Why I learned to knit knockers
They're the lightweight, comfortable, confidence-boosters for breast cancer sufferers - and you can stitch them yourself. Meadhbh McGrath joined the Knitted Knockers volunteers for some life-changing plain and purl.
It's a Saturday morning, and I'm in the back room of the local library in Donaghmede, Co Dublin, grappling with a mass of poly fibre as I attempt to stuff it into the tiny opening of a pastel blue crochet pouch.
I'm surrounded by a group of women all carefully massaging the filling to create a more realistic breast shape - for these are "knitted knockers", a soft, light-weight alternative to the silicone prostheses used by women who have had a mastectomy.
Knitted Knockers Ireland was founded in May 2015 by Ann Cooke (52), who was inspired to whip out her crochet needles after bumping into an old friend, Linda Burgess (42), while doing her weekly grocery shopping. The two had worked together as Special Needs Assistants at the local community school for four years, and had kept in touch after Ann left.
"I knew Linda had had a bilateral mastectomy," Ann says. "She mentioned how uncomfortable her prostheses were, and said she couldn't go jogging or cycling." When she got home, Ann decided to have a go at crocheting a pair of prostheses she had seen on a knitting website, and offered them to her friend.
"I jumped at it, and said, 'why not?' I didn't realise what a difference they were going to make, to be honest," Linda says. She now has three pairs, and says they easily slot into a mastectomy bra. "You barely know that they're there, and they're very comfortable, which is particularly important for me at the moment because I have a couple of broken ribs as a side effect from treatment."
Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, for which she underwent a lumpectomy and radiotherapy. However, when the cancer returned towards the end of 2013, she had to have a mastectomy, along with more radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
"The prostheses I was using were very, very heavy and uncomfortable," she explains. "The minute you'd come home you'd just want to take them off, and they're not great in the summer, they're very warm. The knitted knockers are so much better - it feels completely natural, I don't feel like I'm carrying something heavy around that shouldn't be there.
"I don't think I'd ever go back to using the silicone prostheses again."
After making the knockers for Linda, Ann set up an Irish branch of Knitted Knockers, the American organisation offering handmade breast prostheses for women who have undergone mastectomies or other breast procedures.
She worked alone for the first eight months, until January of this year, when the Knitted Knockers Facebook page took off, bringing in new volunteers from around the country. There are now more than 1,000 followers on Facebook, and Knitted Knockers Ireland provides about 200 sets of knockers a month to women across Ireland.
While the visible side effects of breast cancer are often seen as secondary or less important than treatment, Liz Yeates, a cancer survivor and CEO of the Marie Keating Foundation, says a mastectomy can have a profound effect on body image.
"A lot of us put a lot of effort into maintaining our figure, looking well and going on diets, and to remove the breasts can have a devastating effect on you in terms of your body image, in terms of your sexuality, in terms of how you perceive yourself," she explains.
She adds that some women feel guilty for worrying about their figure, and believe they should be focused only on getting rid of the cancer. "You think: 'Am I very vain that I'm thinking about my body?'"
Liz had a mastectomy when she was 47, and opted for reconstructive surgery a short time after her breast was removed. "For that month after I had a mastectomy, I just couldn't look at myself in the mirror. Even wearing a baggy T-shirt, it was so obvious that I had one breast and nothing on the other side," she says.
However, she adds: "I know a few women who didn't have reconstruction and don't wear a prosthesis. It's very obvious that they only have one breast and it doesn't bother them. Every woman is different, and what was important for me might not be important for anybody else."
Linda notes that, although she is happy to walk around at home or with her family and close friends without her knitted knockers, "I would be a little bit conscious if I went out in public without them. I wouldn't go out without wearing the knockers. You want to feel feminine again."
In Donaghmede today, there are 10 women gathered to help fill and package the knockers, a mix of old and new volunteers who share a common interest in knitting.
"We have knitting groups all around the country who are making them and they either post them to me or drop them in," Ann explains. "We have some people who make them regularly and some who make them now and then, and as well as that, some people help fill them or spread the word or design and print the flyers, so it's a joint effort and it's great."
One of the new faces is Heather Buchanan (50), originally from New Zealand but now living in Bayside. "I've had breast cancer myself and I had a mastectomy but I've had a reconstruction," she says. "I saw an ad for Knitted Knockers on a wool website and I just think it's a nice idea to help other women."
Susan Creed (48), living in Knocklyon, also came across the group online. "I saw it on Facebook and I thought it was a joke at first," she explains. "It caught my attention because my mum died of cancer, so I'm always conscious of those things. I tend to knit toys and smaller things, and I have lots of cotton left over from those, so I thought I'd give it a go."
She's since made half a dozen knockers, and says her two sons, aged 17 and 14, get a great laugh out of her knitting projects. "When they ask what I'm making and I say knockers, they'll go, 'for the door?' I say, 'what do you think a knocker might be?'"
The majority of the knockers are made using 100pc acrylic yarn, because as well as being a comfortable and washable material, it is the most cost-effective option. They also provide "swimming knockers", which are filled with the mesh from a net shower puff, because it keeps its shape without absorbing the water.
The more popular sizes, according to Ann, are B and C, although she has made up to a size G on request. The back of each knocker is left open so that women can adjust the size if they wish, removing and kneading the stuffing to achieve their desired fit, before cinching up the back and tucking in the yarn tail.
The group make single knockers and pairs, and tend to use pastel colours, unless someone asks for a particular shade. Once each knocker is filled, they are placed in individual bags and tied with a ribbon bearing two crochet hearts, to symbolise "from one woman to another", Ann explains.
Although Knitted Knockers does not receive funding, she says they have been lucky to receive donations of poly fibre from Royal Upholstery Dublin, as well as occasional wool donations.
"When you're posting a lot of them, it can be quite expensive, so we try to get them to cancer support groups or even some of the wool shops, and that cuts down on postage. But even more important than that, it makes them available locally for people, rather than relying on Facebook. A lot of the women who really need them are the older women who aren't on Facebook," Ann says.
They now have 10 local groups and shops offering knitted knockers for free to women in their local area, but she adds that they would ideally like to have a source in every town.
Pauline Jones (65) from Ballinteer, has been a volunteer with Knitted Knockers since April, and has been knitting for more than 55 years. "I try to do two a week, and I vary the sizes," she says. "I like the fact that it's something I can knit fairly quickly, it's a small size and it's going to benefit other people - and they want them!"
Ann is delighted to see how Knitted Knockers has grown over the past year, with more and more women reaching out every week both to request knockers and to volunteer their knitting services.
"I've spoken to women who have been wearing prostheses for 10 years and had never heard of Knitted Knockers. They ask to try them and they're absolutely delighted," she says. "I like knowing that a hobby for me can make a big difference to somebody else. This is such a simple thing and it can make a huge difference to another woman."
For more information, see Facebook.com/KnittedKnockersIreland, Twitter @KnittKnockIre
Photos by Fran Veale