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American Woman Organizes Knitting for Troops

The colorful knitted blankets known as "afghans" were originally patterned after centuries old textiles from Afghanistan. Hand knitting these wool blankets is an ancient art that is still widely practiced today. VOA's George Dwyer reports on an American woman who has organized hundreds of volunteers to produce handmade "afghans" in gratitude to American service men and women serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few people have been gathering at a home in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, to form a community "knitting circle."

They are all volunteers and they produce handmade afghans, which will then be donated to American armed service personnel serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Deborah Starobin-Armstrong came up with the idea in 2004.

"I got laid off from my job in 2004, spent a lot of time watching the news, and in December I was hearing a lot more of the news about the wounded coming back, how many people had been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, and decided I wanted to do something," she said.

Because she is an accomplished needleworker, and she knew others who were as well, Deborah set out to organize the enterprise that has now become known as "The Handmade Afghans Project."

"I sent out an e-mail to every person I knew and said, 'Hey, how about this? Do you want to knit and crochet with me? Do you want to do this?' And that is how it started - one by one by one," Deborah said.

She now has an e-mail list of 550 volunteers across the U.S. and in five other countries, working alone at home alone or at knitting circle events to produce the 15 x 23 centimeter rectangles.

"The way the project is set up is that people knit and crochet six inch by nine inch (15 x 23 centimeter) rectangles in acrylic yarn. They send them all to Maryland. We have these big events - design events we call 'Put Together' events. And at those, we actually design the afghans and pin them for people to crochet together," she added.

Deborah says that thanks to these "Put Together" events, more than 1,300 afghans have been assembled since the project began in 2004. The volunteers say it is a labor of love.

One volunteer said, "everyone has put their fingers into it, their hands into it, their hearts, their emotions. And you think of all these people who have made the rectangles, and then you think about where the whole completed afghan is going."

Many of them go to the Combat Support Hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Nearly 100 have been sent to date, each one including a 'Thank You' note from the volunteers who made the afghan. Often the soldiers will write to send their thanks in return.

"The families receive them, the soldiers receive them, and you think about that. And you think about how pretty they are, how warm and comforting they are," another volunteer added. Deborah keeps a scrapbook of letters received.

One of the letters read, "To Deborah and the rest of you supporting this project. I wanted to send a small thank you from the parents and staff here at Bagram. Unfortunately we have been busy," the letter continued. "But the patients truly appreciate your generosity. You should see the smiles. Well, hope everything is well on the home front. It is nice to know we are not forgotten over here."

Many of the volunteers say it is letters like that that keep them going. "It just makes you want to grab your crochet hook and keep crocheting all the time, you know, you never want to stop. So [there's] a lot of satisfaction from helping," another volunteer said.

Deborah says she recently received some encouraging feedback from a nurse who observed the affect that the donated afghans had on the troops she tends to.

"And one of the things she told me is it is the first thing that reminds the wounded soldiers of home, because if you look at them, they are not perfect. We do not want them to be perfect. We want them to be handmade and remind people of home. And I think they are doing that," she said.