Knitting a Tiny Piece Of A Global Story

quote about knitting by Jennifer Shaw

This meme that did the rounds of Facebook recently reminded me of using a knitting project to calm my mind and complete a commitment I made to a newfound friend when we spent a weekend in Ballarat as volunteers for that city’s first ever Open House.

Susan and I shared a B & B overnight and I heard about her involvement in the 5000 Poppies Project. I first read about this project when I attended the Spirit of Anzac Exhibition at Jeff’s Shed several years ago. Susan reminded me of the mental note I made at the time to follow up the story. She inspired me to ‘pull my finger out’ and participate.

the story of the poppies

That was October and it wasn’t until December when life went a little pear-shaped that I recalled my promise to knit poppies. The thought of an excuse to sit and focus on craft more appealing than sitting at the computer!

brown wool and needles.jpg

Back to School For Knitting Lessons

I have many happy memories of craft, especially when my children attended the Steiner Stream at Moorabbin Heights Primary School in the 90s.  I loved being immersed in creative projects with them. We made felt gnomes, knitted tiny mice and any other animal you could think of to sell as fundraisers for the school.

craft stall 1997

Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.

  • The pure wool bought, dyed, and wound into usable skeins in the class by the children.
  • Purchased dowels of various thickness from Bunnings hardware were cut to size and the kids sanded the needles smooth before massaging them with beeswax.
  • After collecting tiny gum nuts from the garden and glueing them to the end of the needles, they were ready to knit.

I can’t remember who taught me to knit. Certainly not my mother – she always decried her knitting ability by showing a half-finished sock still on the three needles that she started to knit for Dad in the early days of their marriage. It was even brought out to Australia when we migrated – why will remain a mystery!

Mum loved repeating proverbs and the one she used to explain that lack of knitting prowess was, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ 

Maybe it was my Great Aunt Teen who first taught me to knit because she was constantly knitting or crocheting and up until she died in the mid-60s she made all of us a jumper or cardigan for our birthdays.

The last item she made me was a lovely pure wool jacket and I received it the night before we left for Australia. Nine-year-old me adored that jacket and it was so well-knitted and loved that I still have it.

My daughter, Anne, even wore it for a short while although it was slightly yellowed with age. It has dogs as a pattern and she loves dogs!

 

me night before leaving scotland 1962.jpg
9year old me with my lovely white jacket with red trim and black poodle motif – it zips up the front too.

 

Perhaps I learned to knit at Brownies or Girl Guides – I vaguely remember knitting a scarf for a doll – I know my older sister, Cate would have helped because she is as talented at knitting and crocheting as Great Aunt Teen.

However, I learned the basic skills, I know the difference between knit and purl and as a volunteer mum at the Steiner school, I found myself sitting in a circle with a group of the children and teaching them to cast on and knit.

I recall the looks of intense concentration as  7 – 9-year-old girls and boys struggled to master the craft, row by laborious row.

‘Mairi, how many stitches should I have at the end of the row?’

’28, Jaryd.’

‘I’ve got 23.’

‘I’ve got 30.’

‘I’ve got 29.’

And so around the circle… picking up lost stitches, separating some convoluted efforts, unravelling knots, losing excess stitches…

I still have the recorder and music bags my girls sewed, knitted and embroidered just like my mother kept the placemats I made with childish hands.

 

Steiner music bag MJ
Mary Jane’s music bag for her music notes

 

Bridget Whelan, the author of Back To Creative Writing School, wrote that ‘weaving stories in your head while you travel to work or sit daydreaming in a café is not writing.’

I agree, however, sometimes it pays to take a rest from trying to fill the blank page and turn attention to some other form of creativity and that’s what I did when I set myself the task of knitting poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project.

I set myself the task of completing 100 poppies by the January deadline and to submit them on behalf of George Alexander McInnes, a great uncle who served at Gallipoli and is buried in Egypt.

I involved my sisters, who are much better than me at knitting and all things crafty,  plus my younger sister Rita’s mother-in-law.

My older sister, Cate is a quilter and has already quilted a poppy tribute for the Centenary Anzac Exhibition, Lest We Forget.

Best Laid Plans Etc. Etc…

But like all those writing projects needing editing and polishing – I didn’t quite make the target. (Although between us we did, I’m sure!)

I can list the excuses (I’m a writer so very good at excuses):

a bout of ill-health, preparing for visitors from overseas, Christmas, an unbearably hot summer, clearing clutter and preparing for the New Year… etc etc…

I did manage to knit 30 poppies and post them off so don’t feel a complete failure and on reflection 100 was a big target but an absolutely minuscule amount when you think of the number of poppies completed in what has become a global challenge.

Here is a picture from a couple of years ago when a display was placed at Parliament House, Victoria. There have also been moving tributes at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial, and in London and other places of significance – hundreds of thousands of knitted poppies.

 

tim richardson and poppies
Tim Richardson Member for Mordialloc admiring the poppies

 

 

“These days, we wear our poppies not only as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen but also as a symbol of our support for those who have chosen (or in the case of those who in the past have been conscripted) to serve their country…

… we have again created a most beautiful and moving tribute at Melbourne’s iconic Shrine of Remembrance.  As beautiful as it is … this is only one of many many other tributes that have been created throughout the world … created from our hearts, with love, and honour and respect. 

If you could reflect … and pass on our message to anyone you know who is currently serving, or has served, or has suffered from the ongoing effects of their own service or their loved ones’ service …  it is why we are doing what we are doing …  This tribute is our gift to you.

Our way of saying thank you, and a poignant reminder of the depth of feeling from a grateful nation.
Your service will not be forgotten.
LEST WE FORGET”

5000poppies.wordpress.com

poppies on white ribbon cross

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”

It was early days in the Second Battle of Ypres when a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May 1915 when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him.

He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. Being the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening.

It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught his attention. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position.

In Dornie, Scotland last year I saw the McCrae memorial honouring their clansmen:

 

The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of remembrance was the inspiration of an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael, also known as ‘The Poppy Lady.’

She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as ‘The French Poppy Lady’, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.

The Flanders Poppy became the symbol of remembrance that we know so well today.

colchester

Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918, Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.

On that day, Hamilton Hall was busy with people coming and going because the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk,  he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies Home Journal .

When Moina found a few moments to herself, she browsed through the magazine and came across a page carrying a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep.

This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem,  In Flanders Fields. Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.

In her autobiography, entitled The Miracle Flower, Moina describes this experience as ‘deeply spiritual’. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.

Three men attending the conference arrived at Moina’s desk and on behalf of the delegates asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.

She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith.

We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

 

cameronians memorial
Memorial to Cameronians, Oban Scotland.

 

The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.

The red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognised symbol of ‘Remembrance’. From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli, this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.

wild poppies scotland

Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same memorial flower as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of a war.

Since the end of the First World War, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world every single day!

Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.

PAUL KEATING

25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave

When I was in Scotland last year I also read about the Highland Scot who suggested the tomb of the unknown soldier.

tomb of unknown warrior

Love and loss is the essence of our humanity. Returned men and women damaged beyond recognition examples of the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure.

In Fromelles, France where 5000 Australians died in the most tragic night in the history of WW1 the poppies were a beautiful contrast to the tragic scene of desolation. And of course, those casualties not in uniform were rarely recorded in official history.

The book, What’s wrong with ANZAC? details the huge disparity between public remembrance ( solemn artefacts etc) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared with the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors and the generations of pain resulting from war.

For me, the poppy has always been about acknowledging the devastation and tragedy of lives shattered and lost, remembering, mourning and hoping it never happens again!

Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops.

Perhaps that’s why Eric Bogle’s antiwar songs written at the time of the Vietnam War but set in WW1, were and still are definitive songs for peace, honouring those who made the greatest sacrifice and pointing out the senselessness of armed conflict, and tragic waste to humanity.

Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Chorus
Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Chorus

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation was butchered and damned

Chorus
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

lone person on beach

Knitting the poppies gave me the gift of calmness and a warm glow that I was doing something useful and taking part in a worthwhile project.

It also helped me reflect and in moments of melancholy reflect on how hard it is to get those in authority to focus on PEACE.

I’m sure I’ll knit a few more poppies in the future too or find another use for the hands-on creativity that helps me rest from facing the blank screen and filling the blank page…

 

6 thoughts on “Knitting a Tiny Piece Of A Global Story

  1. Poor mum had four sons, didn’t teach any of us to knit, not that dad taught us woodwork either. But Steiner stream caught my eye. My grandkids are at a Steiner school (in Perth) but did your local primary have a Steiner option?

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    1. Hi Wad, thanks for reading – my mum had 3 girls and 3 boys and I reckon those parents in the 50s had enough to do just keeping a roof over our heads but I think there was more of an expectation that you learned some craft skills even if just to fill in time pre TV! The State School I talked about that my children went to was not Mordialloc Primary School, although they both did attend for some of their schooling (Anne in her first 2 years and Mary Jane her last 2) but Moorabbin heights Primary School, which was under threat of closure when Jeff Kennett became Premier and decided to slash, burn and sell public service facilities and services. Several schools survived by opening up to different streams like Steiner and Montessori. Looking ahead, I knew we had two private Steiner Secondary schools in Melbourne but I couldn’t afford to send the girls there and they were geographically difficult to get to using public transport. But I was very happy they were exposed to the basics of Steiner methodology in primary school, albeit with some compromises because of the dual stream. When I researched Rudolph Steiner so much of his philosophy makes sense, especially the emphasis on craft, the natural environment, music, dance and storytelling. However, the old cliche stands – I could write a book about those few years of establishing that school – joys and sorrows, bigotry and recalcitrance, acceptance and intolerance… one daughter fitted in like a glove and has happy memories, the other not so (with Steiner you keep the same classmates and teacher each year) and so she was enrolled locally and thrived. On reflection, that time in my life was enriching and a great learning experience and the scales balance towards happiness:)

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      1. Call me Bill. We had our own kids in Montessori for a while (till I ran out of money) and our oldest granddaughter in her troubled teens, is about to try a Montessori high school.

        Interestingly her mother, who spent 6 happy years at Tintern Grammar, seems to want something less structured for her kids.

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        1. Apologies Bill:) Yes, Montessori and Steiner great methodologies but expensive in comparison to state school system although Australia’s kindergartens came about because of the influence of Maria Montessori. And apparently, in NZ the state curriculum has adopted a lot of Steiner methodology. I’m just grateful that I had choices – every child is different and it’s wonderful if you can be proactive and able to find the best system for each child – unfortunately, you often need money to match those choices:( And sometimes we get it wrong – I did for one child but thank goodness realised that and could make a change. Have you read Summerhill by AS Neill? Maybe your daughter has. My dad used to say, ‘education should be kindling the desire to learn not the cramming of knowledge’ – I’m sure there are 100 variations of this going back to Socrates but it would be wonderful if that was the starting point no matter what school we go to.

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        2. We (mostly I) got it wrong for a couple of kids, but they weren’t backwards in letting us know! Went to their high school of choice and dropped out in year 11. Still, they all got degrees eventually.

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