When residents at one New England retirement home heard their chicken neighbors were in peril, a group of plucky pensioners decided to hatch a lifesaving plan. And surprisingly, it involved some tiny knitted jumpers.
The knitting club at Fuller Village retirement community in Milton, Massachusetts, has been running for about ten years. The group members meet every Wednesday, with their needles and yarn at the ready to craft some amazing creations.
Over the years, the club has churned out countless blankets, scarves, dolls and hats. Often, they give their creations to children in the local area. As a result, the group like to feel they’re doing their part for the less fortunate people in the community.
Another organization doing its bit for the people of Milton is Mary M. B. Wakefield Charitable Trust. The trust owns the Wakefield Estate, which is situated just over the road from Fuller Village. The charity runs educational opportunities that, among other things, aim to teach people about the natural world.
Given her work’s proximity to the retirement home, Erica Max, the program director on the Wakefield Estate, decided to pay her neighbors a visit. In late 2016 the knitting club hosted a craft fair. So Max believed that was the perfect excuse to go and introduce herself.
During her visit, Max got chatting to some of the knitting group’s members. Somehow, the conversation got round to the chickens that Max helps to look after on the estate. The hens feature in school lessons to help children better understand business management and animal care.
At the end of their chat, the knitters decided to make the chickens some jumpers. The garments would come in a range of jazzy colors and patterns. But, despite their wacky appearance, they would serve an immensely important purpose.
Max had explained to the knitting club how molting was having a dangerous effect on the chickens. “When they molt, they lose their feathers, and end up being in serious peril if it gets really cold,” Max told The Dodo in March 2017. “So one thing led to another, and they volunteered to knit our chickens some sweaters.”
Winters in New England can be particularly brutal on birds. Some people believe Milton is the windiest city in the United States. Moreover, temperatures can plummet to 18.4° F in January. And when thermometers drop, chicken egg production does too.
One retiree named Nancy Kearns revealed it was the story of a little chicken called Prince Peep that particularly tugged on their heartstrings. “They have a miniature rooster that comes from Malaysia, and this breed of rooster is used to warm climates and so he’s very cold,” Kearns explained on an appearance on CBC radio show As It Happens.
Kearns added, “Even in the summer, he is shivering and she was worried about him. Some of her chickens are more fragile than others, and we were kind of expecting a cold winter. And just for the fun of it she asked me if any of our knitters would be able to make a sweater.”
Given the uniqueness of their new project, the knitters weren’t really sure where to begin. However, after a little research online, the group found that chicken sweaters were already a thing. Someone had already created them in England. So now the club had a pattern to follow.
However, not all members of the knitting club were convinced by their latest endeavor. “I don’t think in my wildest dreams I ever thought anybody made sweaters for chickens,” 76-year-old Barbara Widmayer told Associated Press in March 2017.
But despite her reservations, Widmayer agreed to take part in the project. Soon chicken sweaters were flying off the production line. “We got started and despite the fact that our neighbors thought we were a little bit silly, it worked out fine,” Kearns told CBC.
One problem the group did encounter was making a sweater small enough for one special chicken. “One particular knitter was determined to knit a sweater that would fit our smallest rooster, Prince Peep,” Max told The Dodo. “He’s so small, the other sweaters were huge on him. She kept bringing me sweater after sweater, until she got the perfect fit.”
So finally the knitters were ready to present their collection to their feathered friends. And judging from the chickens’ reactions, they were an instant success. Kearns said on As It Happens, “When we went to visit the Wakefield Estate and gingerly put the sweaters on the chickens and then put them on the ground, they just sort of trotted away like they were in a fashion show.”
Seeing the club’s creation, Max was over the moon. “We never thought anyone would actually make [the sweaters] for us, but the ladies stepped right up,” she told the Boston Globe in February 2017. “Most of the girls are fully feathered right now, but you never know. It’s great to have this wardrobe available.”
It wasn’t long before Max started to see the advantages of her chickens’ new fashion accessories. “The birds are, in fact, laying more eggs,” she told The Dodo. “It may be a coincidence, but we’re getting many, many more eggs now.”
And it wasn’t only the chickens that benefited from the sweaters. The knitters themselves got some positives from the project. One 76-year-old named Libby Kaplan was even able to overcome her fear of birds by taking part.
Fellow knitter Widmayer told the Boston Globe, “There’s so much going on these days that’s kind of contentious in the world.” Widmayer added, “It was actually very calming to me to work on this.”