WEATHER ALERT

Tiny hats, big hearts John Henderson students turn crafting class into hundreds of hand-knit caps for newborns

There’s a famous scene in the 2000s political drama The West Wing in which White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) becomes a dad, and muses that he didn’t realize babies came with hats.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/03/2022 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a famous scene in the 2000s political drama The West Wing in which White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) becomes a dad, and muses that he didn’t realize babies came with hats.

Warmth in Winnipeg

Cold and snowy winters are a fact of life in Winnipeg, and this winter has proven to be colder and snowier than most.

Amid blizzards, extreme temperature warnings and icy breezes that can freeze skin in only a minute, there’s always something warm that can make these chilly months bearable.

Cold and snowy winters are a fact of life in Winnipeg, and this winter has proven to be colder and snowier than most.

Amid blizzards, extreme temperature warnings and icy breezes that can freeze skin in only a minute, there’s always something warm that can make these chilly months bearable.

Whether it’s to fight off winter’s chill or to create recreational activities, Winnipeg needs warmth to make it happen. Sometimes it is even the warmth in someone’s heart.

So maybe throw another log on the fire, or inch that blanket up a little further and join the Free Press on our investigation of this elusive, yet essential item of a Winnipeg winter.

Warmth.

“You guys crack me up,” he says, meeting his newborn twins for the first time. “You don’t have jobs. You can’t walk or speak the language. You don’t have a dollar in your pockets but you got yourselves a hat so everything’s fine.”

The hats babies come with serve a clear utilitarian purpose: to keep newborns — especially those who were born early — warm and snug as they transition to life outside of the womb. But baby hats can also be tiny emblems of community comfort and care, particularly those lovingly knit by volunteers these babies will never meet.

Some of those volunteers are still kids themselves. When the first snowflakes of winter fell in November, a group of students at John Henderson Middle School began their school day at the loom. Knitting is an activity included in a program that began in 2019 called Interactive Start, in which students can start their day by doing an activity or exploring a new hobby without the stress of being graded on it.

Teacher Monica Friesen figured that making baby hats would be a good place for middle schoolers to start learning how to knit. And the students have gotten really into it.

Teacher Monica Friesen says they started in 2019 with the goal of making 50. By the fall of 2021, they made over 200. (Supplied)

“We set little reasonable targets initially for the students, like, ‘Let’s try to make 50,’” she says. “They way surpassed all our expectations and it’s just been growing over the past three years.”

In 2019, the students made 75 hats for St. Boniface Hospital. In 2020, they made 150. This past fall, they made over 200. The hats are a canvas for expression for the students; no two hats are exactly alike. Some are striped. Some are solid colours. Some have pompoms. Tucked in with the hats are little heartfelt notes of congratulations, written in looping junior-high handwriting: “Welcome to the world!” or “Happy birthday little one.”

Friesen figured that making baby hats would be a good place for middle schoolers to start learning how to knit. (Supplied)

Loom knitting isn’t just a feel-good activity for the students; there’s mastery and accomplishment baked into it as well.

“It’s achievable within a very reasonable time frame for them, and they see their product and they’re just so cute,” Friesen says, adding that it takes about an hour to complete a hat.

“They make one, and then they’re kind of hooked. The trouble for us, actually, is having enough looms to go around to keep everybody who wants to be making them making them. They totally get addicted.”

Melissa Martin is a labour and delivery nurse at St. Boniface Hospital. She says the donated knit hats double as a colourful, joyful keepsake for new parents. For those who are navigating the heartbreak of perinatal loss, they are even more important.

Labour and delivery nurse Melissa Martin loves the extra special added notes from the students. (Supplied)

“That’s something we’ll pull together as the nurse in the room, we’ll go through and find a hat, and sometimes there’s a matching blanket,” she says. “That’s a very important keepsake for them to have going home, because that’s what they go home with.”

The neonatal intensive care unit, in particular, makes a lot of use of donated hats, Martin says, because they are important for temperature regulation and the babies there are more vulnerable. (Having something a bit more cheerful to wear during their stay also doesn’t hurt.)

Even the health care aides, nurses and unit clerks have gotten in on the knitting, even making little pumpkin caps for babies born on Halloween, or shamrock-themed ones for the St. Patrick’s Day babies. Martin says there’s nothing better than being able to replace the standard, hospital-issue cap with a hand-knit one.

“Sometimes there’s little added details and things that are maybe special to that particular knitter, or a particular pattern that they like to use,” Martin says. “It’s just really neat to see how people in the community who will never know where those hats ended up or what baby wore them, but are just so happy to take the time to donate the labour and the material and package them up and make sure that they get there. I think that’s extra special.”

jen.zoratti@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @JenZoratti

The donated knit hats keep the babies warm but are also a keepsake for parents, including those navigating the heartbreak of perinatal loss.(Supplied)
Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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