Every day, when the 5 a.m. light becomes bright enough to cast a gleam on the 400 needles of Ruth Masters' knitting machine, she gets to work.
The 65-year-old Ellicott City woman, who has glaucoma and degeneration of the retina, is legally blind. Still, although barely able to decipher the needles, Mrs. Masters manages to make about 60 hats a month for premature babies.
"Babies lose most of their body heat through their heads and they need the hats to keep them warm," said Mrs. Masters. Three hospitals -- Howard County General, St. Agnes and Sinai -- rely on Mrs. Masters' volunteer efforts to supply the various sizes of tiny hats, which they request monthly.
Mrs. Masters also makes giant granny square blankets and booties in various sizes for the infants.
"I couldn't believe how tiny some of these babies are," she said. "The mothers are anxious. As a matter of fact, I was delivering the hats to the neonatal department at Sinai Hospital when one of the mothers was there nursing her child. She was so pleased when she was given one of the hats."
For 10 years, Mrs. Masters owned Needle Magic, a home-based company that supplied children's hats, sweaters and scarves to retail shops.
Mrs. Masters was adept at programming designs on her machine. But when her eyesight began to deteriorate about 18 years ago, Mrs. Masters found it increasingly difficult to fill the orders, which could mount to several hundred items during the holidays.
In 1985, Mrs. Masters became legally blind and eventually gave up her business. She retired her machine, except to make an occasional gift for a family member or friend.
All that changed 3 1/2 years ago when a friend mentioned needing an extra-tiny hat for a premature baby in her family.
Mrs. Masters gave it a try. The first hat she attempted was too big, but the second was just right. It occurred to her that perhaps she could keep the hospital supplied with small hats.
The gesture would symbolically share the generosity of friends, who had provided her with transportation after her eyesight failed. "People have been so good to me, this is my way of doing something for someone else," she said.
So far, Mrs. Masters has earned more than 1,000 volunteer hours each at St. Agnes and Sinai hospitals. In February, she made her first batch of hats -- 46 -- for Howard County General Hospital. Ten pairs of booties will be included in the next order.
She says that each hat or bootie involves about 30 minutes of work.
"I do a lot by feel. The needles are shiny and there is a certain place where I know they work," Mrs. Masters said.
Most of the hats show rose or blue ducks, bears and rabbits against a white background.
"If I make mistakes, they will be in the ribbing," Mrs. Masters said. Such errors, however, are often checked by her husband, Harvey, a retired engineer.
"I try not to make any mistakes," she said.
She also has knitted caps for oncology patients at the Patuxent Medical Group in Columbia. And she is looking into making more for patients at Sinai and St. Agnes hospitals.
When not knitting, Mrs. Masters is in the pool five days a week at the YMCA in Ellicott City, adding to the more than 500 miles she has racked up doing the back stroke.
A mother of two grown children, she also takes a deep-water running class and a slimnastics class there.
In addition, Mrs. Masters is a substitute leader for the Spring Insighters group, a support group for the visually impaired that meets at Florence Bain Senior Center once a week.
But it's plain to see that her heart is where the babies are.
Surrounded in her basement knitting room with bags of yarn and baskets full of tiny hats, blankets and booties, Mrs. Masters admits that her orders can be overwhelming.
"I would welcome some help in putting them together, perhaps from knitting groups who might use it as a project," she said.