Iowa City knitting store donates thousands of hats to elementary school kids

Edyie Stika stands behind a gilded wooden counter covered with balls of yarn, knitting patterns, miniature sparkly stockings and an old-fashioned cash register.

Hanging from a golden chain just above her curly hair is an upside-down rainbow of texture and color made up of dozens of children’s hats.

Soon they will start keeping Iowa City kids warm this winter.

Iowa City knitters have donated about 9,600 handmade hats to local elementary schools every winter for the past three decades — judging by the roughly 300 hats donated a year and the tradition that lives on at Knitting Shopped on Muscatine Avenue since 1989.

“Those of us who have something need to share with those who don’t. And that just makes sense; we can knit. We can make hats. We can make mittens. We can make warm things for people in the winter. And I just think it’s a really fun thing to do,” said store owner Stika.

“Everybody wins.”

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This year’s prize is larger than usual, as the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited the store from making its annual donation last winter.

Preparing to create a new hat, knitters are faced with a list of decisions: the size of the needle, the weight of the yarn – i.e. its thickness – and the number of stitches per inch, or ” gauge”. Then it remains to choose a pattern, such as a color intarsia, a finicky lace, an elegant jersey or a rebellious garter stitch.

An essential element for any hat visionary is to ensure the yarn strikes a balance between warmth and comfort. This is not always a simple task, as many of the most winter-hardy yarns are made of itchy wool, unbearable against bare skin.

Taking all of these factors into account, the average time commitment is around eight hours per hat.

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Stika estimates that these 76,800 dedicated hours over three decades were mostly given by a small dedicated group of 12 to 20 pairs of hands. It is difficult to say how many with certainty, because sometimes organizations participate. Some regulars donate 30 or more hats a year.

Stika stores the hats in the basement of its shop throughout the year, preparing for the changing weather. She makes calls at local elementary schools including Mark Twain, Alexander, Lucas, Wood, Mann and Coralville Central.

Each year’s hats are different. But Stika has noticed that knitters like to keep up to date. (When the 2015 movie “Minions” was popular, for example, knitters responded with their share of themed hats). But there are also regular appearances, like the obligatory black-and-gold design and its own annual staple: a blue-and-white design featuring polar bears.

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Sitting at the wooden table in the middle of the store, Stika will help anyone who walks into the store with a question about their model. She’s been knitting since she was around 20, and does it with her left hand – a rarity in the knitting world.

“Now I can knit left-handed, right-handed, blindfolded. It doesn’t matter,” she said.

One Friday afternoon, she is sitting at this same table knitting a blue and red children’s sweater for a family member. The pattern she’s referring to would be tricky for the average knitter to decipher — apparently not for her — and with each stitch, she’s coming up with an intricate portrait of Spiderman.

Stika plans to continue bringing the community together to donate hats for as long as possible. For people who have never knitted before, but want to, her advice is to get help. Come to the store, she said, and she will teach you.

“That table is still there,” she said. “If people want to come sit and knit, they can come sit and knit anytime.”

Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at ckrejci@press-citizen.com or on Twitter via @_CleoKrejci.