On Friday mornings, the cluster of ladies sitting together in the food court of the Shops at Kenilworth mall sound like they are just socializing.
But the clicking of needles amid the chatter and laughter reveals the women are also busy crocheting and knitting. In fact, the group has made more than 5,000 hats for newborns and preemies since they began meeting in spring of 2012 at Kenilworth mall.
It was group founder and Lutherville resident Linda Alikhan, who dubbed them "Tiny Toppers."
"I am a 'grandma-wannabe,' " said Alikhan, 64, a retired nurse, who first brought the stitchers together 10 years ago at Panera's in Towson Place on Wednesdays. "We may not have grandchildren but we enjoyed knitting baby things. We get it out of our systems."
Last January, Alikhan started a new "chapter" at the Timonium Panera's on Fridays. But the group outgrew the eatery within three weeks. They moved to the upstairs food court in Wegmans in Hunt Valley Towne Centre but as Alikhan said, "it was dark and out of the way."
So in early spring, the group moved once more to Kenilworth mall.
"The light here at Kenilworth is very good and the ladies can get their shopping done, too," Alikhan said.
There are nearly 50 Tiny Toppers of Maryland volunteers now. That's not counting the one husband who knits camouflage hats but who prefers to remain anonymous and never attends the gatherings. There are also teenagers who come in the summer and use the experience for a community service requirement for school.
Many are retired from teaching, nursing and other professions. Some are recently widowed, like Rodgers Forge resident Betty Cuthbert, 87.
"My daughter wanted to get me out of the house," she said. "Everybody has been so friendly and welcoming."
Some Tiny Toppers are rarely seen — they just show up once in a while with a bag of hats.
"And, we just added Franklin Square [Medical Center]," said Alikhan. "We used to do St. Joseph, but they wanted just white hats with a very specific pattern. These ladies like to embellish. We let people do what they want."
The Tiny Toppers website (inytoppersofmaryland.webs.com) reveals striped hats, multi-color hats, hats with pompoms, ruffles, flowers and footballs. There are hats shaped like cupcakes, lady bugs, bumble bees and Christmas trees.
When the Ravens were in the playoffs last year, they made tons of purple hats with "Ravens" knit into them, and when the Orioles are playing they create "O" hats.
The ladies compete among themselves to make the most original hat or the cutest one. They take a lot of pride in what they do.
They pay for the yarn and supplies themselves. Nobody seems to mind doing so.
Their presence in the mall is their best advertisement.
"The first time I saw them I fell in love with the idea," Joan Denenberg, Kenilworth marketing director, said. "We love that they come here. We're a small community mall, a modern-day town center, so a group of women who meet here to give back to the community is great."