Comfort Kerchiefs: Gifts of Love, Dignity...and Hope
Thousands of Sewing With Nancy® viewers wrote in response to Gaye Kriegel’s Comfort Kerchief story, and how it inspired them into action. Many of those letter writers were cancer survivors. Or, they had a daughter, sister, mother, aunt, friend or coworker who had died, or was suffering the consequences of this all-too-familiar disease. Running through their messages was a common thread: In putting their hands and hearts to work helping others cope, they discovered healing—and hope.
“After seven years of remission, Mom was rediagnosed with cancer and died just thirty days later...the same month that Nancy’s Sew a Smile series began to air on PBS. There were many days I just wanted to stay in bed and cry. But I knew that the mailbox was full of requests for the Comfort Kerchief pattern, which was featured on the show. I knew I had to get out of bed and fill those requests, so I could help other people suffering from hair loss and the emotional toll of cancer. Now I realize that’s how ministry works. You set out to help someone else and, ultimately, you are the one being blessed.”
It’s been nearly two years since Gaye Kriegel lost her mother to lung cancer. Her recollections are still strained, phrased between tearful pauses. Lou Gilbert, Gaye’s mother, was first diagnosed with cancer in 1991. Determined to share the burden with her, Gaye accompanied Lou to most doctor visits, including chemotherapy sessions.
“Being with her taught me first-hand what chemotherapy does to someone. Besides making you feel terrible on the inside, you feel like you look terrible on the outside. Cancer grossly changes your body, robbing you of your femininity. You don’t just lose the hair on top of your head...you lose all of your hair—on your face, your eyebrows and eyelashes. My Mom was particularly self-conscious about her bald head, even with my dad.”
Like most chemotherapy patients, Lou’s hair fell out within just two to three weeks of the treatment. Hairless-head camouflage was essential to Lou, but she was discouraged by the options. Wigs not only screamed, “Look—I am a wig!” but could cost as much as two thousand dollars, and slid around on her completely bald head. Turbans hugged head contours unattractively, and seemed more appropriate for home-alone lounging. Scarves were often too small, too tight-fitting when tied, and worse yet, embarrassingly prone to slipping off. And, Lou soon found that most hats look better with at least some hair framing the brim. Plus, she just wasn’t a “hat person.”
Inspired by her mother’s frustrations with wigs, turbans, scarves and hats, Gaye started experimenting with alternative head-covers.
“One night, driving home from the hospital, I started thinking through the possibilities. I liked the idea of adjustable ties, but they had to be neat. Contouring was good, but with some volume to simulate hair. Plus, it had to be easy to make...my Mom was losing her hair fast.”
After developing prototypes to refine the head cover, Gaye came up with her final design. Later called the “Comfort Kerchief,” she made her mother eight different styles, varying the fabric type and color to coordinate with her wardrobe. Lou’s favorite was made of lightweight denim.
Immediately after Lou began wearing Gaye’s design, the demand for the Comfort Kerchief grew. Friends, or friends of friends, all networked by some stage of chemotherapy sessions, wanted a prototype, or the pattern. For Gaye, each inquiry reaffirmed the rampant devastation of cancer-and her ability to help “cure” some of its side effects, even if only one patient at a time.
One of those cancer patients lucky enough to be sent a Comfort Kerchief was well-known machine embroiderer, Barb Prihoda. Gaye had met Barb through her former work as assistant editor for the Creative Machine Newsletter. She had heard Barb was going through chemotherapy and surprised her with a Comfort Kerchief.
“Gaye’s generosity and kindness were very touching,” Barb remembers. “I decided to return that kindness to others.”
At her annual Lake Sewing Retreat, Barb proposed devoting one evening to cancer awareness and creating Comfort Kerchiefs. Everyone attending gladly agreed; consistent with ratios for middle-aged women, 4 of the 18 women were cancer survivors. With each kerchief sewn, and cancer-treatment story shared, all contributors noted an unexpected, contagious spirit: an empowering sense of purpose—and diminishing feelings of helplessness.
Barb’s special kerchief-making session was reported to millions on Sewing with Nancy. The segment focusing on Barb, Gaye, Lou and the Comfort Kerchief generated the most viewer mail and online comments—literally thousands of heart-tugging thank-yous, and orders for the pattern.
In response to the show exposure, testimonials—and orders—kept multiplying. Added to the growing list of needy patients were those who had undergone brain surgery or bone-marrow transplants, and sufferers of head-trauma accidents, Hodgkins Disease and Scleroderma. This stylish, practical head cover was destined to develop a faithful, ever-increasing following. The business potential of the “Comfort Kerchief” seemed obvious.
But Gaye’s refreshing motto was, and continues to be, “I refuse to make a profit. This is a total ministry in honor of my mother. You can’t buy it. I only give it away.”
Note from Nancy
I finished the Comfort Kerchief segment with the announcement of Lou’s remission, and her return to a “head of curly hair.” The show had been taped several months earlier, and sadly, the upbeat report was now inaccurate. Gaye’s mom was once again struggling with what would be her last bout with lung cancer. Lou Gilbert died March 10, 1998.
Gaye includes an enclosure card with each Comfort Kerchief that reads:
The Comfort Kerchief was initially designed in 1991 for my Mother, Lou Gilbert. My prayer is that it will provide comfort to you, or a mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, aunt or friend. Sharing God’s Grace, Gaye Gilbert Kriegel.
Gaye will be happy to send you a pattern.
- Request your Comfort Kerchief pattern in adult size and/or child size
- Send $5 per pattern, per size, plus $1 for each pattern for postage
- Make your check payable to Comfort Kerchief and mail to:
Attn: Comfort Kerchief/Creative Kindness
11313 Monet Drive
Austin TX 78726
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