about 1,000 knitters are participating, Demorest said.

With more than 50,000 mastectomies in the United States each year, the need is immense. To encourage knitters, the Knitted Knockers website has how-to videos and free promotional materials and patterns. The patterns have been downloaded more than 26,000 times the past year.

In some places, knitters are already linked up with local doctors. Elsewhere, knitters make breasts and mail them to Knitted Knockers in Bellingham to be shipped to women who request them. The Bellingham operation is the mothership for mailing breasts, with Demorest covering much of the cost so far.

The knitted breasts can be a temporary prosthesis for women after a mastectomy or lumpectomy, but some women use them permanently. The stuffing can be removed through a hole in the back, so a knocker can be adjusted if the women’s breast changes size during treatment or reconstruction.

Demorest keeps busy spreading the word about Knitted Knockers and encouraging knitters and doctors to make them available in their local communities. She won an award last year from Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation, which brought helpful attention, but more organizing and fundraising is needed to make the network self-supporting and large enough to provide free knitted breasts to every women who wants one.

Knitting circles

For Demorest, having volunteers knit and crochet the breasts, rather than have them made by machine, is important because it brings the volunteers their own sense of satisfaction, and is important to the women who receive them.

“For me, it was a huge thing that a friend made it for me,” she said.

Terri Hickox of Bellingham, who is Demorest’s sister-in-law and who knits about two breasts a week, agrees that handmade is best.

“This is a real, tangible way of showing that you care, with a lot of love and heart,” she said.

Hickox was one of at least nine women who attended the Knitted Knockers group that met Wednesday, June 17, at Apple Yarns, 1780 Iowa St. The group meets 10:30 a.m. to noon weekly.

Before her surgery, Demorest was in a knitting group at Apple Yarns. After her surgery, the store’s owners, Andrea and Andrew Evans, were happy to find a time slot for a Knitted Knockers group.

The store donates a share of proceeds from sales of a Knitted Knockers starter kit, and accepts knockers that knitters drop off in person, giving them a 10 percent discount on their next purchase. Many people mail knockers, minus the filling, to the store, an average of three packages a day.

“It makes going to the mail a lot of fun,” said Andrea Evans, who is a Knitted Knockers board member.

At the Wednesday sessions, women knit, stuff knockers with filling, and prepare packages for mailing. The group distributes about 200 knockers a year to local doctors, and mail 3,600 a year to women elsewhere.

Becky Rawlings of Bellingham delivered her 150th knocker on Wednesday. She initially bought a kit at Apple Yarns because family members have dealt with breast cancer. Now, her sister-in-law buys the yarn and Rawlings knits the knockers.

“We made it a family project,” she said.

Phyllis Kramer, who knitted the first knocker for Demorest, has made more than 400 of them, averaging two a week. She’s impressed by what Demorest has accomplished.

“She took a horrible situation and turned it into a joyful situation,” Kramer said.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/dean-kahn.

Knitted Knockers

▪ Preferred material is Ultra Pima, a durable, shiny cotton that won’t shrink and is washable.

▪ Knitted Knockers requested online are available in assorted sizes and three basic color schemes: bright, pastel and dark. Volunteers sometime knit ones that are more colorful and fanciful; those might be found in baskets of samples at local doctors’ offices.

▪ It takes 21/2 to four hours to make one, depending on the knitter’s skill.

▪ It costs about $2 in material to make a knocker, and about $5 to make and mail one.

How to help

Details: Knitted Knockers in Bellingham can be reached at knittedknockers.org and Facebook, or contact Barb Demorest at 360-305-2139 or barbara@knittedknockers.org

Help: Volunteers can knit or crochet knockers at home or in groups. For details about the weekly group at Apple Yarns, call 360-756-9992 or visit the store at 1780 Iowa St., No. 103.

Donate: Knitted Knockers is an all-volunteer group, and donations are needed to cover mailing and other expenses. Checks can be made out to “Knitted Knockers Support Foundation” and mailed to Knitted Knockers, 1780 Iowa St., Bellingham, WA 98229. Credit card donations are accepted through PayPal at the Knitted Knockers website.

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