Prosthetic breasts made of yarn provide an alternative for women who have had mastectomies

By Kathleen Ganster

Volunteers make and stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District.

Volunteers make and stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District.

The name may sound a bit silly, but the cause is anything but.

Knitted Knockers are prosthetic breasts that have been knitted (or crocheted) out of cotton yarn for women who have had mastectomies.

Why knitted?

The silicone or saline breasts can often irritate scar tissue on mastectomy patients and are hot and heavy, breast cancer patients say. They also can be quite expensive. Knitted Knockers are lightweight, easy to maneuver and, perhaps best of all, they are free.

A group of local crafters recently got together to create more than 30 pairs of bra inserts for local women.

Knitted Charities Inc. is a nonprofit national program that helps provide free patterns for the prosthetic breasts and distributes the finished results. The project came to Pittsburgh via Bobbie Clare of Hampton. When Mrs. Clare, an avid knitter, was in Arizona on vacation, she stopped at a knitting shop there and learned about the charity organization.

“It seemed like such a good idea that I immediately decided to participate,” she said.

Olga Dubrovsky, left, of Swissvale, and Yvonne Spencer of Hampton, stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project.

Olga Dubrovsky, left, of Swissvale, and Yvonne Spencer of Hampton, stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project.

When she returned home to the Pittsburgh area, Mrs. Clare looked for a local organization involved with the project but didn’t find any. She reached out to the national organization and decided to try to jumpstart a local chapter. Mrs. Clare had taught knitting for a couple of different groups in Pittsburgh before, including for Gilda’s Club of Western Pennsylvania, now Our Clubhouse. But with an already busy schedule she didn’t want to coordinate the local Knitted Knocker effort on an ongoing basis.

“I loved the idea of the project, but knew I didn’t have the time to do it justice. I was hoping to find someone who could take it on,” she said.

Mrs. Clare reached out to her friend, Delli Speers of the South Side, who had also been a knitting instructor for the Clubhouse, and the two decided to lead a one-time workshop and hope that someone would take the project on at a local level. The two coordinated and hosted a workshop at Our Clubhouse in July and followed up with a stuffing get-together on Sept. 18.

“I thought it was an intriguing idea. Since I’ve volunteered at the Clubhouse, I’ve heard the women discussing issues about silicone breasts and thought this was a great idea. Not only that, but they are gifts for these women,” Ms. Speers said.

Completed knitted prosthetic breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District. The implants made of Cascade Ultra Pima yarn, a very smooth, shiny and absorbent cotton yarn, are for women who've had mastectomies.

Completed knitted prosthetic breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District. The implants made of Cascade Ultra Pima yarn, a very smooth, shiny and absorbent cotton yarn, are for women who’ve had mastectomies.

According to Mrs. Clare, the pattern is available free through the Knitted Knockers Charities Inc. and Ravelry, a free social network for knitters and crocheters. They strongly suggest the use of Cascade Ultra Pima yarn due to its softness.

“Other yarns have been used, but they don’t seem to be as breathable and non-irritating as this,” she said.

About 15 knitters and crocheters took part in the initial effort, and many gathered to stuff the first round of bra inserts. The yarn and polyester fiberfill for the initial Pittsburgh project were donated through an anonymous source. At the meeting, the inserts were then stuffed with the fiberfill and a tag was attached to each insert informing the recipient of who made the inserts and care instructions. After stuffing, there is a small opening left so that the recipient can adjust the fill to fit. The inserts are knitted in various cup sizes and different colors of yarn are used so that individual recipient’s needs can be met.

Phyllis Klein, left, of Swisshelm Park watches as Bobbie Clare of Ross Twp., measures a knitted prosthetic breast implant for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District.

Phyllis Klein, left, of Swisshelm Park watches as Bobbie Clare of Ross Twp., measures a knitted prosthetic breast implant for the Knitted Knocker Project in the Strip District.

This bunch will be dispersed through Allegheny Health Network’s Cancer Network.

Crystal Ross, director of the Network, said they will be distributed through its Breast Cancer Navigator Teams and other health care providers.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our patients,” she said. “We hear about some of the problems they have with the prosthetics and these can alleviate some of these issues.”

Ms. Ross hadn’t yet received the Knitted Knockers but is looking forward to passing them out to the patients.

“I’m so excited to see how our patients react. It will be fun to see how they like them,” she said.

For knitter Olga Dubrovsky of Swissvale, the project had an impact on several levels. As a two-time breast cancer survivor, she called the knitted inserts a “miracle” for her.

“The silicone breasts were so heavy and made me perspire. These are so much lighter, comfortable and look natural,” she said. Mrs. Dubrovsky threw her silicone inserts away after she started wearing the Knitted Knockers.

As a knitter, she enjoys making the inserts to help other breast cancer survivors, and as a retired doctor, she knows how valuable tools like these can be for those experiencing a medical issue.

“This is something wonderful to do for someone else. It keeps me busy, and I help others,” she said.

Delli Speers, left, of the South Side, and Deborah Cooper of the North Side make and stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project.

Delli Speers, left, of the South Side, and Deborah Cooper of the North Side make and stuff prosthetic knitted breast implants for the Knitted Knocker Project.

Deborah Cooper, a retired nurse who lives on the North Side, and a cancer survivor, also, liked the fact that the knitted inserts are free.

“This is drastically more economical, and silicone breasts are subject to bursting. These are wonderful,” she said.

As an African-American, Ms. Cooper said it was important that they made the inserts in a variety of colors.

“So often we are overlooked, and obviously I am more in tune to this, so we wanted to make sure we were able to help all women,” she said.

After learning about the project and the initial effort by local knitters, Natural Stitches, a yarn shop in East Liberty, decided to embrace Knitted Knockers as its charity cause. Yvonne Spencer, the manager, talked with Ms. Speers and suggested it to shop owner Martha Underwood.

“We have had some charity knitting in the past, and it has kind of faded. When Delli talked with me about it, we loved the idea that it was different and there is such a need,” Ms. Spencer said.

The shop will host charity gatherings at the shop located in The Village of East Side from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Those who wish to make the Knitted Knockers will receive free patterns and a 15 percent discount on the yarn. (6401 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, 15206; 412-441-4410.)

“We encourage ‘knitting for the soul,’ and this is a way for us to help, to reach out and do public service and help others do that as well,” Ms. Spencer said.

For those interested in learning more about Knitted Knockers Inc., visit www.knittedknockers.info. For those in Pittsburgh who may be interested in receiving the inserts, an email may be sent to knittedknockerspittsburghinfo@gmail.com.

Source: health@post-gazette.com

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