Knit one, purl one for the Mission

An army of knitters offer literal and spiritual warmth for seafarers

By Verity Relph

Even at the best of times, life on the ocean can be challenging. Rough seas, the threat of piracy and shipwreck, and distance from loved ones can make seafaring one of the toughest occupations. Add to this the harsh climatic conditions they contend with, one can see how a woolly hat would be an appropriate gift for someone working at sea.

Every day the Mission to Seafarers receives parcels of hats, gloves and scarves from a vast team of volunteer knitters. The knitted items are then sent out to ports where they are handed out to seafarers visiting centres or delivered on board by the Mission’s port chaplains during their ship visits.

Out on the open sea, weather plays a major role in the life of seafarers. Many are away from the warmer shores of home and the hats, balaclavas and mittens are a welcome comfort as they brave rough seas and cold, biting winds. However, the knitted items offer much more than the gift of warmth. Receiving a gift, a reminder of home and home comforts, and knowing that someone has taken the time to knit for them and that there are people out there who really care, can carry even greater importance.

This is something that the Revd Mark Lawson-Jones, Port Chaplain for South Wales, came to reflect on after an encounter on a large bulk carrier. He met with the cook who had a few minutes to spare before the crew arrived for their mid-morning break. “As I unpacked my bag, placing information, biscuits and woolly hats on the table, the cook joined me, regarding the hats closely. Eventually, he chose one, a magnificent woolly hat which looked warm and sturdy. The mixture of dark green and yellow yarn was complimented well by a flash of orange, which seemed to set it apart. ‘Thank you! I now need to take a picture with you’ he said.

“As soon as he had taken the photo, he was quickly adding text to a message. ‘Why the photo?’ I asked. He responded, ‘It is for my wife, children and my mother’. Like many seafarers, he had been away for many months and had seen some severe weather and difficult voyages. His family were constantly worried about him, they wanted to make sure he would be home safe soon. ‘The picture’ he said, trying to find the right words, ‘the picture will show them that even though I am a long way away, there are people who are caring for me, you brought me a hat and visited to speak, to see if I am happy’. He thought for a moment and continued ‘When I go home, I will show them this hat and tell them about this place and you’”.

Returning to the car and looking at the box, Mark saw for the first time the true significance of the woolly hats: “They are practical, they keep people warm when work is difficult. They are pastoral, they show there is a link between the generous and kind people who knit them and the seafarers who serve us so well. They are also permanent, once given they are a memory for both the seafarer and their loved ones of how, even though thousands of miles away from home, someone knitted the gift for them, and someone from the Mission to Seafarers took the time to seek them out and give them that gift, to show them they aren’t forgotten and their work is appreciated.”

Knitting for seafarers is a long and well-established tradition, and indeed one that only seems to be growing. Who are these volunteers who put in hours and hours creating the hand-knitted items? What motivates these people to knit for seafarers? “We seem to have caught the imagination of a large group of people,” says Mark, “They feel that they can really involve themselves in our work and ‘do good’ from their armchairs.”

Cathy Kingsbury, office administrator for the Mission, has spent many hours parcelling up bags of knitting to send out to ports and corresponding with knitters. The letters she has received reveal some of the different reasons people knit for seafarers. Some have personal connections, perhaps a father or husband who was in the merchant navy, others find the knitting therapeutic and enjoy the sense of purpose it brings: “It is so positive to talk to the knitters and hear how much they enjoy knitting for seafarers. Whether in a group or at home on their own – one lady even taught an older gentleman in her care home to knit! – they say things like ‘after my husband died I was depressed and lonely and now that I have the knitting group I have a sense of purpose again.’”

For some communities, such as Selsey in West Sussex, it is the connection to the sea which drives the cause. The Missionary Working Group of St Peter’s Church have been knitting together for some 30 years – and possibly even longer. Currently, 6 members of the community meet twice a month to knit together. They take it in turns to host the group at each other’s houses, each putting £2 in the kitty for the host to provide tea and cake. With a centre not too far away in Southampton, the Mission has a strong presence in the town. Reflecting on what motivates the group to knit, one of the organisers commented, “The hats keep the seafarers warm so they must be a bit of a blessing, and seafarers feel we are doing things for them”.

Joyce Bone specialises in knitting balaclavas

Another knitting group from Rudgwick, West Sussex, meet every Wednesday for a book exchange where people come for a cup of coffee and a chat, which is followed by a knit and natter group. Among the members is 90-year-old Joyce Bone, who specialises in balaclavas, which she can churn out at astonishing speed. Marilyn Quail, who organises the group, explained how the knitting came about: “I suggested the Mission to Seafarers because there was a call out for knitting a few years ago. I knew about the Mission through my husband who was a merchant seaman.” She adds that he has very fond memories of “going down to the ‘Mish’” in his seafaring days. The group have missed gathering to knit and chat together during the lockdown, with some taking to WhatsApp to share what they have been knitting at home.

The knitting has meaning both for the seafarers who receive them and for those who knit, which is perhaps why the tradition has endured for so long. In many ways, the hats act as tokens of love and friendship that manage to transcend geographical and cultural differences.

One seafarer from the Philippines was in Norway when he was given a hat for the first time. He gave his view on what it meant to receive a hat after 9 months at sea: “One day someone gets onboard and gives you something, and honestly you feel like they give you a gold bar. It is like there is someone out there giving a care. You don’t know who they are but they give a useful material to you that you can use at your work.”

That someone – a total stranger – should take the time to sit down with their needles and yarn, and knit a warm, colourful hat as a gift, above all makes seafarers feel cared about and appreciated. It is the extra warmth they provide but also the feeling that they are not forgotten, which, in these challenging times when crews are having to stay on ship well beyond their contracts, is more important than ever.