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Group's Wool-Gathering Helps Refugees in Croatia

MOST days, the yarn Lisbeth Hall sells in her shop at Charka Farm goes to knitters in New England. But this month, that yarn, spun from wool produced by the 350 sheep on the Halls' farm, will also benefit knitters a continent away: Bosnian refugee women.

Mrs. Hall has donated nearly 200 pounds of hand-dyed yarn to the Knitting Project, a nationwide effort to send knitting supplies to refugee women in Croatia. Launched by the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, the project has collected more than a ton of yarn from United States wool producers, yarn manufacturers, shops, and individuals.

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Surrounded by richly colored yarns in the farm cottage that serves as her shop, Hall says, ``I think how wonderful it is that the sheep I nurture on this side of the ocean are going to give comfort to somebody else so far away.''

The yarn and knitting needles are being shipped next week by AmeriCares, a disaster-relief and humanitarian-aid organization. After the materials arrive in Croatia, the International Rescue Committee will distribute them to women living in refugee camps around the cities of Zagreb, Osijek, and Slavonski Brod.

``Many of these women have lost their homes, their families, their villages,'' says Susan Alberti, acting director of the women's commission. Some refugee centers around Zagreb are located in empty warehouses, and often four to six families must share a room.

To pass the time during long days, the women knit. But because yarn is scarce, they often pull their knitting apart and remake things. When former first lady Barbara Bush observed this sad form of recycling during a visit to Croatia last December, she suggested that sending knitting supplies could be a way for Americans to help counteract the women's sense of displacement and inactivity.

At the same time, in what Steve Johnson, president of AmeriCares, calls ``a wonderful coincidence of elements,'' the women's commission was responding to requests by Bosnian women in Croatia for yarn.

In February, Babbie Cameron, volunteer coordinator of the project, sent a letter to yarn manufacturers and wool producers outlining the project. ``One thing we've learned in the refugee business is that if you can go to the American people with a tangible need, they respond very generously and quickly,'' she says.

Peter Hagerty, owner of Peace Fleece, a wool production company in Kezar Falls, Maine, explains the appeal of the Knitting Project. ``You sit and watch TV at night and look at all the atrocities in Bosnia and you say, `What can one person do?' ''

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Mr. Hagerty's answer was to donate 400 pounds of washed wool. When he sent it to Bartlettyarns in Harmony, Maine, to be spun, workers donated their labor. At Harrisville Designs in Harrisville, N.H., President John Colony and three employees also volunteered time on a Saturday to pack the 400 pounds of yarn the company is contributing.

In Putney, Vt., Green Mountain Spinnery is giving 115 pounds of yarn. ``I know the comfort I get from the feeling of yarn running through my fingers,'' says Libby Mills, co-owner of the spinnery. ``I can just imagine what knitting must mean to those women.'' The project, she adds, ``feels person to person, knitter to knitter.''

When a Putney newspaper ran an article about the Knitting Project, readers began donating yarn. The spinnery also mentioned the project in a newsletter it sends to 2,000 customers nationwide. Donations of yarn ranging from two skeins to 20 pounds came from as far away as Colorado, Kentucky, and Indiana. Some donors also sent money.

``Many people wrote letters thanking us for providing this channel for making a contribution,'' Ms. Mills says.

Truckers such as International Cargo Systems of Boston have also given their time. Textile Trucking of Concord, N.H., traveled to Pickens, S.C., to pick up 700 pounds of yarn donated by Brunswick Worsted Mills.

After the refugee women finish knitting sweaters, socks, caps, and mittens, the International Rescue Committee will distribute them to the central Bosnian cities of Mostar, Tuzla, and Zenica, mainly to elderly people, young adults, and children to help them keep warm during the winter.

``This is definitely the type of project we feel will help to heal the spirit of so many of these people who are virtually imprisoned in refugee camps with almost no prospect of returning to their homes in the near future,'' Mr. Johnson says.

For donors, too, there are rewards. ``I was thinking about how important the asking had been,'' Hall says. ``How many more people are out there who would be thrilled to be able to contribute something in kind - something they have worked on? This started from the grass roots. That's the only way you can ever do anything - starting with one person.

``This ability to have a vision and see it through is something more of us should aspire to,'' she adds. ``Who would have imagined that they could collect a ton of yarn?''

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