Whether you're a knitter in need of some new inspiration or you just want to lend your skills to a good cause, Adventist Health has a challenge for you.

The Knitted Knocker Knit-Off is back for its second year this month, spreading awareness of an alternative prosthetic for breast cancer patients while raising money to help provide them to those in need for free.

Knitted Knockers are soft, light and cool knitted or crocheted breast prosthetics that a woman who has had a mastectomy or other breast surgery can use as an alternative to the heavy, hot and expensive gel prosthetics. They are made by knitters in the community.

"Traditional prosthetics are around five pounds; these don't even register as half a pound," said Jacqui Engstrand, nurse navigator at the Adventist Health AIS Cancer Center and local Knitted Knockers coordinator. Those gel prosthetics "get very hot, cause you to sweat and are very heavy. They're not as comfortable, especially in our heat. (Knitted Knockers) are soft and comfortable."

The Knit-Off will raise money for more prosthetics to be knitted (or crocheted) and given out to women in Kern County. Submission deadline is Sept. 28, with an entry fee of $25.

While Knitted Knockers are usually made in a range of neutral flesh tones with an approved yarn that has been found to be comfortable on tender skin, those guidelines don't apply for the contest. Knitters are encouraged to get creative, with whatever colors and yarns they'd like.

"The knockers for the competition can be as wild as you want because they're not going in a bra," Engstrand explained. 

Submissions will be judged in three categories: most creative, best theme and peoples' choice. Ron Warren, owner of yarn shop The Twisted Skein, will judge submissions in the first two. (Engstrand said the shop has been a big supporter of local Knitted Knockers efforts, carrying knocker-approved yarns and the pattern.)

Winners, which will be announced at the VIPink event at the AIS Cancer Center on Oct. 11, will get more than just bragging rights: some hospital swag and knitting materials will also be up for grabs for the knitters of winning knockers. Before that, the knockers will be on display from Oct. 1 to 11 in the center's lobby.

Last year's Knit-Off saw submissions like a Dodgers cap and baseball, an ice cream scoop and waffle cone, two ladybugs and a gnome and mushroom.

"People got really creative," Engstrand said. "Hopefully they will get just as creative this year. I have mine but it's top secret."

There were 11 submissions last year, and the contest raised $425 from entry fees and donations. That money was then used to buy more yarn and special bags for the knockers that are given away.

Adventist Health is just one of many medical centers around the country involved with the national Knitted Knocker nonprofit, which started in 2011 to give free knitted prosthetics to women in need. Locally, it started in 2016, when Engstrand said she heard about Knitted Knockers from a patient.

"I've been knitting since I was 7 or 8 years old, so when I heard about it, I thought, 'Well, I do that anyway,'" Engstrand said, adding that there wasn't yet a local group making Knitted Knockers then. "I figured we'd try to do that here."

But Engstrand couldn't do it alone.

"I can knit, but I can't knit all of them," Engstrand recalled thinking at the time. "I was looking for a knitting group and found What the Knit Guild and found the most wonderful group of people in Bakersfield. Since then, Knitted Knockers has taken off big time."

In August of 2016, the local Knitted Knockers group gave out the first pair, and since then around 450 knockers have been given to women in need, both in town and beyond. There are about 20 to 30 people in the core group of knitters.

"We have a lot of fun all knitting our knockers together," Engstrand said of the group.

When Engstrand is running out of a certain size, she said, she will usually get a new pair within a week after posting about it on Facebook. 

There are two important things to know about the local Knitted Knockers, she said.

"They are always free for anyone who needs them," she said. "And you do not have to be a patient at Adventist Health to get them."

A pair of the knitted prosthetics are on display at many of the local cancer centers, so patients can see them and know they are an option. From there, they can ask someone at the center for help getting a pair, go to The Breast Center or visit the Knitted Knockers website

The knockers come in all sizes and skin colors and can be adjusted for an individual's need, with excess stuffing removed for a perfect fit if necessary. 

To help — whether with a traditional set of knockers or with a creative entry for the contest — patterns for the knockers can be found online at knittedknockers.org/make-a-knocker. While they can at first be difficult to get the hang of, Knitted Knockers become very easy to make, Engstrand said. 

Engstrand recalled a woman who walked into the center with a blanket wrapped around, hiding her uneven breasts. After she received a pair of Knitted Knockers, Engstrand said, she got a major boost in confidence.

"She walked out without the blanket and her head held high," she said. "That alone makes it worth entering the competition." 

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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