Staff Sgt. John Sorich of Eden Prairie is grateful that everyone in his unit returned home safely 10 days ago. But he's a little pensive because they're no longer together. His was a more close-knit group than many.
Sorich, 26, served for a year with the Army Reserves' 401st Bridge Engineer Co., stationed at Victory Base Camp in Baghdad. While trained as a corrections officer, Sorich made his mark by facing the stresses of daily duty in a creative way: stockinette stitches.
Sorich knows his way around a knitting needle: winter caps, gloves, socks, even a pouch for his M4 rifle (the latter made with parachute cord). He shared his skills with a growing number of bemused fellow troops who stopped ribbing and started stitching. At one point, 10 soldiers, all but one of them male, joined him in an occasional knitting circle, many sending home their creations to surprised loved ones at Christmas.
Sorich arrived home Feb. 25 with 10 knit caps he had made for buddies, two wristlets and the world's longest sock. He ran out of time to make its match. All totaled: 62,000 stitches and countless kudos.
"Wow! Army Strong knits!" blogged Meghan Dunn, co-creator with Victoria Higgins of the Canadian-based vintage-knitting blog, Handmade by Mother, (http://handmadebymother.blog spot.com).
"If anyone is still under the illusion that knitting is only for little old ladies ... just look at all these rough and tough American soldiers knitting in Baghdad, Iraq!"
While Dunn's blog typically pokes fun at the most ghastly patterns of yore (the complete name is "Handmade by Mother so you damn well better wear it!"), the reaction to Sorich was closer to awe.
"My reaction was, my gosh, this is fabulous. I have to write up a post for you," Dunn said. "We were honored that he had contacted us and told us what he was doing."
Sorich wasn't looking for fame, though. Just help. A longtime member of the Historical Reenactment Society at Historic Fort Snelling, Sorich hoped Dunn could lead him to World War II British military patterns or pictures of knit items created during the "Knit for Britain" program. She posted his request and will forward responses as they come in.
Sorich's fascination with wartime knitting began at Eden Prairie High School (he's a 2002 graduate), but its roots go far deeper. He's John IV in a family of military men. His great-grandfather John served in World War I, John Jr. in World War II. His father, John III, served in Vietnam. Sorich joined the Army Reserves six years ago, while studying corrections at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He works as a juvenile corrections officer at the Hennepin County Home School, a state-licensed residential treatment facility for juveniles ages 13 to 17. Not surprisingly, Sorich noted, almost everybody there, from staff to students, knits.
After his deployment in 2009, Sorich had no desire to knit, especially in 120-degree heat. As the weather cooled in October, he pulled out a knit cap he had brought with him. "One of the guys in my unit saw the hat and asked me about it."
Sorich started to knit again, causing quite a stir. "At first, it was, 'You're knitting?' No one could understand why I wanted to do it. I said, 'This is weird? You play World of Warcraft all day.'"
He told the guys it was great stress relief, and a new skill they could be proud of. It was also relatively easy. The impressive caps require only three stitches, "pretty basic stuff," he said. "They could instantly zone out and relax."
Soldiers started wandering over, asking, "You guys going to knit tonight?" Sometimes a few joined in, sometimes as many as 10. Many left their computers behind when they headed to other bases, but not their yarn.
Speaking of yarn, most of it arrived in Iraq thanks to Sorich's sister, Naomi, who made regular trips to Needlework Unlimited in Minneapolis, buying skeins of a replicated olive-colored yarn that is modeled after an original World War II glove knit by members of the American Red Cross. (Knitters out there: It's Cascade Yarns 220 Heathers, color #9459.)
Joe Torkildson, 29, of Arden Hills, also assigned to the 401st, is a longtime friend and fan of Sorich's handiwork. Sorich gave Torkildson one of his signature caps a few years ago. "I said, 'This is sweet, man.' When we were deployed and he started knitting, I thought, 'I've gotta learn this.'"
Torkildson knit a scarf for his wife, Kendel, twice. The first attempt was a disaster, which he ended up unraveling. "It was sad, actually." He tried again. "It was ridiculously ugly," Torkildson said, "but when you wear it, it actually looks pretty cool." Kendel loved it, he said, mostly because, "I had 40 hours into this thing."
Sorich heads to New Zealand on vacation this week. But he made an important stop first. Needlework Unlimited manager Laura Schelde was thrilled when Sorich came into her yarn store Wednesday to show her and other employees one of the caps he knit in Iraq with their yarn.
"He was serving our country and knitting at the same time," Schelde said, getting teary-eyed. "It's especially nice to have a little hero come back and say, 'Look what you helped me do.'"
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org