Knitting a Community, Warming Both Hands and Hearts Throughout the City

group of people

Harvey Rice Knit And Crochet Group

Across Cleveland every year, children and adults in need are gifted handmade hats, scarves, blankets, or mittens to help them feel warm and cared for during the cold winter months. This generosity is made possible by volunteers who donate knitted items to Warm Up Cleveland, a program that traces its origins back to one very special Library employee: Diane Mathews.

“She was an avid knitter,” Debbie Hajzak, Outreach and Programming Services Coordinator at Cleveland Public Library, says of Mathews. “It was woven into her identity. You never saw Diane without her knitting bag.”

Hajzak and Mathews met in 1997, when they both worked in the Library’s Science & Technology department, and their friendship blossomed through a shared love of knitting. They knitted together at lunchtime, in the Eastman Reading Garden, and during special knit-ins. Mathews, who loved to knit items for her family, friends, and charity alike, also helped develop the Library’s collection of knitting-related books and materials.

“Knitting was, in many ways, her meditation,” Hajzak says of Mathews. “It was her gift to others and her gift to herself. Her knitting was always with her: on breaks, in the cafeteria, in the reading garden.”

Sadly, cancer took Mathews from her family and the Library too soon. She passed away in March 2010 at the age of sixty-two, a loss that deeply affected those who knew and loved her. Hajzak and others made good on their promise to collect Mathews’s yarn and other knitting supplies to form a crafting network for Library employees. In only three months, Hajzak says, about a dozen employees made 250 items from Mathews’s materials. The items were later donated to local charities, and Warm Up Cleveland was born.

The project was so successful that Warm Up Cleveland went public in 2011, inviting donations of handmade items from community members outside of the Library. The public’s response was enthusiastic, and the number of items made and donated by volunteers has steadily increased every year since. As of early summer 2019, Warm Up Cleveland has donated 13,599 items to charitable organizations, which distribute the hats, mittens, scarves, and blankets to people in need. While the Library will accept store-bought items for donation, the heart of the program surrounds the handmade element.

“We call it Warm Up Cleveland because it’s spreading warmth. Not just the physical warmth of a hat or scarf, but the warmth that someone cares,” Hajzak says. “I know Diane thought the same way—that you’re knitting your good intentions into the item.” The response from program recipients reflects that spirit of goodwill. Hajzak fondly remembers the child who immediately started a snowball fight with friends after donning his new mittens, or the man in a shelter who delighted in trading his old hat for a bright red cable-knit cap topped with a pompom. He proclaimed his new hat superior, Hajzak recalls, “because it’s got love in it.” Today, Warm Up Cleveland donates knitted and crocheted items to nearly a dozen organizations, including shelters, refugee centers, crisis centers, and other local charities. But the warmth doesn’t end there—the Library also uses knitting to help connect patrons and enrich their lives.

Knitting for Love

By encouraging staff and the public to knit, Diane Mathews indirectly inspired the Library to develop free knitting and crocheting groups that provide instruction, materials, and camaraderie.

“The knitting is the medium, and that’s why we get together,” says Eleanor Bergholz, a volunteer who established the Harvey Rice Knit and Crochet Group at Rice Branch, which is currently in its eighth year of operation. “But what we bring to it, and what we get out of it, amounts to so much more. This is really a lifeline for lots of people.”

The Harvey Rice Knit and Crochet Group attracts a diverse range of patrons seeking fellowship along with knitting guidance.

Members describe the group as a family, a community, and a place to build positive relationships. Donating items to Warm Up Cleveland only makes the experience that much sweeter. “When it comes to the community, we don’t do it for show,” says member Lucille White. “We do it for love.”

According to Bergholz, the mere act of knitting offers physical and emotional benefits. It reduces stress, helps people feel centered, and, when done in a group, is a communal act. For example, club members share their handiwork, offer one another advice and encouragement, and even embark on group knitting projects. Finally, Bergholz adds that donating handmade items can be a profound experience for both the giver and the recipient. “To give someone something you made is an amazing thing. It makes the receiver feel loved,” she says. “That’s really powerful.” Knitting isn’t just for adults, either. Bergholz offers a special class for children—both boys and girls—at Rice Branch on Thursday afternoons during the school year. While she acknowledges that it’s sometimes difficult for children to focus on knitting, she believes the act of crocheting or knitting can help sharpen kids’ focus and attention to detail. Knitting may also help alleviate behavioral issues, and some studies suggest it even improves reading skills.

“Like reading, knitting takes a lot of concentration,” Bergholz says. “You stitch from left to right, just the way the words are written. You go one stitch at a time, just like one word at a time when reading, and you have to go patiently until you get to the end of the row. Having that kind of attention and focus is a prerequisite to reading.”

Beginners Welcome

Monica Musser, Manager of the Public Administration Library (PAL), located in Cleveland City Hall, was a knitting novice when she formed the branch’s knitting club several years ago. Popular Library Manager Sarah Flinn, an avid knitter, helped teach the craft to Musser and others when the PAL club got its start. Musser has since become a knitting enthusiast. “It’s a stress reliever,” she says. “If you’re constantly on your phone and you want to give yourself a break from technology, knitting is a great way to do that.”

Musser and Flinn are quick to correct the misconceptions they occasionally hear surrounding knitting. For starters, this isn’t only a pursuit for women; Musser points out that many men enjoy knitting or crocheting, as well. Flinn adds that while some people feel they’re too impatient to knit, the process can actually foster patience and focus. Finally, she adds that mistakes are fixable, so new knitters shouldn’t be discouraged by a fear of failure. “This is not mass-produced perfection. It’s handmade,” Flinn explains. “People sometimes think knitting has to be an arduous thing, but it’s not. It can be simple and fun.”

Knitters of all skill levels, including first-timers, are welcome to attend a knitting group at the Library. No prior knitting experience is needed, and thanks to a robust donation program, the Library is able to provide yarn and supplies to help new knitters get started. Knitters are free to work on items for themselves or to give away as gifts, but many also opt to make items to donate to Warm Up Cleveland or another charitable project. Knitters at PAL and Rice Branch, for example, recently made baby blankets for MetroHealth’s infant loss program. Many volunteers feel a deep sense of accomplishment by donating their items to worthy causes. As an added bonus, they often widen their social circles, too.

“Knitting is a way to connect with people,” Musser says. “If you’re new to the city or you want to feel part of a community, it’s a great way to get started.”

A Happier Place

Whether you’re a knitting newbie or an expert, you can attend one of the Library’s knitting groups to learn a new craft, make a new friend, or embrace the spirit of Diane Mathews by creating something for a person in need. After all, you can’t underestimate the effect your handiwork might have on an appreciative stranger. “Some people might say, ‘What good can a hat do?’ Well, that hat means one person is warm,” Hajzak says. “Every item means something to the person who gets it. If it keeps them warm for a time, and if they know someone cared for them, the world’s a happier place.”

Warm Up Cleveland accepts donations of warm hats, mittens, blankets, shawls, yarn, knitting needles, crochet hooks, and other knitting- and crochet-related supplies at any Cleveland Public Library location. Please contact or 216-623-2921 for more information. For more information about the PAL knitting group, contact 216-623-2919. Please consult the branch listings in this program guide to learn more about knitting groups at the East 131st, Rice, South, South Brooklyn, and West Park Branches.