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Ah, knitting. We all love it because it’s fun, it’s calming. 

But did you know that knitting can also stitch hope into our lives?

In my new novel, Days of Wonder, I write about a teenaged girl accused of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. She loses everything, but I knew that to survive incarceration, I had to give her something of her own that might make her feel better about herself and give her hope. 

I dug back to my own dark times to see if there could be any connective tissue between what helped me in my life and the life of an incarcerated girl. In my twenties, my first husband cruelly left me. Later, my fiancé died; I lost a pregnancy; and later, in pandemic lockdown, people I loved perished from Covid. Friends, beliefs, activity, all helped me, but people in prison don’t always have those things to count on. And then I remembered an incredible balm through my tragedies: knitting. But could I use this in a novel? Was knitting allowed in prison?

I began to research, including on MDK, and to my surprise, I learned that women in prison do indeed knit, (men, too!) and that in some prisons, knitting is even taught (see MDK’s article on hero knitter Lynn Zwerling).

I wanted a way to experience this, and activist author Jean Trounstine came to my rescue, inviting me to her women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature—an award winning alternative sentencing program—in Framingham, Massachusetts. There, a probation officer, sometimes a judge, and fifteen or so women sit in a circle in a classroom to discuss a book they’ve all been reading, applying that book’s lessons to their own lives and their futures. Some people knit in the class. “And they’ll discuss your novel!” Jean told me. 

Jean Trountstine

As soon as I walked into Jean’s class, I felt the women, all ages, all casually dressed in jeans and hoodies, stare at me. I clumsily sat down. It’s so hard to breach a divide with people you don’t know, whose circumstances were so different, so I tried to be truly authentic. I told them how honored I was that they had read my novel, and I told them that no matter what their opinion was, I would value it. One woman’s shoulders loosened. Another woman tentatively smiled. And when the class, which I loved, was over, I asked the women if anyone would talk to me about how they coped in prison. “Are you going to sensationalize us?” one woman snapped. “I just want your truths,” I said, and she relaxed. 

I asked them what they did for fun, how they managed their anger and their losses, what made things easier or seem impossible for them. “I knit in prison,” one woman told me. “It gets me much less anxious. And it breaks up the boredom, which is the worst thing about being incarcerated.”

For weeks afterwards, I logged hours on the phone and on email talking to the women, making notes. One woman told me knitting is healing because it takes you out of your circumstances, like meditating. Jean told me of a woman whose self-harm escalated until she set herself on fire, but recovering, she kept her mind and body occupied with knitting, which allowed real healing to happen.  

One thing the Framingham women told me they suffered the most in prison was the almost unbearable loss of community. One woman told me that she and some other women used to spill dish liquid on the floor and slide across it, and in having fun, in laughing, they forgot where they were for just a while, they bonded. Knitting does that, too, because anything that gives women a chance to open up and talk, helps them realize that we are all linked by a common thread, be it cotton, wool, alpaca, or the less-than-lovely yarns the prison has.

These women knit for themselves, but they also knit for others, building friendships, self-worth, and even bank accounts by selling baby buntings or little hats to guards or visitors. “Knitting empowers you,” one prison knitter said. “Making money means you aren’t useless. You can contribute to the world.” And knitting is a skill you can take with you to the outside, either by teaching knitting classes or selling your pieces on consignment. 

When you feel you’ve lost everything, knitting can give it back. My character in Days of Wonder finds that knitting is a way to show her love to those who might reject her if they knew she’d been in prison. And talk about life lessons! One of the most gorgeous things about knitting is that you can unravel your mistakes and reknit them, covering a hole with embroidery, making flaws uniquely beautiful. 

“Prison is all about deprivation,” Jean told me. Being able to have something special to share makes an incredible amount of difference. “You can see the calm taking over women who knit while incarcerated. Prison is about conformity, containment, and repression, but any sort of new skill learned, any self-expression can make those walls bearable—or even breakable. To be able to finish something, when so much is cut off in prison, is everything.”

I used all those incredible lessons in my writing, giving redemption to my character with knitting both inside prison and out, making my heroine—and others—see her true worth. And those lessons seeped back into my own personal life, too. Now grappling with the devastating estrangement of my sister, I soothe my pain with intarsia. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter where you are. Knitting connects women in prison and those living free lives and those on the printed page, too. We all pick up the yarn, the needles, and then stitch by stitch, we conquer grief, we knit ourselves into healing, we save our own lives.

Photo used with permission © Jean Trounstine

About The Author

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, including Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World.  Her latest book is With or Without You (2020). Caroline’s essays have appeared in The Daily Beast, Modern Love in the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Real Simple. She has been knitting since she was in the Brownies, and she can be reached through


  • What an incredibly powerful post! Love that no matter the situation or experience, we are all drawn to the quite mind knitting gives us.

    • Thank you so, so much, Wendy! Knitting has always saved me.

  • Caroline, thank you so much for this. I struggle with far more mundane issues, but still I’m constantly working on Acceptance (as in “things I cannot change”). I meditate too, but knitting is … even better, somehow. And it’s better for connecting this extreme introvert with other people. Thanks for your excellent reminders of what’s important.

  • Thank you!!! A powerful post, message that crosses so many boundaries. I can’t wait for your book.
    I have been knitting through a bad head injury. The “before” knitter me and the “after” knitter me are 2 different knitters. Ironically, my knitting is now helping me to practice accepting the differences. I will now knit, thinking of my imprisoned knitting sisters.

  • I teach crafts to women in homeless shelters and halfway houses. They love to make something they can give away.

  • I was crying by the end of this beautiful piece. Knitting has saved me over and over during my life, through a series of terrible traumas that I don’t need to list, because we each have our own. Thank you for validating my experience. Can’t wait for the book.

  • Wonderful article. When I told my ophthalmologist that I needed better glasses for knitting, he shared that when he was a young doctor he’d done some work in a prison and the men there were knitting. One of them knit him a hat.

    • Nice story, but it occurred to me that it must be challenging to get an adequate amount of knitting materials. Are there any groups or agencies that collect yarn and knitting supplies for prisoners or others who would benefit from the grace of knitting?

      • I was wondering that too.

      • I was wondering exactly the same thing…

      • I owned a yarn store for several years. One of my customers was the director of a detention facility for teenagers. We decided to pilot knitting classes for the young women. I funded the needles, notions and yarn. Once a week for 3 months a van would pull up to the store. In that time period they made a sampler scarf, a hat and then got to pick a project. They had homework…a goal they had to reach before the next class. Talk about building relationships…WOW! They encouraged and helped each other and I fell in love with each of them. There was a waiting list for each new group as word spread. One of the most rewarding times in my life.

  • My aunt taught knitting and crochet to the “girls” in the Alexandria VA jail in the 1970s. I think she enjoyed going and got as much from the experience as they did, as it seems the author did.

  • It is a gift to interact with incarcerated women. They are often dehumanized and abused. Being recognized and acknowledged in that situation is uncommon so, if you have an opportunity to read with or knit with or simply listen to any, please do take the time. No skill needed – just an open heart and ears.

  • Such a warm and inspiring story. Is there a way to make a stash donation to any of the prisons?

    • Let’s contact the author (info at end of the story). I will be more motivated to go through my stash if I know it is going to women in prison.

  • I am going to the library today to get the book and have it ready to suggest at my next book club.. Thanks for such powerful insights.

  • What a treasured article!!! Knitting is so many things to so many people. Those of us who enjoy this wonderful art form find it helps not only ourselves, but others. As a former LYO, we found knitting to be cheaper than a psychiatrist for many of our customers. It was so wonderful to see and hear!! Keep knitting and enjoy your day.

  • Many people have used the word “powerful” in the comments. I do not know another word to describe this article. I am moved by this writing. Thank you for what you are doing.

  • A wonderful article that transcends jail/incarcerated people to those battling all kinds of trauma or situations. I look forward to reading this book and also wonder how one goes about sending yarn/knitting supplies to these women.

  • Thanks for featuring this beautiful essay. I look forward to this book next year!

  • Hi,
    I spent 11 years teaching knitting to incarcerated women in a NY State women’s facility. It was, for them, 2 hours of feeling “normal”, sitting around a table talking, being able to select their yarn and projects. For them the yarn selection process was the equivalent of shopping. The prison psychologist told us we do more for the women than she does. Most of the women were knitting items for their children, or other family members. This program cost the state absolutely nothing as we supplied the materials and our time. Yes, knitting made a difference for these women.

  • I hate crying over my tea and toast. What a beautiful piece.

  • Very inspiring. Thank you b

  • I just contacted my state’s correctional facilities program to see if they have knitting/crochet programs for incarcerated individuals so I can donate yarn. If they don’t have such programs, maybe they’ll be inspired to start them.

  • Thank you all for these extraordinary comments! I am beside myself! I am so glad this piece meant something to you all, and the only reason I am not responding individually is because there are so many–which is WONDERFUL. Love, Caroline Leavitt

  • What an amazing story. I love to knit as it is so calming. I belong to a knitting group & we enjoy talking & knitting. Women are good at both! Glenys nicol

  • If anyone would like to order Days of Wonder, the book that is full of knitting–in prison and out! I would love you forever.

    • I will definitely read this. I don’t have much time for reading these days so I try to make it count, and this certainly looks important enough to make the time to read.

  • Excellent read and very moving, something you don’t generally think about.

  • “MANY HANDS MAKE THE BURDEN LIGHT”, quoted my great aunt as she taught me to knit. I was 8 years old, little did I know knitting would move me through grief many years later. Thank you for your article.

  • What a thought-provoking article. Thank you, Caroline

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  • Thank you, Caroline, for sharing another respective about the power of knitting … It’s so much more than knit and purl stitches! Do you know of any program to donate yarn to prison programs?

  • I was privileged to teach knitting and yoga (through Prison Yoga Project) to women in the Alabama state prison for women. I supplied the needles and members of my knitting groups dug into their stashes for beautiful yarns. The prison already had a group of crocheters who met weekly. The women knitted and crocheted hats and scarves for nursing home residents. A few created their own designs. One woman told me that knitting was the most therapeutic activity she had experienced in the time she’d been incarcerated. Working with the women was the most rewarding experience of my life. They taught me about resilience and creativity in a difficult environment. I look forward to Caroline’s book and will recommend it to my local libraries.

  • One stitch at a time…thanks for sharing this inspirational and informative article about your writing journey for Days of Wonder. I am looking forward to this upcoming spring release!

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