Knitted Knockers: Changing the pattern of breast cancer

Tina Miklas holds a knitted breast protheses called a "knitted knocker."
Tina Miklas explains the alternative breast protheses called "knitted knockers." (Anna Foley/MEDILL)

By Anna Foley

For Chrysanthi Koutsiviti, knitting is more than just pushing a piece of yarn back and forth between needles — it’s an expression of compassion for breast cancer survivors.

“I’m knitting with a purpose for people who need it, and it’s so fulfilling,” Koutsiviti said. “Knitting is a way to show people love.”

That love is one of the reasons Koutsiviti, along with several other women, gathered at the Currency Exchange Café in Washington Park one gray afternoon in October. They turned their hobby into an expression of love by knitting soft, adjustable breast prostheses for women who have undergone mastectomies. The prostheses are affectionately dubbed “knitted knockers.”

The Knitted Knockers Support Foundation boasts nearly 200 knitting groups nationally and internationally. And though the plush prostheses have garnered quite a reputation, the foundation began with humble beginnings.

“A woman named Barbara owned a yarn shop in Maine,” said Tina Miklas, a Chicago-based Knitted Knockers organizer. “When she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself, she started knitting these prostheses, except back then, she called them “tit bits.” Then more and more women started requesting them, so she started the nonprofit.”

Miklas said the knitted prostheses are so popular because they’re a gentler alternative to traditional breast prostheses women often use after getting a mastectomy.

“They slip right into your bra,” Miklas said. “They’re softer, and can be worn right after surgery.” In fact, women often feel insecure and embarrassed following a mastectomy: The psychological effects of the surgery can lead to “the feeling of loss of personal attractiveness, low self-esteem and avoidance of social relationship,” according to researchers at the University of Seville.

The knitted prostheses can be customized for different breast sizes. Each one is stuffed with polyester fill, so women can decide for themselves how large each artificial breast should be.

Miklas said knitted knockers can also be customized cosmetically by using funky yarn colors. Personal touches like that make them unique to their recipients. Regardless of the color, Miklas said that the little knitted pouches can have a tremendous impact on a women after a mastectomy.

“It’s the simplest gesture to make a difference in someone’s life,” Miklas said. “It makes a person feel a little more human. I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a breast, but I think that all women are beautiful and deserve to feel that way themselves.”

Knitted Knocker knitter Stephanie Warren has seen those effects up close. She said two of her close friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“About three years ago, a friend of mine found out she had breast cancer,” Warren said. “It was already at stage IV. She ended up having both breasts removed.”

Dealing with her friends’ diagnosis and treatment was one of the reasons Warren decided to start knitting the breast prostheses.

“It’s like when soldiers go through the process of losing a leg,” Warren said. “It’s kind of like a ghost limb that they feel.”

The prostheses Koutsiviti, Miklas, Warren and fellow knitters created that October afternoon were donated to Sisters Working It Out, a local cancer advocacy and awareness organization. According to Miklas, the knitted knocker movement hasn’t picked up speed in Chicagoland yet, but she’s decided to change that.

“To my knowledge, there’s not another provider in Chicago right now,” Miklas said. “When I realized that, I knew we had to do something.”

So, a group of women met up in a café to knit their hearts out. While they created several knitted prostheses that day, Miklas said their job has just begun.

“We have to make sure to abolish breast cancer first, but this is a good way to spend time until then,” Miklas said.

Photo at top: Tina Miklas explains the alternative breast protheses called “knitted knockers.” (Anna Foley/MEDILL)