Warm Heads for Everyone

Alice Springs’ Beanie Festival

Ever wonder where the beanie capital of the world is located? At HAND/EYE we usually don’t go for game show questions, but when we learned about the Beanie Festival in Alice Springs, Australia, we knew we had to share the story of how a fun event became the catalyst for elevating the humble working man’s beanie to the status of regional art in Oz.

The Beanie Festival has been around for thirteen years and was founded by Adi Dunlop, an established artist and avid beanie maker. It all started in 1997 when Dunlop was working with indigenous women in Yuendumu who expressed an interest in crocheting beanies. As result of teaching these women, Dunlop returned to Alice Springs with 100 beanies and wondered what in the world would she do with them? After some thought Dunlop, along with other artists and friends, decided to throw a party and sell them. A community space at the Arulen Art Gallery was used where the beanies were hung from the ceiling; a band was hired for entertainment, as well as a cook for tasty treats. Once the word was spread, all the beanies were sold and everyone had a beanie blast. And that was how the Beanie Festival was born and Alice Springs became the Beanie Capital of the World.

What so special about the beanies? The numerous designs presented at the festival run the gamut of creativity from the simple multi-colored wool beanie to extravagant artful conceptions that feature exotic fibers and off-the-wall embellishments. Winners of festivals past have included beanies shaped like teapots and teacups, beanies topped with crocheted dog dolls, a ship beanie with passengers, or a feathery owl in flight beanie.

Apart from all the beanies on parade and displayed, it’s more about what the festival, brings to the community. Since incorporating in 2004, festival founders and board members have honed the official objectives and mission that include: promoting community participation in the arts; developing artistic and entrepreneurial skills for all involves; and promoting reconciliation between cultures.

For the Festival’s board, the importance of involving the Aboriginal community is paramount and during the actual festivities many of the indigenous women run workshops demonstrating traditional weaving techniques, as well dance, sing, prepare bush medicines and even cook kangaroo tail and damper! Says Jo Nixon, an executive officer of the festival, “All these activities allow for visitors, many from interstate, to sit with women and learn a little of their culture and share stories through their beanies. The festival allows genuine friendships and a very relaxed environment for the two cultures to exchange, share, and feel equal. It promotes the ladies’ lives and allows festival visitors to see another side of indigenous culture not portrayed on television.”

The Beanie Festival has also become a source of income and a vehicle to help promote and develop the textile micro-industry in the region. As each year passes, more people— both indigenous and non-indigenous— learn how to make beanies via pre-festival workshops and those run during the event. “As a result we have grown from 100 beanies to nearly 5,000 beanies that were sold in 2010. Each year more and more remote communities request workshops. We struggle to keep up with the demand, nearly all of the Indigenous beanies are sold through our exhibition—around 200 in 2010,” explains Nixon.

Other beanies are sold at outlets found in Alice Springs. They are also sold alongside three year touring exhibition consisting of a collection of the best 100 beanies which make the rounds at regional galleries in Australia to promote the festival with even more Australians.

Thanks to funding from ArtsNT, the festival has been able run numerous workshops for Aborigine women I n Ernabella, Willuna, Titjikala Ti Tree and Irrkerlenyte Arts Centres prior to festival’s opening. When show time hit this past June, nearly 9000 people attended during the weekend, including 350 beanie makers from around the world and who entered 4600 beanies. The festival sold $154000 worth of beanies in four days.

The beauty of the festival, though, is that it has given men, women, and children a chance to participate in the art form—no matter the skill level. For the most part, many visitors to the festival have made their very first beanie, and some have gone to become champion beanie makers in the national competition that’s held every year. In June over 200 people came to volunteer from all over the world, and through volunteering they learned new skills, and Nixon said, “Made new friends and became part of a big beanie family.” At the end of the festival, beanies are donated to several facilities including the Cancer Council, hospitals, and homes for seniors throughout Central Australia, or as Nixon puts it, “Warm heads for everyone.”

To learn more about Alice Springs Beanie Festival, please visit www.beaniefest.org.

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