Six women spent part of a recent Monday stuffing knockers.

They filled soft, knitted shells with snowy, synthetic fibers, turning them into puffy pillows. They did it as part of Knitted Knockers, a national organization that makes comfortable, lightweight prostheses for women who have lost part, or all, of a breast to cancer.

The cottony knockers are preferred by women who find other types of breast prostheses too heavy or uncomfortable. And because they’re soft, the knitted fabrics can be worn soon after surgery.

“They’re an alternative to silicon prosthetics,” said Cindy Huber, the point person for the Knitted Knockers Roanoke, the local group of volunteer knitters, crocheters and stuffers.

“All the women who have had them, love them.”

The volunteers gather monthly at Yarn Explosion in north Roanoke to knit and fill knockers of all different sizes.

“You remember the first two we made?” Patty Reidy said as she stuffed the fiber fill into the knitted fabric. “They were as big as sofa pillows!”

Occasional kidding aside, the women take the work seriously. They have filled more than 1,200 orders since the group was founded in 2016. They do the work for women who appreciate the comfort of the knitted knockers — and they do it for Christine Slade.

Slade founded the Roanoke branch of Knitted Knockers in 2016, after hearing about the organization from Yarn Explosion founder Marilee Williamson. Slade had undergone breast cancer surgery in 2008, and she found the synthetic prosthesis uncomfortable and bulky. When she tried a knitted knocker for the first time, she decided she wanted to make them for other women.

In 2017, Slade told Roanoke Times reporter Luanne Rife: “You know what I did the first day I got these? I went dancing. Because I could.”

By then, Slade had only eight more months to live. She had recruited others to help her make the knockers.

“When I met Christine, I thought, ‘How is this woman going to do this by herself?’” Huber said. Slade was quite sick, but still knitted and stuffed.

“Christine was an amazing woman,” Huber said. “When she started, she didn’t have a lot of money. Many times, she had to decide whether she was going to eat or send out a pair of knitted knockers.”

Her friends vowed to continue Slade’s work, even after her death in November 2017.

“I am sure she’s up there, looking down on us,” Huber said.

Knitted Knockers was founded in 2011 by Barbara Demorest, a Washington woman who could not have reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy. As she looked for alternatives to the available prosthetic options, Demorest learned from her doctor how to design and make a knitted insert. After getting help from a friend who sewed the stuffed padding for her, Demorest decided that more women needed these “gifts of comfort and dignity.”

The knitted knockers are custom designed and hand-sewn. Huber has a chart of measurements, which she received from Slade, that gives the precise widths for specific cup sizes.

Each insert has a small hole in the back, where filling is stuffed in or removed. That way, the wearer can make the knitted knocker whatever size she chooses.

The knitted knockers are free. The group relies on volunteers and donations, and receives some financial assistance from the national organization to help with shipping. The local group will gratefully accept donations of yarn, sewing supplies, money or time.

The group has expanded over the past couple of years to making “swimmers,” which are knitted knockers made of acrylic yarn that is more resistant to chlorine, which means they can be worn beneath a swimsuit.

Knitted Knockers Roanoke also supplies inserts for a half-dozen or more doctors’ offices and cancer centers in the Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg. The clinics let their patients know about the Knitted Knockers group and how to get their products.

During the volunteer work sessions, some women knit or crochet while others stuff the knockers. The designs are not complex, but the curved shape of the knitted shell is unusual for even experienced knitters.

“I wouldn’t call it simple,” said Barbara Renick, as she stuffed a shell. “I didn’t knit fast enough.”

Across the table, Linda Hunnell admitted, “I make a lot of mistakes.”

Still, the knitting and crocheting continues, producing lots of soft fabric covers in an array of colors. The women will make hundreds of knitted knockers by the end of the year, which will mean that hundreds of women will feel more confident in their appearance.

“We are still here,” Huber said. “We are going to keep this going.”

Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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