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Indie of the Month – Knitting a Community

Indie of the Month –  Knitting a Community

As legend has it, when Ryan Gosling was on the set of Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, he learnt to knit.  When asked about it, he said,

“It was one of the most relaxing days of my life. If I had to design my perfect day, that would be it. And you get something out of it at the end. You get a nice present. For someone who wants an oddly shaped, off-putting scarf.”

Debbie Judd, founder of Wool on the Exe recently chatted with me about all things woollen.  After our interview, I was interested to find out which celebrities enjoy knitting, as I hear it has become quite a ‘thing’ in Tinseltown.  Whether Ryan Gosling, with his dry sense of humour, meant what he said, or whether it was more tongue in cheek, there is no denying the therapeutic benefits of knitting.

Debbie is a woman determined to make a difference.  With a heart for helping others and the skill to create beautiful knitwear, she has been instrumental in building a community of knitters who support each other and at the same time help people, raising funds for charity in the UK and all over the world.    

Originally from Connecticut, Debbie worked as a technology manager for a large daily newspaper before she ‘quit it all’ to change course, feeling that she needed something more.  She said,

“I probably was not a very nice boss at times; I used to have a sign over my desk which said, ‘Expectations are the death of serenity’”.

She headed out to Arizona where she joined AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society programme, and became a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America).  AmeriCorps’ goal is to help others and meet needs in the local community. 

The year was a transformative one which changed Debbie’s life. A few valuable lessons that she learnt, while working as a VISTA, was around asset-based community development; how to look at what you have in a community and how to bring those bits together to improve things and solve problems.

Debbie relocated to the UK to be with her partner and at first, was unable to work due to visa restrictions, so she joined a knitting group. 

She found the experience invaluable and a great place to make friends. One of the ladies in the group had gathered funds to start something called The Blanket Box Scheme.  The idea was to put British yarn into a box and to take it out into the community, along with Barbara Walker’s, Learn-to-Knit Afghan book.  

Debbie put up a notice in her local Methodist Church asking people to join the knitting group and was surprised by the number of people that came along. Besides raising money for charity, the group developed into a little community where people would come for a chat and a cuppa and would generally be there for each other.  And for some, it was the only outing they had all week.  

Debbie spent some time developing a business plan for the knitting group, wanting to make sure that the beautiful goods that were being created were marketed efficiently. She formed Neighbourworks, which, over time, has raised more than £2700.00 for charity.  Neighbourworks combines the talents of local creatives with some of the UK’s top quality wool, such as Chilla Valley Alpaca.

‘That’s how I got connected to the really beautiful locally sourced yarns that we now carry in the shop’.

At the same time as running Neighbourworks, Debbie met Betsan Corkhill founder of Stitchlinks. Betsan’s business focuses on the therapeutic benefits of knitting to help reduce anxiety, depression, and a wide range of issues that people may be dealing with, to improve health and well-being.

women smiling knitting wool table

Betsan made Debbie aware that there was funding available through the People’s Health Trust and so she was able to obtain a grant for a project called, The Knit-Stop, which aimed to improve the well-being of people in central Exeter. 

Research shows that the repetitive action of knitting or needlework induces a relaxed state which helps lower heart rate, blood pressure and reduces the stress hormone, cortisol.  Betsan also introduced Debbie to Mirja Rucker who had been awarded a three-year PhD programme at the medical school, to study the therapeutic benefits of knitting together in groups. The Knit-Stop project was tasked with planting twelve knitting groups across the city within a two year period which it did and was a great success. 

After being invited to take, Knit-Stop for Kids into several schools, Debbie applied for a grant, which she was awarded, to put together a formal study around the positive impact that knitting has on a child’s wellbeing.  The pilot for the study, which is being carried out by Outreach Coordinator, Trudi Johnston and Mirja, is taking place at St Peters and St Lukes. They hope the results of the project will enable Mirja to create a programme that can be rolled out to many more schools across the region.   

Debbie realised that there was an opportunity to harness and develop what she had started with Neighbourworks and The Knit-Stop projects and so she opened her shop, Wool on the Exe, a not-for-profit, community interest company. But she says it is far more than just a wool shop, describing it as a ‘real community space’.  One young woman, who had recently become a mum, came along to learn to knit. She is highly accomplished in both the business and sporting world and yet really appreciated the down-to-earth therapeutic side of knitting and the sense of community that she experienced, saying that Debbie had created a ‘wonderful haven’. 

 Debbie commented,

‘And that is what we are, it’s a place where we celebrate women, and not just women, we have a handful of men customers too, they come to take part in our drop-in groups, they enjoy it, and become part of the family’.  

She says it comes down to love.  Loving people, loving being creative, to love encouraging others and what you can bring out in them. 

That’s why I do what I do’. 

Knitting is relaxing and Debbie says that if she is feeling tired or stressed, she yearns for it.  She said,

Especially if you are doing a lace pattern, you can’t think of anything else, the only thing you can think about is following that pattern and it’s so good for emptying your mind just for a brief period’.  

Debbie believes her role is to make the people that come into her shop feel comfortable, to find out where they are at and what they need.  She says,

‘I’m a Christian woman and I really do believe that God has called me to this, and that is the core of why I do what I do’.

If you would like to find out more, pop onto the website: woolontheexe.com or email: news@woolontheexe.com.  Wool on the Exe is situated in St. Thomas, right across from the River Exe.

Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by Deborah Judd

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