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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Homemade prosthetics known as “knitted knockers” are created by volunteers nationwide – and in Fort Wayne – for breast cancer survivors.

  • Patti DeFreeuw, co-founder of the local chapter of Knitted Knockers, knits during a stuffing party.

  • The local chapter has filled 950 pairs of knockers since forming in spring 2017, with 50 people helping knit them.

  • Volunteers fill knitted prosthetics at a stuffing party, which helps get more women involved in the group.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Volunteers knit prosthetics at a stuffing party for the local chapter of Knitted Knockers which benefits breast cancer survivors.  

Sunday, August 12, 2018 1:00 am

Compassion taking shape

Volunteers join knitting effort for cancer survivors

Kimberly Dupps Truesdell | For The Journal Gazette

There's laughter and conversation filling the warm air on a recent summer afternoon as Martha Opoien and Patti DeFreeuw sit among a dozen or so friends on the outdoor patio.

Bags of polyfill are propped up against the lounge chairs, and cans of sparkling water are interspersed on the tables between piles of knitted pink, nude and black triangles.

“Martha, check that one,” one of the women says as she passes over the pink shape.

Opoien weighs it in her hand, gives it a gentle squeeze and says, “it probably could use a little more.”

Filling – and knitting – a knocker is more art than science, she says. It has to have the right weight and feel, the right shape so that it can fill out the cup of a bra. It shouldn't be lumpy or saggy; the stuffing shouldn't be coming out of the back.

When the knocker is finished, it will be packaged with a mate and await a request from a woman who has undergone a mastectomy and can't wear a prosthetic – or can't afford one.

Started with a video

Knitted Knockers is a nonprofit organization based in Washington state, and its goal is to connect volunteer knitters and crocheters with breast cancer survivors to provide free knitted knockers. There are more than 400 groups registered in the United States and 16 countries.

The local chapter, which was founded by Opoien and DeFreeuw, began in spring 2017.

The friends, who are both longtime knitters, were looking for something more fulfilling as their careers winded down. One night, when Opoien could not sleep, she saw a video about Knitted Knockers.

The group was founded by Barbara Demorest, who says she was healthy for most of her life and was surprised when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. And while she didn't want to lose her hair, she also didn't want to have a mastectomy.

But she did.

Due to complications, she was not able to have reconstruction surgery, and when it was time to go back to work, she was in search of something to wear. When she asked a nurse, she was told that she could not put anything over her scar for six weeks.

“That's the first time I cried,” Demorest says in a video, which has more than 100,000 views on YouTube.

“But when I saw this, it resonated – really, immediately,” Opoien says. “My mother had breast cancer. My grandmother. My dearest, oldest friend. But everybody could say that.”

Opoien sent the video to DeFreeuw and she said, “Let's give this a try.”

Local effort grows

The women at the party are busy stuffing the knockers as they sip their drinks and snack on appetizers. About 200 will be stuffed at this party, one of a handful that Opoien and DeFreeuw have hosted since starting the Fort Wayne chapter of Knitted Knockers.

“Stuffing parties are a way for women who don't knit or crochet and who want to give back to be a part of it,” DeFreeuw says. “They take a lot of pride in being stuffers.”

Since March 2017, the local chapter has gathered more than 950 pairs of knockers, each taking about three to four hours to knit after a pattern provided by the national organization. They must be knitted using approved yarns so they are “washable, stay soft after air drying, breathable, durable, the correct weight and make a beautiful knocker.”

Opoien and DeFreeuw thought it would be just the two of them knitting, but they quickly discovered a need for the knockers in Fort Wayne and around Indiana. They supply knockers to four cancer centers in Fort Wayne and were asked by the national organization to fill orders for areas of the state that don't have a chapter.

“It just kind of grew and grew, and it's been really awesome,” Opoien says.

They have helped to recruit more than 50 people to help knit, some knitting a pair or two as they have time and some who can knit more – one prolific knitter has made more than 200. Some of the knitters are young moms, others retirees.

Two of the women are the spouses of cancer patients. They love being able to knit the knockers, Opoien and DeFreeuw say, because while they can't help their husbands' cancer, they can do this.

A Facebook group for the local chapter has 120 members – “not all are knitters, but all of them are supporters,” DeFreeuw says.

There are meet-ups twice a month – one on the north side of Fort Wayne and one on the southwest side – allowing the knitters to ask questions about the patterns, swap yarn and hang out.

“Most women enjoy helping other women,” Opoien says. “It helps them feel connected to other things.”

Rewarding work

“It's my first knocker,” a woman at the party says, holding up the stuffed mound for others to see. “It's a big honker!”

The knockers – just like women – come in all sizes, shapes and colors.

Each are knitted to a particular bra size, whether it's a 34A or a 52G, which is the biggest the local chapter has made, DeFreeuw says.

Women who would like a pair of knockers can go to and request a pair, indicating size and whether they prefer a neutral pair or something more colorful (which are more fun to knit, Opoien adds).

Most are shipped out by Opoien and DeFreeuw from the inventory that has been amassed, although they may ask the group of knitters to make a pair in a certain size or color if they don't have it.

“We don't often meet patients, but the few that we do, it's been very sweet and rewarding,” Opoien says.

One day, she recalls, she was making a delivery of knockers to one of the local cancer centers. A woman, wearing a scarf, walked up to her and asked Opoien whether she knitted the knockers. Not all of them, Opoien told her.

“'Can I hug you?'” the woman asked. “'These are so awesome.'”

For DeFreeuw, it's a story about a pair she hand-delivered to a woman on the north side of Fort Wayne. It was an unusual size for the group, and she wanted to make sure they fit.

The cancer survivor, who was unable to afford a prosthetic, had not worn a bra in some time.

When DeFreeuw arrived, she immediately put in the knockers and asked DeFreeuw excitedly, “How do they look?”

“I haven't been able to wear a bra for over a year,” the woman said. “I just wanted to feel normal.”

“We knew it would be rewarding,” DeFreeuw says, “but it's been beyond.”