Seated in her living room between the fireplace and a window to her backyard on the South Hill, Nina Elsee knits hats.
Over the past two decades, Elsee, 90, has knitted or crocheted thousands of hats – about 200 a year – all of them donated to a local charity. The charity, Santa Express, sells the hats and the money goes to a nonprofit nursery that takes care of children when their parents are in crisis, providing them with items like diapers and food.
“I feel like I’m doing a good deed, helping children,” she said.
Elsee’s weathered hands are aged, but they’re workhorses. Her husband, John, died eight years ago after they were married for 59 years. Since then, Elsee has spent more time knitting.
She has seen her share of health problems – she’s recovering from a muscle tear in one of her hands and other moments of collapse. That hasn’t slowed down her knitting much, though.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she said.
About 78 years ago, when Elsee was in the sixth grade, a volunteer from the Red Cross visited her classroom in Kentucky and asked the class if anyone could knit. The Red Cross needed supplies for soldiers in World War II, the volunteer said.
Elsee raised her hand.
Her mother taught her how to knit, so when Elsee volunteered to help the Red Cross in the ’30s, she began knitting 6-inch squares, which would then be made into blankets for GIs in the war.
Elsee said she always knew that she would knit for the rest of her life. She knitted after work, as a phone and mail assistant in President Gerald Ford’s office, where she got to know the president.
“He was a really nice guy,” she said.
Her most recent job was teaching math at Hillyard High School. She retired in 1985.
While knitting or crocheting, Elsee watches “Password Plus” or “Jeopardy” on TV. Her late husband told her once that one day he’d come home and she would have knitted a cover for the house, she said.
Hayley Lydig, director of Santa Express, a nonprofit pop-up shop located on the second floor of River Park Square Mall, sells Elsee’s hats. Lydig remembers shopping at Santa Express 20 years ago and buying her handiwork.
Lydig said Elsee’s hats, displayed in the middle of the store on a circular rack, have become a staple of Santa Express. They come in a wide range of colors. Some are seafoam or pink or even Seahawk blue and teal. Elsee buys all the yarn herself.
“There are families who come in every year and that’s their tradition to buy them,” Lydig said.
Only a small number of the 200 or so hats aren’t purchased in a given year, and those are donated to children or families who visit the nursery that Santa Express supports, the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
Selling five hats will feed a child for a day; four hats yields 100 diapers; two hats pays for two weeks worth of laundry for a child; and 10 hats provides four hours of crisis counseling to a family, Lydig said.
Elsee said that what she’s doing shouldn’t be seen as too “goody goody, because I’ve got a mean streak,” she said, smiling.
She also said she would never wear her own work, because “I’m not a hat person.”
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