Strings Attached

The article, “Strings Attached,” originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Key of Kappa Kappa Gamma. This is my first piece for my sorority magazine. I’m excited to contribute and to have met Sheila in the process. (And I’m part of the Royal issue with Meghan Markle, who could want more?) 😉


THE CONCENTRATION AND PRODUCTIVITY OF knitting are just what some inmates are looking for, says instructor Sheila Wright Rovelstad, Maryland, whose Knitting Behind Bars course at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison of 500 men in Jessup, Maryland, routinely has a waiting list. Her class gives them the tools to learn not only how to knit, but how to connect. “Knitting brings Zen and peace,” Sheila says.

Sheila was 8 years old when she taught herself how to knit out of necessity. In college, knitting became an escape, a break from her studies and a good excuse not to get caught up in the allnight bridge games in the sorority house.

Years later, in a knitting group outside Baltimore, Sheila met Lyn Zwerling, who had found a similar peace through knitting. Zwerling wanted to share that feeling of peace with others and began to think about who else might benefit from learning to knit. Zwerling came up with a novel population of potential knitters: male prisoners.

When Sheila heard the idea, she was all in. But the idea was not so obvious to the local prison warden, who took five years to convince.

Sheila says it’s not just about the knitting; it is about conversations, sharing emotions and building relationships.

Some people might see a risk in giving prison inmates knitting needles.

“My most important thought about knitting needles as a weapon is: Someone who knits is not going to be violent,” Zwerling told NPR. “For a man to cross over that border and to join a knitting group, he’s already identified himself as someone who’s open, who’s ready for change.” But to ensure safety and comply with the prison’s standards, Sheila manages the supplies, accounting for every needle, every pair of scissors, every ball of yarn.

One of Sheila’s mottos for the class is, “Be the best you can be, and help others.” To that end, the projects her students knit have purpose, like winter hats donated to Baltimore children—some of whom attend the same schools inmates did. A handknit winter hat is a small thing to give, but in giving, Sheila says, her students have a sense of purpose and a reconnection to their communities.

Percell Arrington knits during one of Sheila’s weekly classes.   Photo from The Key of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Percell Arrington knits during one of Sheila’s weekly classes.
Photo from The Key of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

As they knit, Sheila talks with her students about their families and their hobbies. She does not ask what they did in their past or what landed them in prison. Instead, she focuses on what they want to do in the future. Most of her students are scheduled for release within a few years.

Sheila says she hopes her classes can inspire them, help them through their pain, and help keep them out of trouble beyond the prison’s walls. She tells the story of Josh, a former student who shared that he dreamed of becoming an EMT. Sheila brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy and encouraged him when he came to class. He’s now been out of prison for five years, and though he’s not knitting with Sheila anymore, he did become an EMT, she says.

Sheila says her pride and satisfaction are not only from the projects her students turn out, but from the connections they make. Division disappears when they are working together on a project, she says. They are people just like she is, knitting, talking, working through life.

—Melissa Price, Florida State


As the first college women’s fraternity magazine and the official publication of Kappa Kappa Gamma, The Key magazine has been in continuous existence since 1882.

The mission of The Key is to foster lifelong connectivity among members. It endeavors to be a mirror of our world and a reflection of our times. In so doing, it presents a wide range of topics and stories, from educational to entertaining, from provocative to traditional, and from amusing to serious.

In each issue, The Key seeks to engage in a smart and relevant dialogue that makes it essential to the world of its readers.