19 August 2016

Wrapping Up Canberra

With the forecast of a cold snap heading our way, many of us will want to be indoors, and if we’re lucky, under a nice blanket with a good book, or even doing some knitting. Canberra winters are pretty (in)famous but there are some things, like woollen blankets, that can make it a bit more bearable.

After the terrible events of the 18 January 2003, when bushfires ripped across the Canberra region, hundreds of people were left without their homes or possessions. Many people from across Australia were shocked by what had happened and were keen to do something practical to help. As the weather became colder, a group of friends came together to form the group Wrap Up Canberra. Harnessing the power of the community, Wrap Up Canberra aimed to knit about 500 woollen patchwork blankets to give to bushfire victims. The blankets had a practical benefit, but were also meant to be a physical symbol of community sympathy and support. As one journalist phrased it the knitters were ‘patching up Canberra with woolly hugs.’

Handmade label on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket. Each blanket was disturbed with a similar label.
Handmade label on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket. Each blanket was distributed with a similar label.
Instructions were developed and sent out and knitters everywhere united to create patchwork blankets. The instructions were simple: "using woollen 8 ply yarn, knit or crochet 18 cm squares". 

Around 60 or so squares were then sewed together to form a blanket 160 x 125 cm in size, just right for a throw blanket on the couch. The first rugs were finished on 18th July, exactly six months after the bushfires.

Knitted squares on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket
Knitted squares on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket
In the end, over 2,500 knitters from around the globe, some as far away as Canada and Switzerland, created approximately 45,000 squares, enough for more than 800 blankets, far surpassing the original goal. Some blankets were even displayed at Parliament House for a short while, before being distributed by the ACT Bushfire Recovery Centre.

The ACT Heritage Library has an example of a Wrap Up Canberra blanket, knitted in cheery colours, currently on exhibition in our Reading Room. For the full story of this remarkable example of community spirit and generosity, including letters from recipients and photographs, see HMSS 0238 Wrap Up Canberra Records in our manuscript collection.   

A Wrap Up Canberra blanket
A Wrap Up Canberra blanket