Barb Melom never intended to start a knitting movement. But five years ago, when she asked her mother-in-law what she wanted for Christmas, the response was "to work in a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve."

"I got to thinking, it would be nice to have a gift to hand out at the shelter," said Melom, an avid knitter from Minneapolis. "I thought of a hat.''

About six weeks later, more than 300 freshly knit hats were stacked in the spare bedroom of her south Minneapolis home, thanks to fast fingerwork by her and friends.

It was the birth of Hats for the Homeless, which is marking its fifth year and its 5,000th hat.

An informal network of a couple of hundred knitters, it has captured the attention of like-minded colleagues across the county, who now also ship hats to Minnesota each year. That's in addition to donations by local knitting circles, yarn shops, churches and other supporters who have woven an unusual niche in philanthropy.

"A lot of people like the idea of charity knitting," said Melom. "It's such a small act of kindness to knit a hat. And in cold weather, everyone needs one."

Hats have landed at Melom's doorstep from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana, Wisconsin, Hawaii and beyond. Said Melom: "And we just got one from Amsterdam!"

Richard Green Central Park Community School in Minneapolis is among the beneficiaries of the knitters' labor. The woolen hats are given to students whose families are homeless or precariously housed, as well as others who lack protection from Minnesota winters.

School social worker Sandee Lawson says students consider the hats "cool."

"There's always a design on them or something special," said Lawson. "Every hat carries something of the person who knitted it, so the child can know 'Somebody loves me too.' "

Melom, a retired speech therapist, just wanted 60 knit hats that Christmas Eve in 2009 when she and her mother-in-law worked at Simpson Housing Service's homeless shelter in Minneapolis. When her shout-out to her church and friends yielded a swift 300, she realized she was on to something.

By the second year, more than 900 hats poured in. On the third year, 1,200. Then 1,600 last year. At least an equal number is expected this year.

The donations come year-round, Melom said, but the boom season runs now through late November.

The big push started last week, with a packed six-hour knitting fest at StevenBe Studio/Yarn Garage of Minneapolis, which has become a major project supporter.

Other key local "collaborators" include knitters at First Universalist Church, the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, Linden Yarn & Textiles, and others who have donated talents and balls of yarn to the cause.

In 2010, Hats for the Homeless was selected as a featured nonprofit by Sharing Our Gifts, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers.

That opened the doors to national donors.

"Hats came in from all over the place," Melom said. "It's like a snowball that keeps rolling and getting bigger."

A knitting group that meets weekly at Ingebretsen's Scandinavian Gifts is among the hat-makers. Last week, the roughly 15 women gathered around a big table topped by skeins of yarn and coffee cups. The women said they always knew there were homeless people in the Twin Cities, but it wasn't until Melom introduced Hats for the Homeless that they made a personal connection.

"It's a good reminder of the need," said JoAnn Manthey, sitting at the head of the table.

"We all kind of knew it was out there," added Peggy Hansen. "But when you put your hands on something, it makes it real. And I like that this is a nongovernmental way to help."

Melom and others often go to coffee shops, farmers markets, their doctors' offices and other places to do "public knitting." It's how they grow new members.

"By knitting in public, people stop by and ask us what we're doing," said Melom. "Last year when my husband was recovering from surgery, I was knitting in the waiting room. I picked up three nurses!" she laughed. "That's how we spread the word."

Christina Giese, who coordinates volunteer services for the Simpson shelter, said she appreciates that the project is educating folks about homelessness and the need for affordable housing as they create beautiful gifts.

"They're something you'd give to someone you love rather than someone in need," she said. "There is dignity."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511