Students circled around a table chatting, laughing and twisting yarn with hooks and needles making dragon scales, tiny elephants and a whale.

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It was the weekly meeting of Knit Wits, a University of Minnesota Duluth knit and crochet club.

The meetings are casual - after announcements, it's on to listening to music and making stuff.

One structured element is they participate in one service project and one group fundraiser a year, said club president Emily Ferrier. In the past, they've made preemie hats for St. Luke's and afghans for Afghans. This year, they're raising awareness for mental health issues one crocheted heart at a time.

Knit Wits partnered with the Peyton Heart Project, which is a global effort to help end suicide, bullying and the stigma around mental health issues. Knit Wits attaches tags with different messages such as "Be true to you" or "Collect beautiful moments," and they drop around campus.

Club members said being in the group alone was a plus for mental health.

It helped make campus feel homey, said Sydney Davies, 23. "There are familiar faces."

"It's a good socializing event for all of the introverts," said Camryn Monzo, 20.

Monzo is involved in two UMD clubs; otherwise, she's in the library or in class. "They're basically one of my safety nets for sanity, in the literal sense."

Hannah Schlotthauer, 20, is a sophomore, and she said joining Knit Wits freshman year helped her adjust. "I have anxiety, pretty severe. I had panic attacks in high school, and that was one of my biggest fears coming to UMD, that I wouldn't find anyone to relate to.

"Finding Knit Wits and being a part of this group has really eased those fears," she said.

For Schlotthauer, knitting and crocheting is also a tie to family. Her great-grandmother showed her how to knit when she was 5.

"When I was 13, she passed away, and I found in her wicker knitting basket a picture of us. ... sitting together and crocheting. It hit me that this is something I should do to try to keep on that memory."

Knowing how to knit or crochet isn't a prerequisite; they'll teach you. Newbies start off with easier projects like hats or scarves, and the group has supplies for beginners to practice with and check out.

And the group learning effort extends to the experienced.

Ferrier and club vice president Beka Lepak have been knitting and crocheting for years, and in the club, they've learned different ways to purl and how to weave in ends on projects.

As a student organization, Knit Wits receives funding. They also sell their work to raise money. Last year, they made more than $100 from fundraisers, and that goes to supplies.

"It's an expensive hobby, but it also lasts a long time," Monzo said.

Knitting and crocheting is a good way to exorcise stress, they said.

Ferrier puts anger or frustration into her crafts. "When I get mad, I knit or crochet very fast."

"Mine get really tight," Lepak said of her stitches.

Turning those feelings into something for someone else is gratifying, they said.

For Lepak, that's due to the tempo and the rhythm of it. "I'm Catholic, so I pray rosaries, and the feeling and repeated sounds are super soothing. It lets my stress go."

The club is also mindful of the effect the craft's repeated motions can render on the body. Schlotthauer has had blisters and neck kinks. Lepak, tennis elbow.

Their tips are taking breaks, stretching arms and fingers, even wearing a brace for support and switching it up with cross-stitching or embroidery.

The fruits of knitting or crocheting, and being a group member extend further, Schlotthauer said

"I found a change in myself where I was able to be bolder and more open with people by having this in my life. ... It's not only a source of inspiration, but almost a spiritual experience getting to sit and talk with other people and enjoy creating."

Ferrier will attend Minnesota State University Mankato next year. During her interview for graduate school, she was asked how she intended to handle the stress. "Well, I'm part of this club, and I'm just going to bring it along with me," she recalled.

 

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When Ashley Radtke toured the College of St. Scholastica, she saw a poster for the Knit and Crochet Club. "I felt at home because I'd been doing it for a long time, and I was like, 'Those are my people.'"

Now a junior at CSS and the president of the club, she takes the lead in event planning and budget requests for what she calls "a stress-relief club."

During a recent Wednesday night, an episode of "Park and Recreation" was projected on screen amid chatter and laughter. Cassie Hierlinger, 21, knitted a multicolored potholder for her mother. Hierlinger said the club offers a fun atmosphere where they can forget about schoolwork for an hour.

For club vice president Whitney Gearhart, 22, knitting and crocheting was a hobby she picked up in college. Gearhart was making orange mittens for her roommate. "They're taking longer than they should because of homework," she said with a smile.

Some members contribute to the pool of club projects, but they don't regularly attend meetings, Gearhart said. Attendance isn't mandatory and that's a big draw for Maddie Swenson, 21.

"It's the only club that I can be a part of."

She's been a member for four years, and she's thankful to have had the club this long.

"We would watch 'Vanderpump Rules.' We would order Chinese food, and we would knit together. Honestly, that brought me through freshman year," Swenson said.

During a recent visit, some followed craft patterns from printouts, others from laptops, and not all were knitting. Cassie Dee, 19, pushed a needle through fabric on a vibrant cross-stitch project.

Some attendants were fabric-less.

Haley Richards, 19, and Mary O'Malley, 25, sat on the table top and chatted. Richards intends to learn how to knit, but for now she likes coming for the people - and she can get help on Spanish homework. It O'Malley's second visit, and she already felt a sense of belonging. One of the Benedictine values at CSS is community, and the Knit and Crochet Club exemplifies that, she said.

For supplies, the group has a large and full needle and hook case. They go through more hooks because learning to crochet (one needle) is less intimidating than learning to knit (two needles), Radtke said.

Most of the needles are donated from the monastery or other staff members. The club also receives money from student senate for supplies, and they also raise money by selling their items every other year. (It takes a while to build an inventory, Radtke said.)

The Knit and Crochet club sorts their projects by donatable articles or for-sale items. They typically give items to Safe Haven or St. Luke's cancer center, they said. It can be hard to decide where to send their projects because everyone has a need, Gearhart said, but she likes that her hobby can be helpful to others.

Faculty adviser Donna Wick said her job is easy because the student leaders are very organized. Where she comes in is general oversight, making sure they're hitting their requirement of community service - and she gets to knit, too.

Being in the Knit and Crochet club has helped Radtke grow and learn to embrace leadership roles, she said. Also, she's learned a new way to sew granny squares together and how to knit cables.

In the future, Radtke hopes the group can craft a quilt together for a possible donation. For now, a big draw is that others get to come together and enjoy a passion of hers.

To keep it going, the group has student executive officer interns that will take over when members graduate. "We'll know we have people who want to keep the club going," Gearhart said. And the Knit and Crochet club recently launched a Knitting and Nibbles event every other Friday, where campus members can learn the craft.

Brianna Gerold, 19, said the club offers a time to create and build community.

"It's like a second family," Radtke said.

If you go

What: CSS Knit and Crochet Club

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays

Where: CSS Tower building, room 2607

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What: Knitting and Nibbles

When: 3:30-5 p.m. March 23 and every other Friday

Where: CSS Student Union

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What: Knit Wits, UMD's knit and crochet club

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays

Where: UMD, RCD 351