Knitty City owner Pearl Chin. Photo: Leslie Gersing
Barbara Demorest figured her cancer doctor wasn’t making small talk when he asked if she could knit. The Washington state resident learned complications from a mastectomy prevented her from getting reconstructive surgery. Her doctor said the heavy, rubbery inserts worn in special post-mastectomy bras don’t work for everyone: they get hot and sweaty, irritate surgery scars, and cost $300 to $500. He showed her a printout of a hand-made, breast-shaped pillow with a link to a website.
Demorest immediately contacted the source — a yarn-store owner in Maine who had undergone mastectomy, and got her permission to share the pattern. She then asked a friend to knit her one.
“It changed my life,” she told a gathering at Knitty City on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It was soft, it was light, it was made by somebody who cared, and I could wear it in my bra ... and my doctor said I could wear as it as soon as I could tolerate wearing a bra.”
That was six years ago. Now Demorest heads an all-volunteer foundation, giving out at least 1,000 prosthetics a month. More than 300 groups in the U.S. and 16 countries have joined the cause, donating the inserts to women, through doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, breast cancer support groups, and directly, through KnittedKnockers.org.
The hand-made “knockers” are the latest campaign of “craftivism” at Knitty City, an 11-year-old small business at 79th and Amsterdam Avenue which got international exposure last spring, making thousands of pink “pussy” hats for marchers protesting the Trump administration. Store owner Pearl Chin also donates yarn to an Asian women’s organization, holds free knitting classes during the summer in Bryant Park, and is handing out patterns to make “welcome blankets” for new immigrants.
Regulars gather on Tuesdays. However, anyone can come to the store for free patterns, help and discounts on yarn used to make the “knockers.” Chin expects Breast Cancer Awareness Month to generate even more interest in the project, which benefits LatinaSHARE, a support group serving low-income women of color in New York. When Chin brought them samples, “They looked at the colors and they said, ‘well, could you make them more colorful?’” And, they told her, cup-size matters: “’We’ll have to have them larger than that — C’s or D’s.’”
Maria Estrella, LatinaSHARE coordinator and volunteer breast cancer patient navigator at Bellevue Hospital, says the inserts can help many women feel more comfortable after mastectomy. While “the majority opt for reconstruction,” she says, healing, chemo and radiation can delay the procedure “up to a year.”
The American Cancer Society estimates one in eight women (252,710) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, including 16,000 New Yorkers. While mastectomies are on rise, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons says, “less than half of all women who undergo mastectomy are currently offered breast reconstruction surgery, and fewer than 20 percent ... undergo immediate reconstruction.”
In December, Demorest traveled to Rwanda to teach women how to make their own “knockers,” after learning reconstruction isn’t an option for most of them. They told her that some women are taught breast cancer is a curse, and were dying of shame rather than live with disfiguring surgery.
One Knitty City customer shows off a pair of purple knockers to the group, adding that she “says a prayer,” for the women who will get them. Others say they plan to attach personal messages to their finished projects. Demorest nods, telling the group she often gets asked, “Why not manufacture the prosthetics and sell them?”
“We’d be meeting one need, but we would be losing out so much on that caring factor,” says Demorest. “When you make the Knitted Knockers, you feel the sense of purpose with your knitting and your crocheting. You are making a difference in somebody’s life.”