It was like other years — sort of. Women wore "ugly holiday sweaters," exchanged white elephant gifts, took turns talking about their current craft projects. But in many ways, as with so much else, the Crafty Ladies' holiday party in early December was not like other years.

The party was held remotely, on Zoom. Group members wrapped craft-related white elephants gifts … and then unwrapped those same gifts themselves and displayed the contents on-screen to whoever's name had been drawn to receive them.

"I just knew someone would really need one of these felt Christmas stocking kits," said Deb Lingen, thrusting in front of her computer screen the kit that, in a normal year, she would have handed to its recipient to unwrap and display for the group.

To show off their holiday-themed "ugly sweaters" (which actually weren't all that ugly), they stood in front of their computer screens. Members reminisced about past craft projects and described those they are working on now. The conversation touched on children and grandchildren.

The Crafty Ladies are a subgroup of the New Sociables (, a larger organization of about 150 women (more when there's not a pandemic) ranging from 50-something to 90-something. Most live in southern Twin Cities suburbs like Eagan, Apple Valley, Lakeville and Burnsville, although there's no requirement that they live in that area, and a few do commute farther.

The group welcomes new members — they haven't set a limit on membership, although they might encourage interested women in far-flung parts of the metro area to start local chapters.

It's one way to combat social isolation, especially during a pandemic, by bringing people together — on-screen if not in person.

The New Sociables perform volunteer work, support deserving charitable organizations, bring in guest speakers. It has a website and monthly newsletter.

At 4 p.m. on Monday afternoons, members meet for Zappy Hour — that is, happy hour via Zoom.

The big group provides a structure that makes it easy for members to form smaller groups with shared interests. Instead of relying on existing friendships or social media, individuals with an idea for an activity can simply ask others — strangers potentially included — who would be interested in playing cribbage or going cross-country skiing (enough, it turned out, to enable these two newer groups to launch).

"This is like a petri dish that has spawned all kinds of things," Lingen said. "We still keep creating new things to do together, to try to maintain those connections."

The smaller groups, in turn, help newer members get to know others gradually rather than trying to fit into a big group all at once.

"Joining any group is not magical, it's not instantaneous, it takes a little time," Susan Larson said.

Besides Crafty Ladies, other subgroups include a book group (of course), groups that walk or bike together, a recipe-exchange group whose members gather to share their homemade versions. Sole Sisters, the walking group led by Lori Martz, a professional tour director, takes women on extensively researched walking tours around the Twin Cities. "I enjoy taking the group to places and hearing many of them say, 'I never knew this was here,' " Martz said.

Some activities aren't as easy to tailor to shutdown conditions — such as groups that try new restaurants, groups that volunteer in person and the recipe potluck group. Even Sole Sisters, who for a while walked outdoors wearing masks, have curtailed their activities as an extra precaution during the holiday season.

But if a group is Zoomable, members adapt and keep going.

New Sociables developed in 1978, growing out of what once was a Welcome Wagon gathering for newcomers to the area. Many are no longer newcomers but the group has stayed intact, while collecting new members who have seen meeting notices in local papers.

The group gives women opportunities to form friendships at a time of life when that's not always easy. People with kids meet other parents; at work, they get to know colleagues. But for those in stages of life less conducive to easy socializing, New Sociables helps fend off loneliness.

"I didn't have any 'me friends,' you know what I mean?" Joanie Rockvoy said. "With New Sociables, when I retired, I made 'me friends,' and they've become very dear to me. New Sociables broadens your world."

Some members find the New Sociables a supportive presence in times of crisis.

"A friend of mine introduced me to the New Sociables after my son died unexpectedly," Larson said. "It was really kind of a lifeline and I was so, so grateful."

The word "lifeline" tends to come up when members discuss the group. "It was just a lifeline for me when my husband passed away," Lingen said.

It also offers an opportunity to widen their social circles, Elaine Barthelemy noted.

"If you've been a teacher, you hang around with a bunch of teachers," said Barthelemy, a retired teacher. "This group has people from every walk of life. I get to know more people and I get to know them better."

Sometimes Zappy Hour attendees focus on particular discussion questions, such as "What's the biggest risk you've taken?" that reveal unexpected aspects of each other's lives.

"They look like normal people until you find out what they've done," Shelley Ward said. One woman had been a drag racer, one had flown a plane and one once sang in a band at weddings.

Sometimes New Sociables members become such close friends they get together outside the group. A few have introduced each other to people who could probably use a social group themselves — husbands.

In New Sociables, "it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, you're going to find something you can engage in," Barthelemy said.

"Or if not, you can introduce a new activity!"

Katy Read • 612-673-4583