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Nimble fingers, warm heart

Marybeth Potts is one prolific knitter.

Recently, the Wheaton woman completed 14 hats, two cowls, six pairs of mittens, one shawl and three baby sweaters over a six-day period. And on the seventh day she shipped it to an Iowa customer.

She didn’t keep the money from the sale. Potts used the funds to purchase more yarn so she and her group of knitters can make more mittens, scarves and hats for children in need.

Potts is the president of Nimble Fingers on the Prairie. Through the nonprofit organization she founded in 2008, Potts works with other volunteer knitters and crocheters to make the items that are distributed to local organizations and social services who, in turn, give them to families in need.

“You don’t think a knitted hat will make much of a difference,” Potts said. “But it does. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference.”

She’d been making mittens and hats for a local mitten tree for 15 years when she learned the organization no longer wanted the donated items. It was closing its mitten tree due to budget cuts.

It sparked Potts into action. She called a group of local knitters asking if they’d help. They certainly would, the group said. Then she called organizations and social services asking if the groups would distribute donated knitted items to families in need. The groups agreed.

She founded Nimble Fingers on the Prairie in 2008 and started knitting and distributing the group’s end products.

Naming the organization was easy, Potts said. One person who’d watched her hands and knitting needles move to and fro as Potts completed a project said she had nimble fingers.

“And you can’t get much more on the prairie than this,” said Potts, as she pointed to the flat landscape of western Minnesota.

The group has donated more than 35,000 knitted items since it formed in 2008. The core group remains active in the nonprofit. Besides Potts, there is Susan Hanstad, of Dalton, who scours secondhand shops for yarn for the group. Her knitting specialties are cuddle blankets and scarves. Jean Jungst, of Morris, makes quilts, sweaters and mittens. Her work features the Norwegian double strand design. Carolyn Boedker, of Alexandria, makes her items on a knitting loom.

And the group of knitters is growing, including a woman from Wilmot, S.D., who learned about Nimble Fingers on the Prairie through its website. A group from Florida is also knitting for the nonprofit. There are others who are sharing their knitted goods with Nimble Fingers on the Prairie, but there’s a need for more knitters and crocheters, Potts said.

The non-profit knitters don’t seek attention for their donations. All distributions are made through the local organizations and social services, Potts said. When she’s not knitting for Nimble Fingers, Potts makes a variety of items for customers and craft show sales. The money she earns goes toward yarn purchases for the nonprofit.

All money the group receives goes towards yarn, she said. About 5 percent of the money the nonprofit receives comes from donations, Potts said. There is a donate icon on the website, The rest, 95 percent, is received through the customer and craft show sales.

The purpose of the group is to give knitted items to those in need. As the group’s website states, they are “warming children one stitch at a time.”

Nimble Fingers on the Prairie focuses on a 14-county area in west central Minnesota, but they are quick to lend support when other areas are in need. When Wadena experienced the 2010 tornado, the nonprofit gave 400 hats and scarves to the community that winter. She’s been asked to start similar groups in other areas of the country, but Potts said she’s quite busy with the nonprofit’s focus on the local region.

“We stay within Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota,” she said.

The group has also given knitted donations to the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations. She is emotional while describing one thank you letter she received from the Standing Rock reservation describing how one boy, who’d never had a pair of mittens, was thrilled with the donation.

Potts’ knitting journey had a very humble start. Her mother was taking knitting classes when Potts was just 11, and the young girl wanted to learn the craft, too. Her mother, however, said she was too busy to do the teaching. Potts, who grew up in Fergus Falls, has never been one to be deterred from a goal. She checked out a knitting book from the local library and taught herself, she said.

In her teens, Potts knitted purses for herself and her friends, she said.

She kept knitting through her college days at the University of Minnesota and when she started her career. She found a strong supporter of her hobby when she married Floyd Potts. The two lived in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas before moving back to Minnesota. They settled in Dalton.

As he continued his work in industrial construction, Potts started a shop in their home selling crafts and repurposed items.

It all changed when Floyd passed away in 1998. His was one of nine deaths in Potts’ family that year. It was a difficult year, she said.

She talks about the nervous breakdown Potts experienced that year.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting help when you are weak,” she said. “My friends in Dalton helped me through it all.”

She moved to the Twin Cities and worked as a landscape designer where she injured her back. Potts has had several back surgeries and was told she should consider a different career.

Potts moved to Wheaton in 2003 and continued knitting. It’s been a constant through all the trials.

“It is rhythmic,” she said. “It helps you wind down. For many people it’s really a lifesaver. You have something to show for it. Whatever you (make), whether for yourself, for friends or for charity, you are accomplishing something beautiful that helps you with your own self-esteem.”

The main goal of the nonprofit is to solicit volunteer knitters and those who crochet to create hats, scarves and mittens.

“In order to help provide those who have the skill, but perhaps not the funding for their own supplies, we also seek donations of new yarn, needles and other tools for knitting or crochet,” Potts says on the website. The website also offers hand-knit items, made of luxury yarns, for sale. All profits go directly to Nimble Fingers on the Prairie’s general fund.

The online patterns featured on the site are free and directed toward beginner knitters. Those are only suggestions of patterns knitters can use for the items the nonprofit donates to those in need.

“Nimble Fingers on the Prairie’s main goal is to provide these children with warm, utilitarian garments to accommodate the harsh cold of our winter months,” the website states.

For more info, contact Potts at 320-563-8559.

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