Knitting For Life

Simsbury Life, June 2005

Group is raising money for Relay for Life

by Kelly Callaghan

It’s the wool yarn that gives the pocketbooks their varied and interesting color combinations and it’s the knitters that give them their shapes.

Starting out with colorful skeins of yarn, the members of the Simsbury Newcomers Club’s needleworks group transform the balls of Merino, Icelandic and Mohair wool into “felted” pocketbooks, shoulder bags and smaller handbags, after washing and then drying their creations.

After the final touches such as buttons, baubles and handles are added, the bags are complete — but are not kept to be fashionably worn and used by the women. For the past few months, members of the needleworks group have been hard at work meeting each Monday to work on the bags as part of a fundraiser for Susan Schwimer’s Relay for Life team.

And so far, sales of the pocketbooks to members and the public have resulted in raising more than $900 for “Schwim’s Team.”

Ms. Schwimer, a breast cancer survivor, is in her third year of hosting a Relay for Life team. This year’s event will be held beginning June 3 at Henry James Memorial School and ending at 4 p.m. June 4.

The fundraiser is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and will have participants walking or running laps around a course to raise funds to help fund cancer research.

The opening ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. June 3, followed by a survivor’s lap and ceremony. Laps will continue into the evening and participants will be able to light luminaries in honor of loved ones who have battled the sometimes-deadly disease.

“The event, in addition to collecting money for research and other activities they sponsor, really raises a lot of awareness about cancer,” Ms. Schwimer said.

Ms. Schwimer, who has made three of the pocketbooks, helped steer the group of women toward knitting along with fellow member Linda Gottesdiener, who in the past had helped Ms. Schwimer raise money for her other Relay for Life teams. Together, the pair taught the others how to make the felted bags “and it just took off like wildfire,” she said.

The needlework group, which once had members working on all kinds of needlework projects, is now full of mostly knitters.

The 15 to 20 members of the group have made small bags, large bags, tall ones and short ones. A larger periwinkle colored bag was made with specks of the popular “Fun Fur” brand; the braided handles compliment many of the larger bags, while others have plastic tortoise-shell handles. The rim of a teal-colored smaller bag contains small pieces of purple ribbon.

Each week, the women meet at a different member’s home. The needles click, good food is served and the women not only share their creative ideas and tips, but fellowship as well.

Some members of the Newcomers Club can’t attend the Monday late morning meetings and have opted to meet monthly with Ms. Schwimer to learn how to make the bags. Her only requirement for this much smaller group is that members donate their first bags to the Relay for Life.

“We had such an interest that a few people who wanted to do it couldn’t,” she said.

The bags are starting to sell as members bring their finished products out and about the community. One woman brought hers to a soccer meeting and sold at least three, Ms. Schwimer said. Members of the club are also buying. Many of the pocketbooks for sale are posted on the group’s web site.

“We’re starting to sell a few here and there,” she said.

Ms. Schwimer was diagnosed four-and-a-half years ago with breast cancer and has completed her medical treatments to fight the disease, but she still has one year left on tamoxofin. Her mother is also a breast cancer survivor, and it is her hope that the disease is one day completely wiped out.

She first began taking part in Relay for Life when a friend asked her to take part in the survivor’s walk at the West Hartford event a few years ago.

When she moved to town, she wanted to continue her charitable work. Due to time constraints, Ms. Schwimer made the decision to work with cancer-oriented organizations and will also serve as chairwoman of the opening ceremonies.

“I would like to put the American Cancer Society out of business,” she said. “By the time my 20-year-old daughter is 30, I hope they’ll have a vaccine for her.”

Ms. Schwimer and her friends have been working together for months and are still cranking out pocketbooks. Their plan is to sell the remaining dozen or so creations by June 3. Any leftovers will be sold at the event, she said.

Her relationship with the Newcomers began almost three years ago, when she decided to downsize from her larger home in West Hartford and move to a condominium in Weatogue. Her daughter had just left for college and she wanted a change.

“I got here and realized after the first week, when I had finished unpacking, that I didn’t know a soul here and didn’t know where to go to the grocery store.”

She saw an advertisement for the Newcomers monthly coffee meeting and decided to attend. Since then, she’s been attending the monthly meetings and the weekly needlework group.

The Newcomers has been around town for more than 20 years. The group was started as a place for newcomers to town to find friendship and assistance in the community.

Today, the group has close to 170 members and meets monthly. The club operates with a board of directors and offers activities that range from bridge, bunco, an evening book discussion, day book discussion, dining out, a French discussion group, the needlework group and more.

Ms. Schwimer plans to continue to facilitate the needlework group and her membership in the Newcomers. “I’ve made some very good friends,” she said. And knitting has been a way to combine friendship and a common interest.

A friend she walks with, who is also a Newcomers member, suggested that Ms. Schwimer come to the needlework group. She had some yarn leftover from a cheap tag sale buy and bought two needles and finished a scarf. She’s also finished the popular “Fun Fur” scarves.

She’s now graduated to the pocketbooks, thanks to the help of her friend, Ms. Gottesdiener, and is passing the talent on to other members of the Newcomers. Several months ago, the group of knitters had their first pocketbook-knitting session at the Wool Connection in Avon, whose owner donated some of the yarn. Village Needlecrafts in Old Avon Village also made a donation of $100 worth of yarn to the women.

Many of the women in the group are also self-professed beginner knitters and at the end of each Monday knitting session, they check out the latest finished bags to get new ideas.

The bags begin as 100 percent wool yarn stitches on circular needles. Using a basic pattern, the women knit back and forth for the bottom of the bag, then pick up stitches in a circular pattern. There is no set color or texture pattern, only what is in the head of the knitter.

“I just kind of made up the patterns as I went along,” said Ms. Schwimer.

The braided multi-colored handle of one of her bags came about through the suggestion of a shop owner to whom Ms. Schwimer originally went to purchase a large button for the bag.

When the bag is finished, it is put into a mesh zipper bag or pillowcase and washed in hot water, followed by a cold water rinse. The size and texture of the bag depends on how many times the process is repeated, she said. Prices range from $10 to $15 for the smaller bags and $50 to $60 for the large ones.

This year, she believes the group has hit on a winning product.

“I think we just came out with something that everybody was interested in,” she said.

She is happy that so many of her friends have come on board to help.

“I’m just very thrilled and flattered that they’re participating and sharing such enthusiasm for it,” she said.

Ms. Gottesdiener agreed.

“It’s brought a lot of people together,” she said. “There’s things that come out of it … knitting, friendship and money for cancer. Sue is amazing.”

Ms. Schwimer speculated that most of the dozen women sitting around the dining room table of Rolene Johnson have been touched by cancer either through family members, themselves or friends.

“Probably all of us has a family friend or loved one who’s had breast cancer,” she said.

Bridget Komidar said the needlework group was a supportive one and a therapeutic one, no matter the project. She has knit six bags and all but two have sold.

“I don’t know too many people who have had cancer, but I love to knit,” she said.

For more information on the Relay for Life pocketbook project, call Ms. Schwimer at 651-8641.

To see the pocketbooks available for purchase, check