Some of the carnies visiting town for the Montana Fair have a new hobby: knitting hats for babies and neck-warmers for soldiers.
Self-titled the Itty Bitty Knitting Committee, the group gathers to share stitching knowledge and enjoy each others’ company in the months they are away from home.
“The carnival is pretty much a melting pot, but I would not normally be sitting down socially with most of these girls, so this brings us together,” said Margaret Atkins, one of the third-generation owners of The Mighty Thomas Carnival.
At Atkins’ urging, the group of about 15 food vendors, game operators and others began meeting to learn how to knit in May.
“It’s a difficult thing to learn because you drop stitches and make mistakes and so this gives them a support group,” said Atkins, who picked up knitting needles again when her first grandchild was on the way five years ago.
It wasn’t until she had lost two grandchildren, though, that she decided to start sharing the craft with carnival employees.
Atkins, 62, spent last winter knitting miniature booties for premature babies. The work offered therapy after her daughter’s premature twins died about 15 months ago. An anonymous knitter had left little booties for them when they were still alive.
“I’ve found that when you make things for people, you think about them,” Atkins said.
Despite days that often run 12 hours or more, the new carnival knitters have managed since May to knit 65 miniature hats for premature babies that they are now donating to Billings Clinic. And for their next group project, they are knitting wool neck-warmers for soldiers in Afghanistan.
“It’s very relaxing and after a stressful day it’s really nice,” said Laura Miller, a 31-year-old Billings native who joined the carnival 13 years ago.
Through the knitting group, Miller has also made her 3-year-old son a scarf and a blanket, and she has quit smoking cigarettes.
“It’s helped me,” Miller said. “It gives me something to do with my hands.”
While the meditative repetition of stitching row upon row can be a welcome release from the hard work of carnival life, the projects are also a chance to learn how to keep going when things don’t go well, Atkins said.
“Sometimes in your life you can’t fix your mistakes, but this is a process where you can,” she said. “I think that’s been good for some of them. Maybe they’ve never been challenged to make it as good as they can.”