Polio Eradication and Handknits

[This post has wound up being longer than I’d anticipated, so let me begin with the moral to our story: we can come up with ways of raising money for causes we care about by doing what we love (knitting), rather than sacrificing what we love. I do encourage you to read further (excellent pattern links at the end), but this is my main message.]

Last fall, I watched several documentaries about polio—both its history and current presence in our world. One of these was the History Channels’s Modern Marvels: Polio Vaccine. Another was A Paralyzing Fear. I also watched a third film, the title of which escapes me, and which was the one that really stuck with me because it documented current global eradication of polio efforts.

For people of my generation and younger living in the U.S. and Europe I think polio is primarily an abstraction. We know what polio is, can connet the disease with the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, know that it was epidemic in the past—but we’re privileged enough not to have strong mental images of the impact of polio on everyday life. We no longer fear this disease; we also expect that its effects can be mitigated by the kinds of adaptive technologies available to us. For us, polio is neither personal nor specific.

What struck me most about that third documentary (if only I could remember the title!) was that it showed me polio today in the regions where it’s still endemic: Pakistan, parts of India, some African nations. There polio is not an abstraction—its impact is vividly, distressingly real. In these countries where poverty forces many people to make a living through physical exertion, basic labor, polio is devastating, taking away the few options available for some hope of being self-supporting. Adaptive technologies are limited, so that a person who has lost the use of her legs from polio may have to drag herself along using her arms or be carried by a family member any time she needs to change locations. Polio remains in our world, and it remains in the places where its impact will be most devastating on the lives of those who contract it.

The World Health Organization, along with Rotary International, has been conducting a vaccination campaign in the hopes of eradicating this disease, in the same way that we successfully eradicated small pox a generation ago. But we’re at a crucial point in that process. While most areas of the world are polio free, it remains endemic in enough areas that we can’t be confident it won’t spread again—and those ares are difficult to reach and the people affected have often been fed a body of conspiracy theories about what the “real” goal of the vaccination campaign is. As a result, workers for the vaccine campaign have been murdered in Pakistan.

So what does this mean for me as a knitter? I suppose one answer would be to never buy another skein of yarn again and instead donate my yarn money to polio eradication. But I know myself, and I know I will not forgo yarn purchases. Instead, I decided to put that yarn I’ve purchased to work in a way that can help underwrite polio eradication efforts.

This November and December, I ransacked my little home, pulling out  knitting projects from the past few years. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I often knit things without a recipient in mind just because the pattern pleases me or is suitable for meeting knitting or because I have an idea I want to play with. That search through my home turned up 30 or 40 handknits that I’ve never worn and that weren’t intended for anyone in particular. So I figured I could sell these—and instead of having people pay me directly, I’d have them write checks to W.H.O. Polio Eradication instead.

As much as possible, I contacted the designers of the patterns to get their permission to sell the pieces for this purpose, and—not at all surprisingly— every one of them was glad to have her design used this way.Knitters, as always, are the best!

I took the knits to a meeting of a group of high school teachers I work with and to a faculty meeting at UC Santa Cruz, a friend took them to the teachers’ lunchroom at a local grade school, another let them be displayed at a holiday art sale she and several friends put on every year.

I decided to handle pricing by putting the estimated number of hours required to knit the piece on a stick-on label and asked for donations of $1-3 an hour. For the most part, the donations were on the bottom end of that scale (although one very generous colleague whose grandmother had polio as a child made quite a substantial donation). In an ideal world, it would have been nice to make more (sometimes the actual cost of the yarn exceeded the number of hours required to knit a piece), but I figured this method of pricing would also help educate non-knitters about the time investment represented by handknit goods. It certainly can’t hurt to have more people who understand that a shawl may represent work equivalent to a full 40-hour work week.

The final total: $707 for polio eradication. Not a fortune, but a much bigger donation than I would have been able to put together if I’d just decided to donate money on my own. I got the pleasure of buying yarn, other people got lovely handknits to wear or give, and the cost of the yarn was “played forward” in the fight against polio.

My point here isn’t to pat myself on the back, but to remind all of us of one fact: we can come up with ways of raising money for causes we care about by doing what we love (knitting), rather than sacrificing it. Whatever it is you love to do, whatever the issues are that concern you, you can put the two together in ways that provide multiple benefits.


And now, a shout-out to the designers who let me use their patterns for this purpose. Please take a moment to go look at their lovely patterns–you may enjoy knitting them yourself!

ErinRuth of Knit Me a Song let me use her Molly hat pattern.

Kari Steinetz let me use her Able Cable hat pattern.

I was given permission to use Stitch Therapy’s Aston hat pattern.

Pauline Gallagher let me use her Oison Owl pattern.

Ashley Knowlton let me use her Old Bones shawl pattern.

Mollie Woodworth let me use her Eugenia’s Mittens pattern.

Kristina Cotterman let me use her Wandering Lace watch cap pattern.

Justine Turner let me use her Poppy hat pattern.

Meghan Jackson let me use her Debaser shawl pattern.

Valentina Georgieva let me use her Leaves fingerless gloves pattern.

Marjorie Dussaud let me use her Sauterelle shawl pattern.

Erica Jackofsky of Fiddle Knits let me use her Impressionist cowl pattern.

Larissa Brown let me use her Rapunzel fingerless gloves pattern.

Linda Irving-Bell let me use her Christmas Rose hat pattern.

Judd let me use her Hues of Lothlorien hat pattern.

Devin Joesting let me use her Optimistic mitts pattern.

Evelyn Uyemura let me use her Greenleaf baby hat pattern.

Jan Wise let me use her Slouchy Hat with Picot Edge hat pattern.

Kathryn C. let me use her Cafe Au Lait tam pattern.

Denae Merrill let me use her Twisted Rib fingerless mitts pattern.

4 Replies to “Polio Eradication and Handknits”

  1. I think if you do this again you should use pricing which includes some amount for price of yarn as well as hours, the way your auto mechanic bills for “Parts and Labor.” Otherwise, its a great idea.

  2. In November 2012 UNICEF put out a documentary entitled ” The Final Inch”. That may be the one you are thinking of. I believe it has been nominated for Oscar consideration.

  3. Another benefit you didn’t mention: All that space you were able to reclaim! 🙂
    Kudos on your anti-polio campaign.

  4. I am a Rotarian and a knitter.
    I thank you for everyone who has helped with the fight aganist the eradication of polio. We are very close to our goal and we can not stop now. Thank you.
    Thank you.
    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *