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May 2009

Operation Cover Up

Knitting project stitches people together around the world

By Marie Sherry

What started out as a small gesture aimed at providing knitted blankets for children in a Moldovan orphanage has turned into a major operation that has supplied more than 250,000 blankets and knitted garments to underprivileged children throughout the world.

Operation Cover Up was formed in 2001 after its North Island coordinator Liz Clarke, of Taupo, learned her sponsored child and other children living in Moldovan orphanages had little bedding in temperatures as low as minus-25degC.

Thelma Wakelin (left) and Kath Potts have been knitting for Operation Cover Up since it began in 2000.

Liz approached Mission Without Borders, which today operates as the parent organisation for the project.

South Island coordinator Maureen Braun says Liz placed an ad in a local Taupo paper in an effort to send all 67 children in the orphanage a blanket, but ended up receiving more than 200 blankets.

Liz then approached Mission Without Borders and the project has snowballed. Today nearly 57,000 blankets and 224,000 knitted garments have been made and delivered to children in several eastern block countries, including the Ukraine, Romania and Moldova.

"The majority of blankets and garments go to orphanages," Maureen says. "Because we have grown so big we’re now able to send some through Mission Without Borders’ family-to-family help. They go to some of the villages and some of our baby stuff goes to the baby care programme."

Maureen says there are now thousands of knitters and crocheters involved throughout New Zealand, with 700 in Canterbury alone. There are a total of about 100 coordinators across the country.

"It’s absolutely phenomenal growth. When I first started I asked Liz where she thought it would go. She said she had no idea and that it would probably peter out in two or three years. But it caught everyone, including Mission Without Borders, totally unawares and it’s still continuing to grow."

The blankets are made of peggy squares, which are either crocheted or knitted, and sewn together in a patchwork style. Each square is made up of 80 rows of 40 stitches, using double-knit wool on size 4mm needles, or the old size 8 needles, creating an eight-inch square. There are 56 squares in a blanket – seven down and eight across.

The blankets and garments provide the warmth and comfort that many children have never had.

"A peggy square blanket is bright. The orphanages are spotlessly clean and tidy but pretty austere. The blankets bring in a rainbow of colours and are the child’s own property – they never have to give them away."

Maureen says while people are welcome to send individual squares, most people provide completed blankets.

She believes making the blankets provides valuable therapy and social contact for many older people.

"Some knitters are in rest homes and there are groups that have sprung up. Some meet every week and some are once a fortnight," she says.

"The beauty of this is most of the older people who have got these knitting skills have nobody to knit for these days. The secret is they can knit as much or as little as they want and every stitch counts.

Liz says a number of people have told her their knitting group has changed their lives. It puts them in contact with other people and gives them a sense of purpose. "This is not a church project, it is a community project," she says.

Other special projects through Mission Without Borders have involved providing pyjamas and underwear for children, as well as sheets and towels, sowing machines and carpentry tools.

Contact: Operation Cover Up (North Island) Liz Clarke, 07 378 9171; (South Island) Maureen Braun, 03 327 6413; and Mission Without Borders 09 826 0381.