There's one comfort that Carole Ferguson wishes she could have provided for her mother before she died of breast cancer two years ago.
"I regret that I did not know how to knit when she was sick. I was in the hospital so often with nothing to do with my hands," Ferguson said. She learned the craft months after her mother's death and developed such a strong love for it that she opened the Celtic Knot Yarn Shop on Ellicott City's Main Street earlier this year.
Now, Ferguson knits "chemo caps" for patients receiving treatment for cancer. She has enlisted the help of a Girl Scout troop for her project and is teaching them how to knit the caps, something she thinks her mother would have appreciated.
"I wish I could have made her caps," Ferguson said. "Now I can make them for other people."
After two sessions of learning basic stitches, the girls have been knitting rolled-brim caps that will be donated to a local cancer treatment center.
The project not only will assist cancer patients, but it already is helping the 35-year-old Ferguson heal as well. In the past eight years, six of her close friends and relatives have died of cancer, including her mother-in-law. And her husband, Andy, is now in his third year of remission from Hodgkin's disease.
"I think that I've had more-than-average amounts of loss," Ferguson said. "I feel like my family is slowly disappearing."
When her mother lost her hair, she felt very exposed, Ferguson said. "You lose your eyelashes and eyebrows and anything that can be considered part of your beauty," she said.
Ferguson said she was able to get her mother a human-hair wig. Her own short, stylish haircut belies the long tresses she once had, but donated to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for children suffering from medical hair loss.
But her mother found her wig hot and difficult to maintain. Scarves or caps provide another option. "Most people feel as if they like the flexibility of having both [wigs and hats] at their disposal," said Sharon Zamkoff, manager of the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource and Image Center, a service of Howard County General Hospital.
With hair loss, "the positive side is that the medicine is working, but it is difficult to see such a prominent physical reminder of your illness," Zamkoff said.
Hats also help conserve body heat, particularly in the winter.
Many organizations and stores in the Baltimore region collect hats or provide instructions on how to knit or sew various styles of caps. A pattern Ferguson saw at A Good Yarn, a knitting store in Fells Point, inspired her to begin the program, which she calls "Colleen's Caps," after her mother, Colleen Van Over.
She took up knitting in June to make a gift for a new nephew. After opening her store on Ellicott City's historic Main Street in February, Ferguson and a staff member developed their own pattern and found an interested group of Girl Scouts.
On Friday afternoon, six Junior Girl Scouts from Troop 142 in Ellicott City, sitting in a semicircle on a leopard-print rug in the shop, quickly finished their snacks of applesauce and American cheese slices and, without prompting, got to work with their practice needles and yarn.
Ferguson handed each girl a pair of circular knitting needles - two needles attached by a flexible band - with several already-completed rows. She showed them how to use the circular needles to "knit in the round," allowing them to use just one type of stitch for the entire hat. An average knitter can complete a hat in just a few nights, Ferguson said.
The girls have been knitting on their own. Leah Mason, 10, knits in the car and while her mother reads her a story at night.
Nine-year-old Holly Sandler hopes to use her developing knitting skills to diversify her monochromatic sock selection.
Others had a more personal connection to the project. Sabrina Asad, 8, said she does not remember her grandmother, who died of breast cancer when Sabrina was very young, and wanted to do something for people suffering from a similar ailment.
"So making this cap right now makes me feel good," Sabrina said. "It makes me really happy to help them."
To knit caps or to obtain one for a patient: Celtic Knot Yarn Shop at 410-203-0133.