An organisation founded in the United States offers women who have had mastectomies an alternative option to traditional silicone breast prostheses: knitted breasts, or what they’ve snappily named “knitted knockers”.
Barbara Demorest, who founded the organisation Knitted Knockers, says that traditional silicone prostheses can be hot, heavy, sticky, and very expensive. Knitted prostheses are soft and so can be worn against mastectomy scars or stitches; they’re very light, and they’re free. KnittedKnockers.org works by enlisting the help of knitters all over the world to make the knitted breasts, which are then sent out for free to women who have ordered them via the website.
Demorest’s idea for the charity came from her own experience. She had a unilateral mastectomy [when one breast is removed] in 2011 and was devastated when she was unable to have reconstruction right away because of medical complications. She was also told that she couldn’t put anything on the scars on her chest for at least six weeks. Her doctor told her about a small local initiative that he’d heard of: a woman who had come up with the idea for knitted prostheses – although he had never seen one himself. Demorest told a friend of hers, an avid knitter, about it, and her friend offered to make some for her.
“I could get a hug without feeling self-conscious”
About a week later I ventured out into public for the first time. I put on a loose-fitting jacket, put a sock in my bra, and I was extremely self-conscious. When I saw my friend, she gave me a bag with knitted knockers inside. I went into the bathroom and put one on. It was so soft, and light, and beautiful, and could be worn in a regular bra rather than an ugly old-lady mastectomy bra. After that, I reengaged with life. I could get a hug without feeling self-conscious.
I knew then that other women needed to know about this. I went to my doctor and asked if he would distribute knockers to other women if we provided them. That was five and a half years ago.
Demorest was not the originator of the idea – she spoke to the woman who had first published the knitting patterns online, and asked her if she could “take the ball and run with it”. The woman was delighted that someone else was able to popularise the concept, and so "Knitted Knockers" was born.
Demorest set up a group of volunteers that bought their own yarn, and they gave the knitted knockers free to local clinics and hospitals. The demand locally was so huge that Demorest realised that it was important to inspire and equip knitters and crocheters elsewhere to start making them. She set up the website and Facebook page, and posted knitting patterns for free online.
From those humble beginnings, the organisation has expanded – there are now 250 registered groups of knitters for the charity within the US, and outposts in 14 different countries. The charity sends out over a thousand knockers every month, and has sent them out as far afield as Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
The way it works is this: people can get involved in a local knitting group or can register online to knit for the organisation as solo knitters. The volunteer knitters provide their own yarn and are not paid for their work. They send their finished knockers to the organisation, which fills them with stuffing (Demorest says they organise ‘stuffing parties’ to get through large batches at once) and sends them out in a package with a pouch and care instructions included. The organisation subsists entirely on donations, mostly coming through the website.
“A space for women to communicate their stories”
One thing I hadn’t anticipated in providing these free breast prostheses to women everywhere is that we’ve provided a really safe space for women to communicate their stories to us. People will go to great lengths to explain about the struggles that they’ve had, and I think that many of us silently suffer through that. And all of a sudden here’s a vehicle through which to talk about it, with people who understand the experience. What’s beautiful is that the people receiving the knitted knockers are receiving them from people in their own community. A local group can adopt someone and knit for them.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death amongst women. The NGO BreastCancer.org says that one in eight women in the US will get breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.
The organisation took a trip to east Africa in 2016 after the Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa got in touch to ask for advice on making the knockers. Demorest and other women in the organisation each raised enough money to fund their travel to Rwanda, where they trained 30 women to make the knockers. They also met with hospitals and regional clinics to raise awareness of knitted knockers, and set up a scheme whereby knitters are paid by hospitals to provide knitted knockers — giving them an income and providing breast cancer survivors with other prosthetics options.
Demorest says that she is more fulfilled by her work running this charity than she ever was working for a pay cheque.
It’s been life changing. My son recently asked me, ‘If you could have gone back and not have had breast cancer, would you?’ And I can honestly say, I wouldn’t. I have such passion and purpose in life now that I never would have had without this. The opportunity to reach out and help other women is just everything to me.