Mary Piorun is on a mission to make sure every head is warm this winter.
Piorun, 97, has been legally blind for several years now, but it hasn’t stopped her from knitting more than 500 winter hats for children, the homeless, those in hospitals, her friends at the Connolly Center, and just about anyone else who needs a hat.
“At the age of eight, my mother said all her daughters had to learn to knit, sew, embroider and make our own clothes,” said Piorun, who grew up in the North End and came to Everett 77 years ago. “My mother made my wedding gown. I’ve done all those things since the age of 8. I was also a very passionate reader before I lost my eyesight. When I couldn’t read, they sent me the talking books, but I couldn’t sit and do nothing with my hands. I couldn’t stand it. Knitting these hats is really doing me a favor. It gives me something to do while I listen to my books. Right now, since January, I’ve made 542 hats.”
In total, she has likely made about 5,000 hats in the last 10 years, since she really started making them in large numbers.
The hats are well made and ready to withstand any kind of New England winter. Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) and other individuals provide her with the yarn it takes to spin so many hats. When she has made a pile of them, CHA employees in the senior program take Piorun with them to present the hats to places like Pine Street Inn or Rosie’s Place.
Piorun said she has a system to making the hats without the use of her eyes, a system that is as remarkable as it is prolific.
“As with anything, you get better at it with time,” she said. “My mother started us off easy by making scarves and we went from there. The reason I keep doing these hats is that I can’t read a pattern anymore, and I have to do something simple. I have two or three patterns I know permanently in my mind.”
One of those patterns are the hats.
What Piorun does is use her sense of touch to feel out the pieces of yarn, and using her thumbnail, she can quickly separate the strands and weave the needle in and out. The entire process is done by feel and experience.
“That’s how I’m able to knit,” she said, noting that she does a lot of the work early in the morning or after church on Sundays.
Piorun’s present, however, is closely related to her past.
Growing up in the North End, she was the daughter of a fisherman – which is why they lived in the North End to be close to the docks. She said she went to the Michelangelo School, but couldn’t complete high school past the third year. She said in the old days, high school for Northenders was in Roxbury, which at that time was predominately Irish.
Unfortunately, she said, the Irish children would harass and beat up the Italian children, making the Italian children drop out early.
“The Irish didn’t want the Italians there,” she said. “They beat up my brother and he had to quit school. It was terrible. I used to cry. Many of us in the North End didn’t get to finish because of that.”
Piorun made her way to Everett after her father died. Since they didn’t need to be close to the waterfront, her mother and older sister found two apartments in Everett. So, the families decided they would move to Everett near friends.
Before getting married, during World War II, Piorun said she would walk to Scollay Square and take a bus to a factory that made fur-lined boots.
She was married in Everett and raised three boys, who all went to Everett schools became successful afterward.
To her children and grandchildren, she has always been known to love to read.
Now she and the rest of the community know her as the woman who loves to keep people in hats.
“It’s important to know I do not charge money,” she said emphatically. “I ask for one prayer for every hat…I think I’m paving my way to Heaven.”