Life

Knitted Knockers to help breast cancer survivors feel ‘normal'

It's a knitting phenomenon that's taking over Northern Ireland but, as Gail Bell found out, the end product is having a profound effect on the emotional wellbeing of women who have undergone mastectomies

Joanne Harris has brought Knitted Knockers to the north to help women who have undergone mastectomy. Picture by Hugh Russell
Joanne Harris has brought Knitted Knockers to the north to help women who have undergone mastectomy. Picture by Hugh Russell Joanne Harris has brought Knitted Knockers to the north to help women who have undergone mastectomy. Picture by Hugh Russell

IF you haven't heard of them already, don't worry, you soon will.

Knitted Knockers is one of those names you won't forget; conjuring up a jarring, bizarre image of the wholesome and home-made with... well, with something distinctly female – and nothing to do with front doors.

But the brave, bold new brand, with its slightly saucy Barbara Windsor-esque connotations, succinctly sums up the 'can do' attitude of those behind the knitting phenomenon currently click-clacking its way across the north.

The woman responsible, Joanne Harris, makes no apologies for her knitted knockers either; they are literally changing the lives of women who have had a mastectomy and are struggling to feel 'normal' again.

Appearing exactly as they sound, the padded knitwear (complete with knitted nipple) can be discreetly tucked into any bra and has been lauded for its lightness, softness and flexibility – as well as the bright colours used, in cheery defiance of standard issue beige and white mastectomy bras.

Devised in America by cancer survivor Barbara Demorest, for whom breast reconstruction was not an option, their popularity has quickly spread across the globe.

Now, Northern Ireland is the latest country to organise a Knitted Knockers regional group.

Joanne was asked by Knitted Knockers pioneer 'Barb' to head-up the local group in July, and it has been something of a baptism of fire for the Dollingstown woman who says she has been totally "overwhelmed" by the response so far.

"I held an information evening recently in Portadown and I was hoping about 20 people would show up, so I couldn't believe it when 120 people came to hear more about what we are aiming to do," she says.

"I now have a dedicated committee and over 70 volunteers. It was very humbling to know there are so many women – and men – out there, ready and willing to help.

"We had people offering to get knitting at home or in small groups, while others have said they will provide wool, 'stuffing' or needles for the cause.

"Knitted Knockers has taken on a life of its own very quickly."

The group's first sponsored knit-in takes place at Craigavon Civic Centre on Saturday August 27, from 9am to 1pm, involving around 100 knitters, with the second monthly event planned for Belfast on Saturday September 24 in a location to be confirmed.

Joanne, whose daughter Hope is helping in the new endeavour, was inspired to start up Knitting Knockers after a life-long friend had a mastectomy and was struggling to cope with an "uncomfortably heavy" mastectomy bra.

"My friend found her prosthesis to be heavy and reviews on Google of breast prostheses found many women had the same complaint – the silicone moves, sweats, makes popping noises, can be easily punctured, and, through time, disintegrates," Joanne explains.

"I've known her since we were five-years-old and I was upset to hear her complain that her silicone prosthesis felt like wearing a heavy handbag over her shoulder.

"I really thought there should be something better available and I was determined to find it."

And, like all things sought and found in the modern age, she turned to the internet – and, purely by chance, came across Knitted Knockers.

"Immediately, I thought it sounded a brilliant idea," says Joanne.

"So I emailed the woman who started it all in Washington and she emailed me back to ask if I would be a provider for Northern Ireland, which was still a blank space on the Knitted Knockers map."

Currently, the committee is being guided through the process of formally setting up as a charity and a company limited by guarantee by the Social Enterprise Hub.

"This means Knitted Knockers of Northern Ireland will be transparent, with accounts and yearly reports being lodged with the Charity Commission and Company House," Joanne adds.

"It's all new to me, but I am learning as I go."

Surprisingly, the actual process of knitting is also new to her – well, almost.

"That's the funny bit," Joanne laughs.

"I hadn't picked up a pair of knitting needles in 34 years – I know that because the last thing I knitted was babywear for my cousin's son, and he's now 34.

"The great thing is, if you are little rusty on the knitting front, or even if you have never done any knitting before, you can still get involved as we will have knitting tutors on hand at the knit-ins and patterns to follow.

"The pattern will also be on the website, with step-by-step instructions."

Knitted Knockers (100 per cent cotton yarn) come in all the standard bra sizes and styles – tags are even designed to attach to balcony-type bras – and the stuffing used is either soft polyester or a shower-type 'scrunchie' for swimwear.

The need is great: in the Craigavon area alone, there are around 70 to 80 women with breast cancer who are unable or unwilling to have reconstructive surgery and so rely on prostheses for an emotional as well as practical 'lift'.

Always free-of-charge, Knitted Knockers will soon be available in breast clinics and hospitals across Northern Ireland as well as in some stores – Debenhams at Rushmere shopping centre in Craigavon has agreed to keep a supply in its lingerie department.

"Fundraising events will become a regular and necessary part of our work," Joanne concludes.

"As well as the monthly sponsored knits, we are planning a 'Knit-Around-the-Lough' event which will be a chance for men and women to knit for their friends and loved ones who have suffered or are still suffering from cancer.

"We would also like businesses to cover the cost of tea, scones and lunch at our events, as it takes three-to-four hours to knit one knocker.

"At the minute, there's lot to think about and lots of meetings to attend and at times I wonder what I have taken on.

"It might all seem like hard work, but when my friend says she feels 'normal' again and could go out and buy a frilly bra if she wants, it makes everything worthwhile."

:: For more information visit Knittedknockersofni.co.uk or email Joanne at knockersofni@gmail.com.