Barbara Lowe struggled to stay awake to watch the 11 p.m. television news one December evening in her Mayfield Heights, Ohio, apartment not far from Cleveland.
Her fatigue quickly turned to joy as a picture of a newborn infant — born at nearby Hillcrest Hospital at 12 minutes after midnight on Dec. 12, 2012.
“I let out a shout,” Lowe tells PEOPLE. “I said ‘That’s one of my hats!’ It made me so happy to see it.”
That news report marked the first time Lowe, 90, had seen a baby who wasn’t somehow related to her wearing one of the more than 2,200 hats she has knitted for newborn babies at Hillcrest. She knew it was a cap she created, Lowe says, because it had the distinctive flower she adds to each.
“It is just a plain little flower that I put on,” says Lowe, who estimates each cap takes about four hours to create. “When I give the gift, I don’t know if it will be worn by a boy or a girl. If it is given to a little boy, they can untie the bow and take the flower off.”
Lowe taught herself to knit when she was in high school – her mother had taught her to crochet but there were no other knitters in the family. When she had her own family as an adult, she continually made hats for each new addition.
But in 2009, she decided to knit caps for newborns at Hillcrest.
“I love babies and I love to knit,” Lowe says. “Anytime I receive a gift that someone made, it means more to me than if they bought it in a store. I wanted to give these babies something special as they started out.”
Mary Bartos, RN, director of Women’s & Children’s Services at Hillcrest Hospital, says that the hats bring a special joy to the new parents – and also provide nurses with a chance to educate the new families. The babies wear the hats soon after they are born, including after their first baths, to keep their body temperatures stable.
“It’s not only a lovely gift that parents appreciate, but it provides us with a teachable moment,” Bartos tells PEOPLE. “We talk about the cap and explain how important it is to keep a baby warm, especially when they are outside in inclement weather.”
Babies can potentially lose heat through their heads so it’s wise to make sure they wear caps when outdoors and at other times they may get chilled. Nurses also show parents how to properly put the caps on the babies (always keeping the brim well above the baby’s eyes) and explain when not to use them, such as when a baby is sleeping.
“The parents are always so pleased to have something that someone made for them. And the caps are so pretty,” says Bartos, noting Lowe uses pale pink, green, yellow, and blue yarns to create the caps. “Of course parents are very excited when their babies are born. It’s a very special day for them. Nothing ever is more important than the birth of a child whether it’s your first, third or fifth. And the cap makes the day even more special.”
Lowe understands the elation new parents feel. She has two daughters, 11 grandchildren (counting spouses, she adds) and 11 great-grandchildren, all of whom support her baby-cap-making-hobby with gift cards for yarn and other tangible and emotional support.
“When she first started doing it, I thought it was just a really neat thing to do,” says Lowe’s eldest daughter Barbara Dew, who is also a knitter. “We know [the caps] are special. She made all of us lots of handmade items. It is part of our lives and people who don’t have [handmade items] really appreciate them.”
Lowe’s daughter Susan Reville says her mom also knits hats for cancer patients and crochets scarves for charities including those that serve the homeless.
“I just think it’s wonderful,” says Reville. “People keep giving her yarns and some aren’t colors that work for newborn babies. She likes to keep busy and do something that helps others. I’m so lucky to have her as my mom.”
New mom Kristen Hood of Solon, near Cleveland, received a cap for her new daughter, Skylar Hood, soon after she was born June 11 at Hillcrest.
“It’s a good thing to have kind people who do things for babies and mothers,” Hood tells PEOPLE. “It’s such a pleasing experience to see this happening.”
Bartos agrees, noting that Lowe’s contributions are a morale boost to her, too.
“We truly appreciate all of the donations we receive. Many are anonymous,” says Bartos. “But meeting Mrs. Lowe and hearing her talk about the caps was not just a bright spot in my day, it made me feel happy to be a nurse and share her wonderful gifts with new parents and their babies.”