Men in Surrey treatment and recovery centre learn how to knit together

January 9, 2021
Clothes & Fashion
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Nelson Mendonca is knitting his life together one stitch at a time.

Technically, what Mendonca and a group of men at the Phoenix Society are doing isn’t knitting since it doesn’t involve traditional knitting needles.

Instead, they use a loom to knit yarn together. It’s called looming.

“At first I thought, ‘People are going to think I’m weird or whatever,’” Mendonca said.

“Once I started knitting in public, I didn’t really care what people think. I enjoy doing it and I’m going to do it.”

Far from being ostracized, Mendonca has created a new activity at the treatment and recovery centre which helps women and men break the cycle of addiction and homelessness.

As many as 10 men at a time are now looming. They’ve made about 200 toques, which have ended up as gifts to loved ones and as donations to a women’s recovery house. They want other toques to go to the homeless and to babies in hospital once the pandemic is over.

They call themselves “toquers.”

“A lot of people were curious and wanted me to teach them how to loom,” Mendonca said.

“It spread like wildfire around here.”

Phoenix Centre, located across from Surrey Memorial Hospital, has 140 men and women who are going through recovery at a time: 60 are in treatment and 80 in transitional housing.

Mendonca, 41, has passed through 100 days of addiction treatment and now lives in his own suite. He started looming after being taught by Miss B in Surrey Pretrial, a high security remand detention centre.

When he arrived at Phoenix, he felt anxious so he started knitting toques again to keep his hands occupied.

Now men at the treatment centre are looming at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and while watching football on television and attending group sessions with counsellors.

“It helps them open up to be focused on something: you’re not thinking about what you’re saying,” he said.

“It makes it easier for them to open up and dig deep about certain things.”

They use whatever yarn is around and make up designs on the go. Phoenix has helped with yarn and looms. They’ve also received donations from the public.

Mendonca can make a toque in about an hour. The group has started expanding into scarves and plan to try socks. They’ve started making pompons, although there’s a big debate about whether toques should include pompons at all. Some guys have gone so far as to make toques with two pompons.

Mendonca said he finds looming therapeutic and peaceful.

“It’s like the one thing I can’t cheat, manipulate, cut corners, find loopholes,” he said

“I have to follow each peg one at a time. It’s kind of like a routine of how I want to live my life from here on out.”

Keir Macdonald, Phoenix Society chief executive officer, said he’s never seen a knitting group at Phoenix like the one started by Mendonca.

Macdonald said the pandemic has changed recreational programs and activities at Phoenix which has led to more down time at the centre.

“This was how Nelson passed his time,” he said.

“It was a bit cathartic for him and he enjoyed it. It just took off. I think it’s reflective of many others who were looking for something to provide that sense of engagement, community, purpose.”

Macdonald acknowledged the high number of overdose deaths in B.C. but also said Phoenix has seen “some amazing success this year that bucks the trend.

“What are some of the most pleasing stats for us is that we’re seeing 60 to 70 per cent moving to market housing at the end of that program,” he said.

“People are getting employed, people are going back to school and stabilizing.”

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