When illness or death leave craft projects unfinished, these strangers step in to help
The rug is small, what you might call a throw rug. An intricate pattern in red and blue pops off a gold background.
Donna Savastio started this rug, as a gift for her sister, about five years ago. She invested more than 100 hours in cutting wool strips and pulling them through a linen canvas to make thousands of tiny, tight loops. Savastio is an artist. Rug hooking was her refuge.
"You can sit here for hours if you want to," said Savastio, looking at the rug she spent so much time on at home in Framingham, Massachusetts. "I mean it's like wow, but I love it."
Savastio kept hooking until she couldn't. She left just a few unfinished rows along a navy border.
The rug maps the progression of her disease: Alzheimer's. One effect, for Savastio, is that she can no longer follow the precise set of steps that rug-hooking demands. In one section, repeating thin red scrolls grow into solid blocks of color. The final loops dangle loose and twisted.
John Shambroom, Savastio's husband, put the rug away more than a year ago assuming it would never be finished. But on a gray April morning a rug hooker the couple had never met, Jan Rohwetter, volunteered to collect and complete Savastio's treasure.
"This is the most wonderful thing that you're willing to do this," said Shambroom, shaking his head. "You're a godsend," said Savastio.
This is Rohwetter's first assignment through Loose Ends, a program that matches volunteer knitters, quilters and other crafters with projects left unfinished when a person dies or becomes disabled. It's the brainchild of two long-time friends and knitters, Masey Kaplan and Jen Simonic.
In August 2022, both women had recently completed projects for friends who'd lost their mothers when they got another request for help. Simonic and Kaplan looked online, assuming they'd find a network that offered assistance.
"This must be happening somewhere in the world," Simonic recalled saying. "And when it's not, you think, it has to."
'I wasn't going to just throw them out'
Since they launched the program 10 months ago, Loose Ends has matched more than 600 unfinished blankets, tapestries, mittens, quilts and doilies with crafters who can complete them.
Diane Pullen's mother left a sweater when she died. Pullen's college-aged daughter begged her to finish it. She tried, but the pattern was too complicated. Instead Pullen baked (her Death by Chocolate cake) for the woman who finished knitting the sweater.
Liz Higgins' mother had many talents; knitting was just one of them. A nearly complete purple sweater sat in her knitting basket for at least five years after she died.
Marcia Harris submitted argyle socks her mother started for Harris's dad in 1948. They were abandoned when Harris's mother began raising a family. The price tag on the toe yarn, still spooled, reads 15 cents.
"These socks traveled with my mother through many moves, across states," said Harris. "I wasn't going to just throw them out."
Like Harris and her siblings, many families don't want to part with the unfinished work of a loved one, but they didn't have a way to complete the project before Loose Ends.
So far, Loose Ends has attracted many more volunteers than projects. There are 9,100 finishers in 42 countries "waiting with varying degrees of patience," said Kaplan.
The explosion of interest has stunned the group's founders. They've applied to become a tax-exempt organization, so they can raise money and hire some administrative help. They've also formed a board. But Kaplan and Simonic still do all the match-making. That means spending hours every day filtering data, looking for the closest person with the right expertise and interest for each project.
"There are some people who are like, 'Give me an 80-foot blanket,' and there are some people who are like, 'I don't do anything bigger than a sock,' " said Simonic. "So, it's me and Masey looking at spreadsheets 'til we go blind."
The Savastio-Rohwetter match for the nearly finished rug was a particularly good fit.
'Every loop was with love'
When Rohwetter arrived to pick up the rug, she shared that she had lost both of her parents recently, and her mom after a long bout with dementia.
"This is something that I would have loved to have been able to do for my mom," she said. "That's why I'm here."
Savastio's craft room was stocked with supplies, but Rohwetter couldn't find a navy blue wool that matched the border. So she gathered a sample of fabrics, saying she'd experiment until she got as close as she could to the original shade.
Loose Ends finishers typically mark the spot where the original crafter stopped, and a new set of hands took over. It might be a single stitch in a different color, something that sparkles or a tiny crocheted heart.
Rohwetter asked Savastio if there was a scrap of fabric, something sentimental, that Rohwetter could loop in to indicate the transition on Savastio's rug. The women opened Savastio's closet: a silky scarf with tassels looked promising.
"What I could do, instead of cutting it up, I could just take some tassels," said Rohwetter. "That way you could still wear the scarf."
"Great, I love it," said Savastio. "This is more than I could ask for, honestly."
Rohwetter bundled up the rug, extra wool and tape for the edging, and headed home, about an hour's drive, promising to be in touch in a few weeks.
Loose Ends' founders, Simonic and Kaplan, rarely get to see these interactions, but they soak up the stories.
"The most fulfilling thing for me, so far, has been watching strangers take care of each other," said Kaplan, without regard for politics, religion or other sometimes divisive identities. "It's an opportunity to relate on a human level through a shared desire to bring comfort."
A month after picking up the rug, Rohwetter came back with a large package wrapped in glittering paper, tied with a satin bow.
Savastio, with her husband's help, tore into the paper and pulled out the rug. "Oh my god, it's gorgeous," said Savastio, hands at her chest.
Rohwetter pointed out three silvery loops, former scarf tassels, that mark the places where her hands finished what Savastio's couldn't.
"Every loop was with love and thinking of you and my mom," Rohwetter told Savastio.
There were hugs and lots of smiles. "This is just a purely good thing," said Shambroom, Savastio's husband, "especially these days."
"Yes," nodded Rohwetter. "These days it's pretty nice to be able to do something pure, pure of the heart."
Savastio said she'd take some time to enjoy the gift before delivering it as planned, to her sister.
This story was produced by WBUR.
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