Close-Knit Comfort

Judy Palmateer gets a little tired of knitting sometimes. That's understandable though.

In the past six years, she's knit more than 455 of what she calls "prayer shawls" to donate to patients at Israel Family Hospice House in Ames. The big, fluffy blankets are perfect for gently covering a patient lying in bed or wrapping around the shoulders of a family member or friend who is sitting nearby. 

Since 2003, when Palmateer started, she's knit one or two shawls a week. She loves it, and when the process begins to feel endless, Palmateer inevitably gets an inspiring reminder of why she's doing it. 

"When I think, ‘Oh, I'm tired of this,' I get a letter from a patient. Or maybe a hug from a nurse." 

It's that tiny bit of feedback that keeps her going. "It's been a blessing, both for me and for the people who receive them," Palmateer says. 

A Caring Message

Palmateer attaches a note to each shawl, which could be blue, yellow, purple, gray, white or multi-colored. Each note speaks to the unknown person who will receive it: "I have knit this prayer shawl for you asking for God's love to wrap around or cover you. Praying that you will feel his love and find comfort and solace. May God's love give you peace. Your friend, Judy."

"Hospice is a very scary word for people to hear," Palmateer says. "Most people just don't realize how wonderful hospice care is. I wanted to do something that would bring love and comfort to both the patients and the families. I want hospice families to know that there are others who care and who are sensitive to their situation."

Over the years, she's accumulated a stack of thank-yous from family members. They tell her that the shawl was somehow, magically, the person's favorite color. Or that the prayer shawl was the one thing that would keep their loved one warm. And almost all family members take the shawl home as a memento. During one Christmas, a family covered their ailing loved one at the hospice house with the prayer shawl and sang holiday carols together.

"Years later, family members have told me how it meant so much to them, how they kept it as a memento," Palmateer says.

Palmateer knows that the shawls sometimes go to people who have few other things to comfort them. "There are some people who have no one and just the gift from someone means something to them," she says. The prayer shawls are as much for the family as the patient. "Sometimes a baby might be wrapped up in it. Sometimes it might end up around the shoulders of a wife," she says.

A Labor of Love

A typical prayer shawl is 6 feet long and 2 or 3 feet wide. Each one takes about nine hours to make. Wherever the retired Ames woman goes, she brings along a colorful plastic ice cream bucket filled with the soft yarn and oversized knitting needles.

She knits at home, often in front of the TV, but also on family camping trips, while driving down the road with husband, Ivan, or visiting her elderly mother in Arkansas.

A desire to be able to do volunteer work on the go is one reason that Judy started making the prayer shawls. When she retired in 2000, she wanted to do some sort of volunteer work, but she didn't want to be tied down by a schedule.

She saw a newspaper article with instructions on how to create something similar to the prayer shawls she now makes. She made a few according to the newspaper instructions, but it was time-consuming, so Palmateer adapted the patterns. She uses much larger knitting needles-about the thickness of cigars-and a very fluffy, soft yarn that produces maximum warmth in minimum time.

Palmateer keeps her costs down by buying supplies on sale when she can. Her son and daughter-in-law sometimes contribute to the cause. (And her daughter-inlaw, also a knitter, occasionally will knit a few of the prayer shawls, "so I can have a vacation," Palmateer says with a smile.)

Cindy Edge, R.N., B.S.N., and the HOMEWARD Hospice manager, says that while the hospice house has many remarkable volunteers, Palmateer's contribution is distinctive. "It's an amazing thing for her to do, to help so many patients who come here, to give them that personal touch," says Edge.

While many of the volunteers are involved in hospice because a loved one spent time in hospice, Palmateer does it just because she cares. "She's one of those people," says Edge. "She simply wants to serve."

Palmateer says she'll knit prayer shawls as long as her hands and her commitment keep going. And the latter, most definitely, isn't likely to wear out any time soon.