At 86, Charles Stickney of Cummington is a man of many (knitted) hats
Above, Charles Stickney, 86, of Cummington knits a prayer shawl recently for the Cummington Village Congregational Church.
Below, some of the 100 hats that Charles Stickney has knitted cover the top of a trunk where he stores his yarn.
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Readers of famed children’s author Dr. Seuss’ books will recall his well-known children’s story “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” about a young peasant whose head mysteriously sprouts hats.
Turns out, there’s a Bartholomew of sorts in Cummington, although its his hands that are creating the hats.
Eighty-six-year-old Charles Stickney has been busy knitting hats — 100 of them, over the last two years.
“It’s almost like yoga or meditation. I concentrate on a pattern and color. I find it very relaxing,” he said, speaking recently at his Luther Shaw Road home.
He knits to keep busy, he says, and because, “I don’t like to watch television.”
The hats are a variety of colors, sizes and styles. He gives the hats away to friends and others, selling a few to raise money to replenish his yarn supply.
“I’ve always been fascinated with fibers, especially wool. I grew up in the Adirondacks and never saw a sheep until I was 18 years old,” when he glimpsed his first sheep in Albany, he said.
After he came to live in Massachusetts in 1981, he visited Cummington’s Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, where weavers and spinners gather from all over New England to compete — and was hooked.
“I never developed skills to do anything well, so I chose hats. It covers up a lot of mistakes. If you’ve done something terribly wrong, it’s only two or three days work; for a blanket, it’s six months,” he said. “As a result of the fair, I attempted to spin my own yarn,” he said.
Stickney has been given most of his yarn, though, which he keeps in a trunk that once belonged to the “Sugar House Girls,” the late Helen Van Alstyne and Dorothy Levens, who once owned his home. A converted sugar house, it served as the pair’s summer home for 50 years before Stickney bought it in 1998.
Alstyne and Levens initiated a townwide knitting effort 50 years ago, he said, to send boxes of hats and gloves for the children living in Indian reservations in the Southwest, where Alstyne, who was a doctor, completed her residency.
Recently, Stickney has taken a detour from his hat-making project to knit a 3-by-6-foot prayer shawl, which is traditionally given to someone suffering a progressive illness, or had surgery or a major loss, one of a dozen people doing so for members in need at the Cummington Village Congregational Church.
“It’s a winter blanket that someone takes to them, made lovingly by hand,” he said. The shawl he’s knitting is a rich purple with flecks of “black baby llama fur,” he said.
Honoring special requests, he has included cat fur in some of the hats, laying the fur on top, knitting it in. It assumes a texture of steel wool, he said.
When he incorporates dog hair, he’s found Siberian Samoyed works well.
Some hats sport orange-red silk from the old Holyoke Skinner silk mills that he found at a tag sale. Texture-wise, a lamb’s first shearing is extremely high quality, he said, “like silk.”
He notes that some knitters have strong opinions when it comes to yarn, with some users in the all-natural camp and others in the man-made and acrylic camp. Stickney refuses to take sides, maintaining each type of yarn has its uses.
“If you go to Scotland or Ireland, and look in shops, they don’t have anything but acrylic,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with acrylic, easily washable without shrinking,” he said, good for orphanages, where wool garments would be machine washed and shrink it into a tiny ball.
He enjoys the unique Northern Scotland Fair Isle pattern with squares, stripes, diamonds and a line of color. “The trick is to never carry more than two colors on one line of stitches,” he said.
He notes that there are other knitters in Cummington that win prizes for their work. “I’m not in that category yet,” he said.
Everyone is invited to the Parent Teacher Association fundraising breakfast on Saturday at Berkshire Trail Elementary School, 2 Main St., Cummington. Pancakes or French toast, beverage, and bacon or sausage, compliments of Haydenville’s Bread Euphoria cafe, will be served from 9 a.m. to noon. The meal costs $7 for adults; $5 for children and seniors.
The Old Creamery Grocery Cooperative on Route 9 will hold an all-day member-owner appreciation day on Saturday. For more information, call 634-5560.