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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Women of the Year: Judy Heaton weaves together life, fellowship and service in ‘knitting of hearts’

Judy Heaton, standing, is one of the most dedicated volunteers in Spokane. Here, she engages with the Knitting Fellowship, from left, Janet Gravetter, Marita Flett, Tessie Johnson and Esther Keister, at The Coop garage space.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Judy Heaton, standing, is one of the most dedicated volunteers in Spokane. Here, she engages with the Knitting Fellowship, from left, Janet Gravetter, Marita Flett, Tessie Johnson and Esther Keister, at The Coop garage space. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

In a tiny old garage in north Spokane, five women huddle around a small table with knitting needles and yarn.

It’s 20 degrees outside, but space heaters fend off most of the chill. The warmth that matters, however, comes from the women’s conversation – about families, friends and everyday challenges.

This knitting party isn’t about knitting. It’s about the fabric of life.

Under the leadership of Judy Heaton, the Knitting Fellowship has met at various sites for almost 15 years. Based on Scripture and its principles, its emphasis is growth toward Christ.

As hands manipulate needle and fabric, the women talk about personal growth and setbacks. In that sense, knitting is a metaphor for life, because one mistake can cause everything to unravel.

“This has been a beautiful thing, to walk alongside them,” Heaton said. “The biggest thing is, we’re not professional counselors, but people who have had deep healing from traumatic backgrounds.

“We are dealing with learning how to live responsible lives, getting custody of your kids, or healing what seemed like irrevocably broken relationships,” added Heaton, whose group emphasizes goal-setting, accountability, life skills and healthy living.

“We are a community with commitment to each other and those God brings to us,” Heaton said.

They are brought to “The Coop,” as the garage is known, by the addictions that rule them. Some drift away, only to return months or years later. The group numbers about 15, with another 10 to 20 who connect from out of town.

“I am surprised by what has become a reality; People who have partaken in the fellowship of the knitters return again and again, though years may pass since their previous participation,” Heaton said. “The tie is strong.”

The group also contributes to food and clothing banks. It hosts yard sales and has an outreach to the homeless who gather at a nearby park.

“We love to be able to serve them and have them join our fellowship,” Heaton said.

While the membership changes, Heaton is the constant. She has taken church mission trips to Africa, and for 20 years has played the piano every Monday afternoon at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center to soothe the worried.

“I play a lot of classics, jazz and I write my own stuff,” Heaton said. “It’s great therapy. A lot of verses are put to song, the things people say about being healed.”

But the heart of Heaton’s work happens Thursday mornings in the Coop, where ladies share bread and feelings.

Esther Keister moved to Spokane from Texas in 2016 after her husband died. She started a small farm in Airway Heights, raising alpacas, goats and chickens.

Why is she here?

“You got all day?” Keister asked as she motioned for a box of tissues.

“I always bite off more than I can chew,” Keister said. “You know, ‘I can do all things, because I am woman.’

“Then I thought, ‘What am I doing all this for?’ ”

At church, she encountered Heaton, who invited her to coffee and heard about Keister’s troubles with her extended family.

“I found out soon that this wasn’t just knitting and crocheting,” Keister said. “This is a knitting of hearts.”

“There’s a special bond when you do things with your hands, doing whatever your craft is,” Keister said.

At the Knitting Fellowship, that craft is turning alpaca wool into yarn and, finally, into the caps and other items that hang in the garage.

“We’re not apologetic,” Heaton said, holding one of the woolen creations offered for sale.

Next to Keister sat Tessie Johnson, a longtime member of the fellowship.

“I was a little rough around the edges,” said Johnson, who suffers from bipolar depression.

“Judy has been instrumental in getting me out of depression, and this is my refuge – to come here and connect with God.”

On some mornings, Johnson said, she struggled to get out of bed.

“But Judy called and said, ‘You can do it,’ ”

Heaton also helped Johnson obtain housing.

Another member, Marita Flett, found purpose after a long career as a preschool teacher at the Head Start Adult Education Center.

Janet Gravetter, the only nonknitter in Thursday’s gathering, knew that as a single mother, she needed the encouragement of a prayer group.

“I had just retired, and I needed something of service to do, and she told me about knitting,” Flett said. “And I feel like I have a place that can take care of my needs and where I can ask for prayer.”

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