Knitting comforts the needy


Anne Hawkins' knitting warms twice.

Through the broadcasts of Howard Dean's scream and the New Hampshire primary returns, in movie theaters, on road trips and in her Catonsville living room, the 77-year-old woman knits nubby sweaters, soft blankets and stylish scarves to sell at Baltimore's Woman's Industrial Exchange.

For the past 12 years, she has signed over every check for her work to charity - most recently the Fuel Fund of Maryland, which helps the poor pay utility bills, and Beacon House, a nonprofit organization for women and children in Washington.

Hawkins learned to knit as a teen-ager in Winchester, Va. To her surprise, her first piece - a cardigan sweater, navy blue to go with a green-and-blue skirt - turned out "OK."

"I was fascinated, right from the get-go," Hawkins said. "There's always something to learn - a new pattern, a new stitch."

But knitting took a back seat when she moved to New York at age 22, hungry for the big city life. Between her job as a bookkeeper at Chase Manhattan Bank and her trips to the theater, she was too busy for the craft.

Years later, after she had married John Hawkins, a teacher, and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., Hawkins came upon an exchange for craftswomen. She churned out an afghan and brought it to the market, where it quickly sold for $120.

In 1991, shortly after the couple moved to Baltimore, they discovered the venerable Woman's Industrial Exchange consignment shop on Charles Street, which started more than a century ago as a place for female artisans to sell handmade crafts.

Hawkins, now retired, figured she had found an outlet for her knitting. She made another afghan, this one using a pattern from Ireland's Aran Islands. "And it sat," she said.

The salespeople at the exchange weren't impressed. That is, until a group of visitors from the Smithsonian Institution happened upon the exchange. According to Hawkins, one of the women examined her afghan and remarked: "Now that's knitting."

The piece sold soon afterward, and others followed.

For Hawkins, knitting became a consuming activity. She and her husband like to travel by car, so her fingers flew in the passenger seat as the miles ticked by. They're avid Democrats and self-described "political junkies" whose long hours watching virtually every televised debate, speech and election-night return are accompanied by the click of needles. Hawkins has even been known to knit at the movies.

The idea of donating her proceeds came partly as Hawkins was considering the hoops she'd have to go through to report income from her creations for tax purposes. And she wanted to give something back for the good fortune she enjoyed.

Anne and John Hawkins began to consider the knitting a joint project, with John Hawkins acting as a scout and agent of sorts. He learned about the differences in yarn and the difficulty of finding the right button.

Now that the couple have left downtown for an apartment at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, the 80-year-old husband often delivers finished work to the exchange. He often brings suggestions, too, for marketing his wife's knitting. He once pointed out that two baby outfits - one pink, one blue - could be paired and sold for boy-and-girl twins. That's what happened.

John Hawkins even persuaded the shop to take a black-and-white crocheted afghan with a crossword-puzzle pattern that his wife thought was hideous once she'd finished it. It quickly caught a buyer's eye.

Barbara Healy, the exchange's consignment manager, says Hawkins is one of the top sellers among the 140 artisans (including a few men) who market their crafts there. Some buyers know that Hawkins donates her proceeds, and that makes her items more popular, Healy said. Among the favorites are lacy scarves, selling for about $44, made with an eyelash yarn that sometimes has metallic accents - pieces Hawkins calls "trendsetter" scarves after the name of the yarn they are made from.

"A lot of people feel they're getting something nice they want to buy for themselves, and at the same time they're helping other people," Healy said. "The stuff is gorgeous. It's something she could be making a lot of money from, if she were selling them at a boutique or something."

Anne and John Hawkins researched the charities they picked to assure all that work was for a good cause. For the first few years, they said, they signed the checks over to the Salvation Army.

Then they heard about the Fuel Fund. They liked that it not only helps the poor keep heat on during the winter, but also helps pay for air conditioning in summer - a service vital to elderly people with breathing problems.

In a good year, Hawkins earns about $2,000 for the fund, which has promoted her as one of its top volunteers. Beacon House gets about $500.

"It's just very generous to do all of that work, and then not be giving it to somebody who would be able to say, 'Thank you so much,'" said Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of the Fuel Fund. "By giving the funds to us, she is helping people she doesn't even know."

With the recent renovation of the industrial exchange's tearoom and gift shop, Hawkins hopes for a year of high sales. As long as her hands are willing, she plans to keep the sweaters, blankets, hats and scarves rolling off her needles.

There will be lots of television time for knitting in the next few months. It is, after all, an election year.

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