A Passion for Literacy and Service, Knitted Together

Sabrina Carnesi is a middle school librarian with a passion for knitting. We met at a multicultural literature conference in Norfolk, Va., and when she started to tell me about her knitting program for students, I was utterly fascinated. You will be, too.

Tell me a little about your program.

The name of my student knitting circle is Knitting4Life. The rule for being a participating member in the circle is to knit four items of whatever project has been assigned: the first well-made item goes to the less fortunate; the second item goes to a friend; the third item goes to a family member; and the last to self. If the student does not have a friend or family member who can use the items, they are all contributed to someone in need.  Our first meeting was held in October 2009, at the beginning of my second year in the building.

What kinds of kids join your program? How do they grow in the program?

Most students come from various socioeconomic backgrounds with as varied a profile of personalities. (So far, the boys have not lasted too long, although they are made aware that there are male knitters in the world.) The circle seems to break everyone down to the same plane of existence, because each student depends on the other for their knitting survival. They have to help each other out with practicing their newly acquired skills. The loud aggressive girls learn how to speak softly. The quiet shy students learn to assert themselves. All the members come to realize that their skill is one that helps others across the age groups, because they work on projects used from infancy to adulthood.

When my first circle started, they were teased unmercifully by students calling them granny…until they produced their first hat… and their first scarf…then the requests rolled in to make them a hat or scarf too…and it became a status to wear a handmade hat by their new friend. Nowadays there’s no more name calling, but the requests definitely roll in.

K4L students at a daily knitting session

What is your own history with knitting?

My experience with knitting started in my grandmother’s house by simply observing and assisting in rolling the yarn that she got from her brother’s sheep. This yarn was seldom dyed or treated, but made the warmest hats and bed socks you can imagine. When I reached the magical age of 9, I made my first hand-sewn monstrosity that was referred to as a dress (I had to wear it in public too). I knew the knitting was soon coming and was absolutely delighted that my first knit project (a hat) was not as poorly made as my first dress. My grand also knew how to crochet, can veggies and fruit, and make potpourri from her rose petals and apple peelings and cores (from the apple tree in our yard, of course) and poor little me had to learn how to do it all.

Now almost 50 years later, I am so grateful for what my grandmother taught me. I even have my own sheep that I pay for the feeding of so I can now have winter hats and bed socks just like the ones I use to have as a little girl.

How / why did you decide to start this program?

Initially, I wanted to use the group as a catalyst to help change the culture of my school building. I observed many students, at that time, showing much interest in sporting elite brands but not harboring a sense of giving back to their community. As a child, I constantly saw adults in my hometown giving back. This was also something that was verbally communicated…that everyone, no matter how small or humble the talent, was responsible for using that talent to share with others.
What I soon came to understand was that many students didn’t realize they had something of value to share or give back. They underestimated the strength of their abilities and were more aware of their voids and weaknesses. My heart was so torn. As the school librarian, I used checkout time to have quick book chats and human interest chats about service empowerment…nothing overbearing… for example, I spoke to my cookbook squad about their love for cooking and how they could use that to help others. The more I spoke to the students one-on-one, the more I thought about what I could do personally. That’s when the idea of knitting came to mind.

What kind of community support do you get? What kind of support do you give back?

We have annual projects that we work on each year: children’s scarves for Christmas baskets at our town’s “Downtown Christmas Party” and preemie hats for NICUs in our two area hospitals. The preemie hats are our most popular projects, because no one believes that the hats were knitted by middle schoolers. I also like the circle to practice their technique on the baby hats, because if they can successfully make an infant hat, they can then make one for themselves.

My first community cheerleader was Sheila Reuben, the owner of one of our local knitting shops, the Village Stitchery. She allowed our girls to come to the shop and sit in the back room for a session. She also gave us leftover yarn and loads of yarn for give-away prices. Her own knitting circle started coming down to share their projects with my knitters. Word has gotten around and we are constantly finding bags of yarn left at our door with no name…just a bag of yarn.

A lot of people are going to think, knitting is really nice, but what does that have to do with literacy? How do you make that connection in your library?

When K4L knitters began to conduct research for new knitting patterns, they use both print and digital resources and communicate with each other via emails, text messaging and social networks.

A school library’s program is deeply entrenched in providing guidance for students to successfully access information for academic and personal needs. For academic purposes, the steps for accessing information and completing a final project are called the inquiry process. Knitters go through the same exact same steps for each new knitting project as students go through to complete a research project, from generating questions and collecting information, to organizing materials and evaluating the project. (For a complete list of how knitting develops research skills, read Carnesi’s article, A Common Chord in Our Beliefs, in Knowledge Quest, Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, starting on page 62.)

What hopes do you have for the future?

Members of the circle impact the lives of everyone around them with their skills. Parents come to me all the time with testimonies of how K4L has totally turned their child around as a person. What I wish for in the future, is that one day my older knitters that have gone on to high school will feel a need to start a Knitting4Life circle in their schools and pass the skill and service tradition on.

K4L also has a photo blog at http://cmsk4l.edublogs.org/research-skills-and-knitting/. You can also visit Carnesi’s main library web page at http://mariehollandlibrary.edublogs.org/.

Wendy Shang just may attempt her first knitting project for the holidays.


  1. Thank you for your comments, everyone! Once I met Sabrina, I just knew that the Mixed-Up community would want to hear about her work. It was so hard to keep the article to a reasonable size, there was so much to talk about! @olugbemisola, thank you for the reading recommendations, too!

  2. It’s so great you are teaching kids to knit! If you don’t have a mother or grandmother to teach you, it’s hard to learn but it’s so great for kids because it’s very relaxing and yet productive. What a great idea!

  3. This post makes me happy in all kinds of ways! Thanks for highlighting this work, and the strong connections between knitting and literacy. Knitting involves many different types of reading, and some knitting books provide even more insight into cultural traditions that go along with knitting styles and techniques. Knitwear design also provides opportunities to try different types of “writing” as well. I highly recommend the works of Mary Walker Phillips, Elizabeth Zimmermann, Barbara Walker, and Shirley Paden for inspiration and just great reading! (There were also a couple of books, Knitting for Good, and Knitting for Peace, a few years ago, that touch on the topic of knitting and service.)

  4. Wendy, what an amazing post! I loved it, and I love what it’s doing for the students, especially how the aggressive girls learn to speak softly and the quiet ones become more assertive. Thank you so much for sharing this story!

  5. Wendy, thanks for inviting Sabrina to share. Sabrina, keep this up. So vital to teach children to share and give back. Some Bible study groups include a component of knitting. I don’t know details. There’s bound to be many different knitting group structures. All worthwhile. And of course, reading and writing are a part of this, like with most everything else.