LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Five years shy of her 100th birthday, Louisville resident Marie Vessels doesn’t get around as easily as when she was younger. But the arthritis that bothers her knees and ankles seems to miraculously have bypassed her hands, wrists and fingers.
“When I see my priest at St. Paul Church he always asks, ‘Marie are your fingers still working?‘” said Vessels. And the answer is “yes” — all 10 digits are working overtime.
In fact, this feisty nonagenarian’s hands are working so well that she’s known as “The Knitting Woman.”
“Since I was a little girl, I have sewed and crocheted and knitted,” she told the Courier Journal. “When my daughter Carolyn got sick, I knitted while I sat with her in the hospital. She’s the one who first suggested I make something for the nurses who were taking care of her.”
During Carolyn’s two-year battle with esophageal cancer, Vessels remained at her 60-year-old daughter’s bedside. To pass the time, she knitted hats in the same patterns as she had made for Carolyn when she was a child. Intricate designs made from multiple colors of yarn sewn into warm winter beanies.
After Carolyn died, her mother kept knitting and giving away her handy work in her daughter’s honor. In the eight years since Carolyn got sick, Vessels has knitted and donated over 4,500 hats, headbands and scarves.
Can you imagine, one person knitting more than four thousand pieces simply out of a desire to make others comfortable?
Vessels, who turned 95 in April, has no intention of slowing down her knitting process. She loads her handmade items by the dozens into plastic bins and with the help of family members, delivers them to local homeless shelters, church organizations and random people she meets at places like the grocery store.
“I always have a bag with a few of my hats and if I see a child who isn’t wearing a hat when it’s cold outside, I will ask their mother or father if it’s alright if I give them a hat,” Vessels explained. “I don’t like to think that anyone is not able to stay warm.”
Originally from Germany, Vessels moved to Louisville 70 years ago. According to her niece, Jennifer Vessels, her aunt has always been a gifted seamstress who wore a wedding dress made from a parachute when she was married in 1948.
“Right after the war you couldn’t buy anything so when I wanted a white dress to be married in, my fiance found a parachute,” she remembers. “It was beautiful but I don’t have it anymore. I gave it to my sister to wear when she got married.”
Sharing without expecting anything in return makes what she does even more special. Vessels’ hats could easily sell in stores for $20 or more but she doesn’t accept money for her craft. She makes them all simply to give them away in the hopes that the hats will allow others to be more comfortable.
Although she does appreciate handwritten thank you notes from grateful recipients and the occasional gift card which allows her to purchase more yarn.
“I stopped driving when I was 93, so now I get a ride to Hobby Lobby,” Vessels said. “I buy all sorts of colors of yarn when I go because sometimes people want certain colors.”
Her grandson’s sports team all got hats in the school colors of St. Xavier High School, yellow and green. “And then my granddaughter’s team saw them and said ‘what about us?‘” she said. “So I made them for all the girls.”
Her neighbors and her neighbor’s kids all have Vessels’ hats. She’s had requests from people in Germany, Alaska and recently shipped off 20 to her son-in-law’s friends who use her warm hats for hunting in Michigan.
“I am going to tell you a funny one,” she said. “My son-in-law called to tell me one of his friends wanted a new hat because the one I made for him three years ago was awfully dirty. I told him ‘these hats wash you know.’ Can you imagine he wanted me to knit him a new hat because his was dirty!”
Two of more than four thousand hats made by Marie Vessels. Each hand-knit cap is a combination of intricate designs made from multiple colors of yarn sewn into warm winter beanies.
It takes about a day for her to knit a man’s sized hat and she can make two smaller hats per day that fit children. She has bins filled with handmade hats in a storage closet to donate when the weather turns chilly next fall. In Vessels’ mind, there are never enough, which means she continues to knit year-round.
“My arthritis is so bad in my legs that sometimes I stay in bed most of the day knitting so that I don’t hurt so bad,” Vessels said. “I call making these hats ‘my pain pills.‘”
Vessels reminds her family to put in their requests and stock up for the future.
“I tell them, you need to be sure to get two or three from me because I won’t always be around to make these for you,” she said.
On any given day when the weather is cold, there might be hundreds of lucky recipients walking around Louisville in one of the handsome hand-knitted caps she’s donated.
“I guess people think they are special because they are free,” she laughed. “But they are special to me because I think about Carolyn and pray for her as I make each one.”
More than a piece of clothing to keep others warm, Vessels’ creations are a symbol of love and generosity with the memory of her daughter stitched into each one.
“When I have told her story to friends and colleagues around the world, about how Marie makes thousands of hats and gives them all away, people are always very touched,” said Jennifer Vessels. “In today’s world, we all need reminders of human kindness in our communities.”