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The 10 members of the Evanston Knitters for Peace (EKFP) are no strangers to yarn shops or the concept of giving back. For a decade or more they have met regularly on Friday afternoons, clacked their knitting needles, given each other inspiration, and crafted beautiful clothes, toys, blankets, and other accessories. Along the way, they have collaborated on dozens of knitting projects benefiting good causes.
In August of this year they accepted the invitation and challenge by artist, social activist, and Pussyhat Project co-organizer Jayna Zweisman to become part of the Welcome Blanket project. This ambitious crowd-sourcing artistic project was conceived to both symbolically and actually welcome immigrants and refugees with gifts of handmade blankets.
EKFP knitters created the nine-square blanket that was one of 3,000 or more donated blankets that were curated, catalogued, displayed, and temporarily warehoused by the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago’s Hyde Park before being distributed to immigrants and refugees through resettlement organizations.
EKFP formed more than a decade before the Welcome Blanket project was conceived, the catalyst being a book received by retired King Lab teacher Ellen Esrick. When self-proclaimed novice knitter Ms. Esrick received the book “Knitting for Peace” (by Betty Christiansen and Kirtko Shirobayashi) from her adult kids, she knew exactly what to do with it.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for perfecting my knitting and I certainly didn’t have the energy to read about knitting, so I passed the book on to my friend Vikki Proctor. I knew it was better suited to her.” Ms. Proctor, a master knitter and social activist at heart, picked up the gauntlet and formed the knitting group, taking on the concept and descriptive book title for her knit-and-purlers.
“We have been sitting around gabbing and knitting together for many years now,” said Ms. Proctor, who hosted the first afternoon knitting group in her north Evanston living room.
“We’ve laughed a lot, have stepped in occasionally to finish each others’ pieces, and have shared our ‘collective wisdom’ while trying to contribute – to give back a little,” she said.
Over the years the Evanston Knitters for Peace have knitted and donated blankets, scarves, teddy bears, hats, and doll clothes for some two dozen organizations doing good work in their communities: Blankets have shown up in silent auctions benefitting the McGaw YMCA, the Cradle, Ted Fund, the Childcare Center of Evanston, and the Rochelle Lee Fund, among others. Women undergoing chemotherapy have received hats. Scarves have made their way to a women’s crisis center, families of knitted teddy bears have gone to an orphanage in Africa, and fashionable doll wardrobes have benefitted St. Vincent de Paul.
Welcome Blanket is the first politically oriented project the Evanston group has undertaken, and the collective donations of welcome symbolically made a wall bigger than the U.S.- Mexico border wall proposed by President Donald Trump. About 3,500,640 yards of blanket have been collected and will be given to refugee resettlement organizations the Smart Museum of Art has selected.
The 12-inch squares in EKFP’s green, white, blue, and red knitted and crocheted lap blanket form the design conceived by former art teacher Kathy Lee. When the blanket was finished, Ms. Lee and the other EKFP members made the 20-mile excursion to deliver it to the Smart Museum.
In early November what they encountered in the white-walled gallery space was the spectacle of thousands of blankets – hanging on walls, stacked on shelves, spread across tables, folded in cubbies, and piled on the floor surfaces. Every conceivable pattern, design, and pallet of yarns and fabrics created an avalanche of blankets and creative critical responses to current government policies around immigration and refugee resettlement.
John Harness, Smart Museum’s Project Manager of Welcome Blanket, said that nobody at the Smart Museum could have been fully prepared for the response to the project.
“It’s already a month after the official November cut-off date for accepting blankets, and we are still receiving stacks of boxes daily, often about 100 blankets a day. Even though they haven’t all been cataloged yet, we think we’re looking at more than 3,000 blankets at this point. And they are coming from all over the United States and around the world,” said Mr. Harness. The Smart Museum of Art collected the donated blankets between July 18 and Dec. 17.
Maps on the gallery wall were filled with colored pushpins that marked the locations from where the catalogued blankets emanated. On another wall was an orange board displaying tags that accompanied the thousands of blankets. The tags contained personal welcome messages and personal family immigration stories for the eventual blanket recipients.
Ms. Proctor said the blanket tag from the Evanston Knitters for Peace extended a welcome and thank-you to the unknown blanket recipient for the risks and sacrifices made to come to this new country.
And perhaps the new owners of the Evanston-made blanket will accept the invitation to be in touch with the women who knit for peace.
In her artist statement last July, Jayna Zweisman said, “I have two hopes with Welcome Blanket: I hope that whoever enters this gallery experiences the power of craft to transmit crucial, timely ideas. And I hope that our new neighbors who receive these gifts will feel welcomed and reach back to the makers of their blankets. It is our diversity, our multiple perspectives and personal stories that create the fabric of our society.”