On a recent October Monday, the Sweater Nanas of Green Valley held the final fall knitting session. Colorful skeins of yarn and sweaters in varying stages of completion covered the tables of a meeting room in the Green Valley Library.
Now, like elves on Dec. 24, the nanas are ready for the distribution to begin.
“Our number for this year, ladies, is almost a hundred more than last year,” leader Colleen Hay announced to “oohs” and “wows” from about a dozen women sitting around the room.
The knitting group has met for the last three years. Each October, it loads up piles of sweaters and matching hats and takes them to kindergarten classes in Southern Arizona schools. In the past, the group has visited Sopori and Los Ranchitos elementary schools, among others.
The group knitted 371 sweaters and matching beanies this year. Combined with sweaters left from last year, the Sweater Nanas will be able to hand out more than 400 pullover sets.
Founder Sue Bouvy was inspired by a coalition of knitting nanas in Tucson. Many of the current members are lifelong knitters. The group gives them the opportunity to knit with purpose.
“All of us who have been knitting forever have made enough mittens and sweaters and scarves and hats for our family that they don’t need anything, but we still needed to knit,” Hay explained.
When the group started, it gathered at a local java joint in Green Valley. Bouvy would often call out to passersby and ask if they knit.
That was how Hay was recruited in 2011. Bouvy has since moved to Las Vegas, and Hay stepped in as the leader of the group. Now the group meets in the library to accommodate its growing attendance.
The women range in age from 60 to 85-plus. Most are retired, with grandchildren .
“Let me tell you, this place rocks in January and February and March because there’s 40 women knitting,” Hay said.
There’s no cost or skill level requirement to join the Sweater Nanas. Each new member is given a starter kit with yarn, a pattern and knitting needles. If needed, a more experienced knitter will give basic lessons.
“The only rule is that you have to use number four acrylic yarn,” Hay said. “It’s got to stand up to a kindergartner.”
The group has also attracted long-distance members. Sweaters and yarn have arrived in the mail from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“We picked this up in Albuquerque last summer,” Hay said, holding up a dusty rose-colored sweater.
The donor, Yvonne Shrek, learned about the Sweater Nanas when she ordered a book online that came wrapped in a newspaper article featuring the sweater group, Hay explained.
Shrek is an elementary school teacher and beginning knitter herself. Hay met her in person this summer on a road trip and returned with bags of donated yarn.
Cindy Wolf joined the sweater nanas just before leaving Arizona for Tomah, Wis., where she lives most of the year.
Wolf, who has knitted since she was 8 years old, worked through the summer and finished seven sweaters.
“I always think this is a win-win,” Wolf said. “We need to knit and if somebody else needs some sweaters, that’s the best.”
She doesn’t usually return to Green Valley until after the holidays, but made a special trip to deliver her sweaters in person.
“I came back without my husband, so obviously this is more important,” Wolf said, joking. “Well, I’ll see him later.”
Each Monday meeting starts with show and tell. The women share their latest sweater or personal project with the group. At their most recent meeting, Elizabeth Bendixen held up a set of pink baby clothes.
“I have to hope that the genetic testing for the baby I’m knitting these for is correct,” Bendixen said. “I’m in deep trouble if it’s a boy.”
There’s a chorus of laughter and compliments on the color and quality of the dainty mittens and booties.
As the ladies work, they share stories about grandchildren, neighborhood happenings and what stores have yarn on sale this week.
“It’s more than just knitting,” Hay said. “It’s a great support group for the ladies. Sometimes they get shut in and so they get out and get knitting.”
The school visits are an annual highlight for the Sweater Nanas. They take turns visiting the schools so everyone gets a chance to participate.
The nanas aren’t revealing what schools they are visiting this year, but with more than 400 sweaters to give away, there are several stops on their list.
Kelsey Alexander is a teacher at Sopori Elementary School in Amado. The nanas visited her kindergarten class last year bearing colorful sweaters for the students.
“They were so excited they actually didn’t take them off even though it was still 90 degrees outside,” Alexander said. “The nanas were so kind to them.”
Their visits include reading “Annie Hoot and the Knitting Extravaganza,” a picture book featuring the adventures of a crafty owl. A volunteer from the group knits in the background so the children can see how the sweaters are made.
Then it’s time for sweater distribution. A nana accompanies each child, fits his or her size, and the student chooses any sweater from a rainbow of colors.
“These kids are special,” Hay said. “They reach out and grab your heart and put it back in a better place.”