The winter Bill Cassel was nine, he got sick and wasn’t allowed to leave the house for three months. “If you think you’re going to sit around and drive me crazy, you can think again,” his mother told him. “When you get back outside, you’re going to need socks, so you may as well learn to knit.”
That was 68 years ago. Over the past seven decades, Cassel has turned out thousands of warm, colourful knitted items for family, friends and total strangers. Knitting was a way to keep busy when health problems forced him to take it easy.
There were times when he had more than enough to keep him occupied without the knitting needles. In 1958, he and his wife Theresa bought a small farm and Bill added farming on top of working at BF Goodrich in Kitchener and raising nine children.
Cassel spent 16 years at BF Goodrich, working in the mill room on the equipment used to extrude tread. It was heavy work; the men guessed they handled as much as 40 tonnes of rubber a day.
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One day at work, Cassel lost his footing, slipped and broke his back. He spent 14 weeks in a Stryker frame, immobilized and being turned by nurses. He was still able to knit while lying on his stomach, and made socks for all the nurses.
Socks are still his standby, but Cassel also makes sweaters, baby shawls, afghans, toques, mittens, scarves, slippers, dishcloths and lap comforters. Each of his children received a fancy shawl when their first child was born, a tradition started by his mother.
His children, 22 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren also received a hand-tied patchwork quilt. Cassel started making quilts after coming across a stash of Theresa’s quilt patches in the attic. She told him that he wasn’t to throw them away, and that if he wanted something done with them, why not sew them up himself?
By 1972, Bill’s back was giving him too much trouble so the Cassels sold the farm and bought a house on five acres near Glen Allan. By then, Bill was working at Uniroyal Chemical (now Chemtura) as a millwright, repairing pumps, seals and equipment. He didn’t go to school for that trade, but learned to do maintenance on his own. Bill says he’s always had the attitude that there’s nothing stopping him from learning new things.
“If somebody else can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it as well,” he reasoned.
Theresa is also a knitter, and a few years ago, they both knitted items for Northern Mission, which sent warm clothing to communities in Canada’s Arctic. Bill sometimes sewed tags into his hats and mittens reading “Made especially for you by Bill Cassel,” and his address. It was a special day when they received a letter from students at Inualthuyak School in Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories, thanking them for the donations.
Bill and Theresa were childhood sweethearts; they grew up on neighbouring farms in Glen Allan and walked to school together. They’ve been married 57 years – “and three months, 12 days, and about seven hours,” Bill noted on Tuesday.
Now that they’re both retired, handiwork is something they both do to pass the time. He knits while she stitches away at the quilting frame set up in the middle of the living room.
Bill recently took a booth at the Elmira indoor market to display his knitted wares. He also sells little tin men made from aluminum cans and pop can airplanes.
Bill notes that people sometimes balk at the thought of paying $75 for a comforter, not realizing that 100 hours of work has gone into making it. After the materials are paid for, Cassel estimates he’s making 35 cents per hour.
“It’s not a money-making career,” he chuckled. “It’s a hobby to fill in time.”