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.
They come and go as they need to and happily toil away to supply the obstetrics units at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and University of Maryland Medical Center.
"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."
Some mall shoppers have become members, including Baltimore nanny Andy Gibson-Conwell, 28, who came to Kenilworth to shop one Friday and returned a week later with a bag of supplies from Jo-Ann Fabrics store.
"I love babies," she said.
One expectant mother, close to her due date, discovered the group while she was at the mall. They invited her to choose a hat. Similarly, they let one little boy whose mother was in the hospital having a baby, pick one.
Sometimes the hats cause postnatal arguments, for example, the father who wanted a Ravens hat while the mother wanted a little blue hat with a pompom.
At GBMC, it is the mother's "significant other" who chooses a hat as part of the admission process, according to Jodie Bell, nurse manager of the hospital's newborn nursery.
The hats are "definitely important" for newborns because babies need to be kept warm and they lose a lot of heat through their heads, Bell said.
"We very much appreciate them. We have various groups that make the hats, but the Tiny Topper hats "are among the most creative," she said. "They add color to the nursery."
With an average of 340 births a month at GBMC, the hats are in constant demand, Bell said.
When Perry Hall resident Peggy Dawson first saw her grandson at GBMC, his tiny blue and white hat with a pompom was "just adorable," she said. "You could tell it was done out of love."
But "Tiny Toppers is about much more than hats," Alikhan said. "The ladies have become a tremendous support for each other.
"They share patterns and tips and they help each other in any way they can. They have developed new friendships. They have see each other through surgeries and illnesses. It's a cohesive group with no drama and no cliques.
"We have a picnic every summer at my house in Lutherville and a holiday party at Pappas. These women like to eat.
"We also celebrate every thousandth hat with pizza at Italian Gardens. They love us there. They are very good to us."
Those who wish to become a Tiny Topper need only bring crochet hooks or circular needles (See the Website), yarn and a yearning to have fun.
"And you don't even have to know how to crochet or knit," Alikhan said. "We'll teach you."
Alikhan would like to see the group continue to grow.
"The hospitals in the Baltimore area that have obstetric units have 300-400 births a month," she said. "Not everybody gets a handmade hat. There are never enough to go around."
For more information, go to http://www.tinytoppersofmaryland.webs.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun