PeaceKnits 2015: After the Pop-Up

Peter Maywald and Bonnie Goodfellow

In May 2013 about 30 friends helped us blow out candles on a beautiful 60th birthday cake, and launch a mini social movement here in Queanbeyan. (Yes, of all places, we chose “struggletown” Queanbeyan – and our cottage garden, subdivided 100 years ago – to be the locus of Pop-Up preparations, as a fitting match with the period we were remembering.) All this to create a one day “PeaceKnits Pop-Up” (not to be confused with the more enduring, if not always endearing, 1960s peaceniks movement).

We wanted to create a different way for Australians to better comprehend the impacts of World War 1, than appeared likely in the military preparations around 1915-2015 Anzac commemorations. 2015 is a significant year for many reasons. Yes, we needed to solemnly remember those who gave so much to secure a peace, though not just within the confines of Australian military practice.

In April 1915, at the same time those Australian troops were launched on to the Gallipoli peninsula, more than 1100 women from around the world, and from both sides of the war, met at The Hague to consider ways to achieve world peace other than through armed conflict, and to formulate a detailed global peace strategy. After the congress, the women took their resolutions to talk with world leaders and eventually influenced United States President Woodrow Wilson in his work to form the League of Nations. Through the Pop-Up event (and its two years of preparations plus two years of “post-script” efforts to develop what was found) we’ve helped many to consider all views on war and peace, from both sides of the coin, with no exclusion zones.

From May 2013 to April 2015 an inclusive approach helped us to maintain forward momentum – with open community engagement and meetings at the cottage to chat, knit, write, discuss and prepare for a one day PeaceKnits Pop-Up held on 11 April 2015.

Incredibly, with friendly support, we ended up with 42 major pieces of KnitArt and WordArt about 1915 and the impacts of WW1. These were on display for the one day Pop-Up, plus a range of all-age interactive writing and craft activities to support wider community involvement, as part of a free open cottage garden event. (He Who Must Be Obeyed in our garden was always at pains to explain that this was just a humble cottage garden – not to be confused with grand open garden displays of country estates.) The garden formed a safe and simple, calm and welcoming back-drop for the handmade and written displays on the challenging matters of war and peace.

Our first completed piece of community KnitArt was the seven and a half metre high Lone Pine Pole Cosy. For the Pop-Up, the fully hand-stitched and calico-lined pole cosy was mounted, in a remarkable one-woman feat, on an unused utility pole in the secret side garden of the cottage grounds (by our very agile woman electrician from Hydro Electrics). For the two years since the pop-up event, birds have been free to nest in the pole cosy and visitors to Queanbeyan have come to take photos of this colourful addition to our country town skyscape. Now the Pole Cosy even marks Queanbeyan on the global map for the likes of Pokemon.

We built a Garden Room in the rear cottage garden, and during the Pop-Up this was used to feature local textile, sculpture and art works on the impacts of war and efforts to sustain peace. As a special feature in the garden room we secured from the Art Gallery of NSW a full framed reproduction copy of Grace Cossington Smith’s The Sock Knitter. This was Australia’s first ever modernist painting, exhibited in 1915. So the Pop-Up also helped to celebrate this remarkable painting and its 100th birthday. Grace painted it of her sister knitting socks for soldiers in their family’s garden room at their home in Sydney. So the cottage garden room seemed a fitting place to share a glimpse of this part of our art history with the local community attending the Pop-Up. It still hangs there, for visitors to the cottage to enjoy as a palpable part of our history.

Since the Pop-Up event, the free-form knit and crochet Blackout Curtain has served visitors to the cottage well. As a blackout curtain it does a wonderful job of providing quiet dark nights in its permanent place over the window in the guest bedroom of the cottage.

From 2013 we have listened to and shared incredible stories originating from 1915 that have changed many lives. We asked local seniors where their families were in 1915 – and were stunned to realise that no country of origin was repeated in the long list of source countries. The past century of war, displacement and seeking peace has truly seen Queanbeyan and the region accept and grow through migration from many cultures.

One of Queanbeyan’s most talented fabric workers, Robyn McPherson, willingly completed a special task for the Pop-Up: she made a replica pair of mittens and compartmentalised flour bag as part of our reflection on this particular pair of mittens, and of more general issues around surviving war and efforts towards peace. Robyn even hand-stitched “M. C.” initials into the replica cuffs as had been done in the trenches 100 years before. On the day of the Pop-Up we had both pairs, the original and the replica, side by side. This idea of challenging people to replicate comfort has been a potent way to help others handle difficult issues.

Since the Pop-Up event, we have helped local seniors, many who migrated here from war-torn Europe, to remember and write their story. One from the Netherlands has told us more of her father, who by day during difficult WW2 years, worked as a police officer under orders from German occupiers. By night he supported resistance efforts. So this woman as a toddler lived her first formative years under occupiers’ watching eyes, stress and risk. Her story, and that of other Dutch and Belgian knitters, has helped inform our understanding and writing on the realities of war for families and ongoing impacts for individuals and communities affected by conflict.

Quite late in the two years of pop-up preparations the story of Martin’s mittens inspired us to have a go at hand-knitting 100 pairs of fingerless mittens (great for mobile phone texting). At the Pop-Up, these were displayed on a 3 metre long hammock, titled All Hands on Deck. In a quixotic moment of handmade exchange, after the Pop-Up we gifted these to those who call Wayside Chapel their safe place. As part of the creative exchange, Wayside sewing group had brought a hand-stitched quilt to display in the Pop-Up, that has since travelled to an exhibition in Brisbane and is now back in Sydney. One of our most privileged experiences after the Pop-Up was a visit to Wayside for an afternoon tea to hand over the hammock and 100 pairs of fingerless mitts. We were delighted to watch as people came in off the street on this May 2015 morning and chose the pair of mitts that suited them best to ease their daily life back on the street.

On 11 April, at the PeaceKnits Pop-Up, we solemnly remembered ongoing impacts of past conflicts, and helped each other better understand how to work towards more sustainable peace. Over the two years of preparation and display, we did this in ways that were creative, organic and inclusive. In the two years since the Pop-Up we have encouraged those starting to find their family stories and used KnitArt items at community workshops to help others dig deeper and better understand past meanings. We have simply been helping to join the dots in our nation’s one long story – a little like Australia’s Long Paddock – that waits for us all to find safe ways to travel across the many tracks we all share. We thank all who contributed to and supported PeaceKnits.