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When knitting connects people

When knitting connects people.

At Štrikeraj café, knitting is done for the soul, but also for a good and noble purpose

The doors of an inclusive workshop and cafe are open to everyone who wants to join in crocheting or knitting, as well as those who want to learn and acquire these skills, at Zagreb's Vukovar Street, Croatia.

Štrikeraj café meaning Knit café…and there is their leaflet listing the benefits of knitting. How to resist such a tempting promise? Knit and feel better. How to stay immune to anything that guarantees you feel better!? And the message 'knit and hang out'! It is the strongest lure. There is no other choice but to go to Štrikeraj café.

Štrikeraj café is the inclusive program of Ozana Association and Center, where the main goal is to improve the quality of life for young and adult people with intellectual disabilities and their families. There is Sandra Kerovec, the manager of Štrikeraj café, and there are the following users: Vjeko, Luka, Iskra, Nikolina, Ilijana. Željko and Miljenko are not present, they caught a cold, but they also should be mentioned.

Foto: Davor Kovačević

Vjeko is a coffee master. In the manner of a true host, he immediately offers the "guest" coffee and juice. Luka can't settle down, he's weaving a carpet. Iliana is knitting hard, and Nikolina is patiently waiting for us to return Sandra, whom we stole from her in the middle of their work. Iskra controls Vjeka's walk around the kitchen before going back to her knitting. And Vjeko, when he has served the coffee, will return to making a long scarf, a long one, but not the biggest one he has knitted.

– Štrikeraj café program started in 2013. For the first year, we met exclusively on Thursday afternoons, and then we received funds through the Ministry of Labour, the pension system, family and social policies for the three-year program and now we are already in the fourth cycle of that three-year program - Sandra tells us.

Some of the mentioned users have been there since the very beginning of the Štrikeraj café program, because they simply like the program. Vjeko has been there since the beginning, Nikolina too. Luka recently.

- Luka, they gave you the most difficult task - we say.

- That is his greatest love, weaving - explains Sandra.

We ask Luka what will it be in the end?

- Table cloth - he will say as if from a cannon.

- It won't be a tablecloth. That will be a small carpet - said Sandra gently.

Well, Luka doesn't agree. Everything looks like it will be a tablecloth after all.

Luka at work
Luka is totally focused on his work

A relaxing gathering

And why Štrikeraj, why knitting? In a way, it is the space that Ozana has, which has an entrance further down Vukovarska Street, that is to blame. It all started there.

- That space had a part that seemed ideal for starting an inclusive type of workshop, a place where people can come and join us. Knitting by itself has become an activity that is very easy to carry out through conversation, because everyone chooses their own pace and everyone has a great opportunity to choose what to do. We design all projects so that they have several levels, from the simplest to the most complex, for those who are interested in developing their skills further. It is important for us that everyone is there and that everyone participates in it equally - explains Sandra.

The doors of Štrikeraj are open every day, on Monday and Friday mornings, and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. To the guests, and so the users and Sandra call people from the side, and members of the local community who come to hang out or socialize, the appointment on Thursdays is especially dear. Only, why do they come and what keeps guests in Štrikeraj?

– You'll have to ask them, but I think what keeps them going is the atmosphere and socializing. And what initially attracts them is probably the possibility of receiving free tuition, just like the fact that here at any time they can get support for what they do and what they are interested in - says Sandra.

Something else also attracts them; it is the fact that Štrikeraj launches knit for cause initiatives and everything that is knitted or crocheted is donated to other vulnerable people groups.

– We design a product that we give to someone. And that's what attracts people, that they can use the work of their hands for a good purpose. There are many people who like to knit, know how to knit, like to crochet, but they don't know what to do with it. We proved to be a good link for them, because we gave them an idea of what they can do - explains Sandra.

At the same time, as she says, the manual work itself, the activity itself is relaxing, and it is all the more valuable if you add a good and noble purpose to it.

- We are currently working on a project that we started in 2021. It's called "Let's join hands" and with it we introduced the use of twiddle muffs in Croatia. It is a product that has been used for a long time in the world. These are sensory aids for people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Twiddle muff is something that will occupy their hands because sometimes they have restless hands and are agitated so twiddle muffs calm the down and make their hands busy exploring all the attachments - says Sandra.

At the same time, she says that there have already been attempts to make twiddle muffs here in Croatia, but the lady who had this intention was unable to find anyone who would distribute them, who would know how to recognize their value for the patients themselves.

- We can make all kinds of things, but we also have to find a way to reach those who could benefit from it. We were incredibly lucky to run into Professor Mimica from the Vrapče Psychiatric Clinic, who answered my email literally in half an hour and said: "Let's do it!" This is where we started a collaboration that has been going on for the fourth year and is only getting better and better. - emphasizes Sandra.

Great team from Štrikeraj
Great team from Štrikeraj

Therapeutic value

Moreover, in addition to making twiddle muffs, the team from Štrikeraj also does presentations for professionals - for occupational therapists, social workers, nurses, caregivers - for all those who might recognize the benefits for patients and not only of twiddle muffs.

- We also conducted a survey on the usefulness of the twiddle muffs, and in addition, we always present the therapeutic value of knitting and crocheting. In fact, we are trying to persuade professionals to start implementing this activity again, which used to be an integral part of occupational therapy - stresses Sandra.

And my goodness, knitting is coming back a little bit, but it's called therapeutic knitting, maybe so that as much of the world as possible pays attention to it. But it comes back and is worth more and more, Sandra points out.

- Then what is the good that knitting brings us? Why it could be good for me, - said the journalist impatiently, now completely determined to embark on an adventure with a ball of wool and a pair of knitting needles for the first time in his life.

Sandra smiles, and then explains that knitting is a specific activity based on the physiology of movement itself.

- It is a bilateral activity in which the central line is crossed, these are rhythmic movements, repetitive movements, and these are all things that our brain likes very much. Rhythmic and repetitive movements help the brain, especially when it is under stress, to relax. Namely, the fact that it is a bilateral activity means that a lot of parts of the brain have to be occupied with that activity in order to be able to perform it, and that then means that you don't have time to deal with other things - Sandra will illustrate.

This way, for example, you can break negative thought patterns by knitting, and everything again contributes to the fact that you can simply relax.

- In addition, the knitting is easily portable, you can always have it with you. And if it's your way of coping with stress, you can keep it in your purse, knit for example while you're waiting in the doctor's clinic - smiles Sandra.

On the other hand, there is, as she says, endless possibilities for creativity. Well, while we're talking, the team is working diligently, not even trying to hide that they listen to us carefully. Vjeko knits attractive scarves.

- Vjeko, how many meters will that scarf be? - we're joking.

- The biggest one I knitted was over three meters long - said Vjeko proudly.

- So who was that for!? – curiosity killed us.

- For a young lady - said Vjeko mysteriously.

- Oh, so everything got woven into that scarf - we say.

Everyone laughed at that, including Sandra, who points out that emotions are always knit into everything they do.

- For me personally, the value of these hand-made things is immeasurable. I think that anyone who picks up something that was created by hand, recognizes its value, recognizes that it was not made in a factory - Sandra is right.

Vjeko and Đurđa
Vjeko and Đurđa


And that's why it's good that crafting is coming back into focus, that hand work as such is coming back into focus, because, as Sandra says, computers and cell phones have separated us from that.

- And the work of the hands is directly related to the development of the brain. They say that knitting, among other things, can help delay the onset of dementia because it requires engagement - Sandra points out.

Or, as Nikolina nicely sums it up, knitting calms you down. That's why there are more and more groups where you knit, be they virtual or completely real, like the Štrikeraj café.

- I am glad that our Štrikeraj café contributed to this. Our twiddle muffs, which spread outside of Croatia, especially contributed to this. We already had donations to other countries where interest was shown - says Sandra.

That's how the twiddle muffs went to Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and there are more and more groups in our country that initially gathered just for the sake of making them, like the one in Belišće. You should try them out, put your hands in them, soft and colorful, full of details that are as much for looking at as they are for twiddling, playing, or using them as a purse.

- Here I am, like Lara from "Doctor Zhivago" - said to the journalist as he contentedly rested his hands in one of the muffs.

They are also always working on new products, designing them and making them. Sandra also mentions sensory tapestries designed for the joint work of therapists and patients. Sandra has, after all, a degree in special education. She has always been knitting and crocheting, she learned everything from her mother, only to, as she says, loose it out of focus for a while. And then she first worked in the preschool program and already saw the possibility of making a lot of toys herself.

- That's when I got that desire, the will, and everything just came together. I like to think about what we will do, I like to create. In addition to making twiddle muffs, which are exclusively given as gifts, we try to draw attention to the problems of various vulnerable groups with knitting. That's why we also do woollen installations - points out Sandra.

Big hug
Big hug

Let's laugh

The first one was installed in 2021 in the yard of the Psychiatric clinic Vrapče. They were four large twiddle muffs wrapped around the pillars of the hospital. Then they started making tree, a big woollen Christmas tree. Two have already been knitted, a third is being prepared, and a place has already been reserved for each of them at the Vrapče Clinic. A large woollen Easter egg was also knitted here, and will be again, all to show what can be done with knitting. And to put smiles on people's faces.

- I think the moment has finally come for you all to laugh at me - the journalist mustered up courage.

Because it makes no sense to come to Rome and not see the Pope, so it makes no sense to come to Štrikeraj café and not get involved in knitting. For this purpose, your journalist received his own bag containing everything he needs, which is part of a program financed by the Ministry. It is designed for those who are hesitant, who do not know where to get needles, wool, where to start...

- This is how they get knitting needles, crochet hook, a ball of wool, a small leaflet about our Štrikeraj with basic information, then a leaflet "Knit and feel better" with basic information about the concept of therapeutic knitting and they are set to go – Sandra explains.

The closer the lesson, the greater the anxiety of the beginner. Vjeko tries to help by providing information about how, historically speaking, men were the first to start knitting.

- And if you can, for example, judge by my physionomy whether I am for knitting, crocheting, or maybe weaving - we ask.

- It doesn't matter. Everything depends on your good will, on how ready you are to overcome that little initial discomfort. There is a little discomfort, because you have never done something like this before - says Sandra.

The hardest part is to start, repeats Sandra.

"Please, don't tell me that," cried the journalist.

- Do not be afraid of Sandra, she is not dangerous - Vjeko encourages him.

- It took time for me when I came, so I learned - Iskra consoles.

Everyone loves Sandra here. It also gives hope to the absolute illiterate. Just listen to Sandra.

- Just be brave - advises Sandra.

Everything that followed is hard to put on the paper. The needles, the position of the hands and fingers, what the index finger does and what it wraps around the thumb, one stitch, another stitch, and when everything goes wrong, call Sandra. "Knitting is literally switching stitches from one needle to another," teaches Sandra. Everything sounds logical in theory, but in practice... Well, no matter how slow it is, some stitches are being born. And the head is focused only on knitting. There is no prime minister, no president, no credit and inflation, no daughter in puberty and no midlife crisis. Just stitches.

- Have you ever had a worse student? - it seemed logical to ask.

- Oh no! You're doing very well for someone who picked up the needles for the first time - Sandra said.

A smile from ear to ear – Sandra Kerovec and the journalist Siniša Pavić

- You work very well. You will master it in no time - said Nikolina benevolently.

Great feeling

Luka is smiling mysteriously. It seems, that his smile is the most objective. And the feeling is great. The concentration was so great that it wouldn't even have been registered when the first guest entered the cafe, if others, especially Vjeko, hadn't said out loud: "Here's Đurđica!". After a hard day's work, nothing relaxes Đurđica, or Đurđa, better than knitting in good company. It has not been a long time since she came to Štrikeraj for the first time, and that was because of rowing!?

- Yes, because of rowing. I started rowing and I really liked it, although discovering rowing at my age is very unusual. There I met Sandra, who invited us before Christmas, to come and help make the scarf they were preparing for a tree. And I liked both the knitting and the team. I didn't know how to knit, so I learned it, and I helped them, even though I knit as a beginner - says Đurđica.

We didn't get carried away by guessing her age, but we did find out that Sandra and Đurđica were brought together by a foursome while rowing. And then we asked her if she had ever knitted anything before.

- I didn't knit, but now I carry knitting around with me - Đurđica laughs.

For Christmas, she knitted hair ribbons for her friends, and the ladies all got their own bags with needles and wool.

- The most unusual thing is that the one from whom I least expected enthusiasm for knitting, considering her active lifestyle, got the most fired up. In our little circle, Sonja knits the most - reveals Đurđica.

It wasn't just female friends who got hooked on knitting.

- Before Christmas, my relatives and my little niece from Split came to visit. In the evening, my niece starts playing a game on her cell phone, and I tell her: "Now you'll see what I'm doing." I grab the needle and knit, and she laughs at me. When she sent me a video from Split two days ago. She says: "I'm sick and see how I spend my holidays." I learned to crochet, so we can crochet together the next time I come to Zagreb." Everyone likes it when they try it - Đurđica has no doubts at all.

That's why she laughed from the bottom of her heart when asked how much knitting experience she has accumulated so far. "I did half a meter of knitting," said Đurđica humorously. That is why she is now knitting a scarf that Ilijana inspired her with her works. Everyone is there for each other's inspiration and help, so a little of Đurđa's work is also woven into the knitted Christmas tree that adorned the entrance to the Vrapče Clinic. And yes, says Đurđica, everything that is said about the good effects of knitting is true. There is no stress where you mingle with dear people.

No doubts

Here, Marija, Mirta, Andrea came by, and then Vesna, who knits everything she knits from her head, so she also knitted all the flags of the countries participating in the last World Cup in soccer and joined them into a soccer ball. Đurđica has no doubts, Thursday afternoon is the time to go to Štrikeraj café. The only thing she still doubts is whether she does anything useful with her arrivals, whether she helps in the way that the experience seems to help her. Sandra has no real dilemma.

- She does a lot with her arrival. When we set out to establish Štrikeraj café, the idea was that it would be an inclusive workshop where the greatest emphasis would be on the socialization of people we work with (young and adults with intellectual disabilities). We wanted to create an environment where they feel good and comfortable, so that people who come from outside see them in their best light, see what their abilities are.

They have the opportunity to meet and get to know them, and on the other hand, they have the opportunity to meet other people, to see that they too have some problems and difficulties. The emphasis is on that social component, on breaking down the prejudice that people have towards someone who is different, not knowing how to approach them, what to talk about with them. That was the idea in the very foundation, and knitting is what we do while we are together. Knitting is the process of crafting and connecting the stitches, and as we connect the stitches in knitting, we also connect with each other while knitting - sums up Sandra.

And she sure is right, knitting connected us so much that the hardest thing was to leave Štrikeraj now that you know about Vjeka, Luka, Iskra, Nikolina, Ilijana. One will have to stop by again, even if the first lesson in knitting is completely forgotten.

Siniša Pavić

26. February 2024


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