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The worst thing that any parent can imagine is the death of a child. It is the stuff of nightmares, the kind that wake us at 3am, and send us to give our children a quick kiss, and a stroke of their hair. Just to know that they are safe. It was a dream, just a bad dream.
Sadly, for some parents, this isn’t a nightmare. It is reality. When the worst happens to a friend, it is difficult to know what to do, what to say, as no words can make things better, or heal the pain. No platitude can lessen the heartbreak, but still we are often consumed by the feeling that we must DO SOMETHING! Anything. It was this feeling of helplessness and empathy that lead to the foundation of the Woolly Hugs charity.
You’ve probably heard of the parenting website Mumsnet. Yes, that one. With the biscuits. The users of the site are known for being [ahem] quite forthright in expressing their views and their interest in politics and activism, but they are also known for the support that they offer to other users.
When a child of one of the community died a few years ago, many of her online friends were upset, and wanted to help. They decided to make a blanket, and invited others to help. Those who could knit, crochet or sew contributed their time and effort. If they couldn’t afford to buy wool, then others donated money or sent wool.
The squares were sent to one Mumsnetter (as they call themselves) and sewn carefully together. 60 squares, they had reckoned, would be needed. By the first deadline, they had already received 143 squares.
The blanket was sent by post to the family of the mumsnetter, but it got lost in the post.
“Cue a weekend of frantic phone calls around various Parcel Force depots trying to locate a priceless and unique blanket weighing around 3.5kilos. After that, we decided that all blankets would travel by relay from Mumsnetter to Mumsnetter”.
Since that first blanket was made, other posters of Mumsnet have lost people very close to them. And Mumsnetters have continued to crochet, knit and sew blankets for their online friends.
Some women learnt their handicraft for this project. Lisa told us that she had never knitted before, much to the frustration of her mother
“She tried and failed to teach me and was amazed when I showed her the squares I’d made for the last blankets. She thought I was unteachable, I just needed to find my own way! She says she had never seen anyone knit like I do, but I get there in the end!”
Some of the women have been knitting for years and make incredibly intricate squares, with butterflies or flowers stitched onto them. Others crochet plain, simple squares. Each square is valued, because it is knitted with love.
Some of the women are teaching their daughters to knit and crochet. They are learning much more than simply the method of looping wool to form a square. They are learning to care, to hug, to reach out to someone who is in pain.
“When I have finished my not very well knitted squares, I sort of sigh and think, well they aren’t very good, but you look at the picture of the finished blanket and you really ‘get’ it. The whole thing, so various and beautiful, the feelings behind it, so many people contributing, wanting to send comfort and love”.
The blankets are called Woolly Hugs because that is what they feel like to the people who receive them. As if they are being enveloped in a warm and comforting hug, cuddled by the wishes and thoughts of hundreds of unknown friends.
When a Woolly Hug was sent to a Mumsnetter, who had lost her daughter, she told them of the comfort that her daughter Merryn had received from a hand-knitted blanket, a story that was echoed by another Mumsnetter, mother of little Aillidh. And so a new project began – the knitting of Little Hugs. These smaller blankets are given to children who are in hospital, receiving long-term care. The Little Hugs are sent to Yorkhill Hospital in Glasgow, and Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle.
Over the years, Woolly Hugs has expanded to include other projects, such as Billie’s Blankets. These blankets are made in memory of Billie, the daughter of a Mumsnetter who died age just 14 years from Leukaemia. In Billie’s name, small blankets are sent to children around the world, in cooperation with the charity World Child Cancer. The blankets are a comfort to the children in low and middle income countries, who are undergoing cancer treatment. It is incredibly touching, to know that sick kids in Malawi, Myanmar and Ghana are being wrapped in a Woolly Hug.
Another ongoing project is the Angel Blankets, which is a cooperation with the Octavia Appeal at the Brompton Hospital. This is a specialist heart and lung treatment hospital, that receives tiny patients from across the UK, most babies are already on life support when they arrive. The charity approached Woolly Hugs, and asked if they would be able to provide blankets for the babies who sadly passed away.
The Children of Chernobyl Blankets are knitted for children who come to UK from most the contaminated area near the Chernobyl reactor. With child cancer rates of 75% in this region, escaping the radioactive dust, even if only for a few weeks in the summer, can greatly improve the survival of these children.
Along with the making of blankets, the Woolly Hugs team fundraise regularly for various charities, by holding online craft sales. The recipient charities have included MIND, SANDS, Winston’s Wish, Anthony Nolan and others.
At regular intervals, a group of members get together to sew the blankets together. The common thread (no pun intended!) may be their craft activities, but this is more than just a group of women who make blankets. The women support each other not only with the search and selection of wool, crochet or knitting patterns, or with technical assistance with a tricky new stitch, but also with all the troubles and tribulations, and the celebrations of their lives. Real friendships have been forged, a community born.