Everywhere Stefanie Lewis goes, her needles and yarn go with her.
With the click of two needles, hundreds of stitches come together into one neatly knitted hat, tied off with a pompom on top. Two hundred hand-knitted hats later, they’re ready for delivery each winter to Billings area schools for children in need.
Lewis, 68, began knitting hats for students five years ago and recently finished knitting her 1,000th hat, which she delivered in a box along with 50 other hats to Orchard Elementary School on Friday afternoon.
As she spread out a mountain of colorful caps for a few Orchard kindergarten students to choose from on Friday, it didn’t take long for the 5-year-olds to select a hat of their very own.
“Pink is my favorite color,” said 5-year-old Josephine Rodriguez. “She must’ve known pink is my favorite. She made it just for me.”
Connor Spencer, 5, also chose his favorite colors — a stocking cap patterned with oranges and reds. His best friend, Jayden Maris, 5, picked a color scheme striped with orange, green and white.
“It’s a good fit,” Spencer said. “It covers my ears all the way.”
Lewis knits the hats year-round and no two are alike. Each hat takes about three hours to make. She selects three different colored balls of yarn for each hat from a large collection that she has either purchased or that has been given to her. She casts on 72 stitches and knits nine inches of rows, alternating between colors.
With yarn scraps leftover from each hat, Lewis knits them into what she calls a variety hat. No yarn goes to waste.
She couldn’t estimate how much she spends on yarn each year, but she always purchases discounted yarns from local craft stores using coupons.
"It’s something I love to do — it keeps my hands busy and limber,” Lewis said. “And it makes me happy to turn something I love to do into something for children that are in need.”
Orchard kindergarten teacher Meagen Bretz said she sees a great need for the hats, estimating nearly 70 percent of her students are without adequate winter wear.
“Most every kid has a winter hat, but with so many of them, they are secondhand and so there’s just not a lot left to them,” Bretz said. “The kids’ parents all work hard, but many of them have a hard time making ends meet. So I know the parents are grateful for what (Lewis) does.”
A mother of two daughters and a grandmother of 10 grandchildren, Lewis knows, firsthand, what it’s like to struggle from time to time making ends meet, she said.
“My kids, they had things, but not a lot of things,” Lewis said. “And we lived in a neighborhood with a lot of kids that didn’t have much at all.”
Lewis said her daughters’ clothing were all items she had sewn for them. And when they grew out the clothing, she would hand them down to other neighborhood children.
Her love for sewing and knitting grew into the yearly hat giveaway tradition several years ago when she noticed so many kids who would come into the department stores where she worked without warm clothes.
“I saw kids come in with ears that were bright red,” Lewis said. “There are always kids in need, and I figured this was just one way I could help.”
Since then, she has brought hundreds of knitted hats each year to Alkali Creek, Eagle Cliffs, Joliet, Shepherd and Orchard elementary schools.
Her longtime friend Nickie Burke, 62, said she never sees Lewis without her knitting ensemble. She even brings her knitting along to all of her grandkids’ sporting events and knits hats while cheering them on.
“The faster they play basketball, the faster she knits,” Burke said.
“I think knitting the hats for kids brings a purpose for what she loves to do. You can knit, and do things you love to do, but without a reason it’s just not as enjoyable,” she said.
Previously, Lewis has delivered the boxes filled with hats to the front office of schools. From there, teachers identify children that are in the most need and distribute them in days following.
For the first time on Friday, Lewis got to witness the reactions from students when they were given her knitted hats.
"It was really neat to see their excitement," Lewis said. "It makes me happy knowing they like them and will get good use out of them."
Lewis said she spent Friday evening knitting a hat for the next delivery.
"There are always kids in need," she said, "and as long as my hands will allow it, I plan to continue knitting hats for them."