Three Ontario knitters have begun work on a COVID-19 memorial blanket that is intended to honour the lives of all people who have died from the virus in Canada.
But the three women spearheading the project, Heather Breadner, Allison Day and Amanda Sharpe, know they cannot complete the large art installation blanket alone.
On a new website, they urge other knitters to join them in creating the memorial to more than 8,000 people, with each square in the blanket representing one life lost.
“We are calling all knitters across the country to pick up their needles,” says a message on the COVID-19 memorial blanket project website.
“Together, we can create a memorial that can travel through the country, and bring comfort to those who’ve lost loved ones, and to honour the memories of the souls who are now no longer with us.”
Once completed, the blanket is expected to be 9,000 square feet (836 square metres) and weigh about 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms). It will be made up of more than 8,000 knitted squares, all one foot by one foot (30 cm by 30 cm). It will cover half a football field, Breadner said. The project was launched last week.
In an interview with CBC Toronto, Breadner said the aim of the knitted blanket is to honour Canadians who have died of COVID-19 and provide comfort to the people left behind. Breadner is the owner of Aberdeen’s Wool Company, a yarn shop in Lindsay, Ont. She, Day and Sharpe all work at the yarn shop together.
“What we really hope is that it brings a little bit of solace to the families who have lost a loved one to know that their memories are not being forgotten,” Breadner said. “Essentially, it’s going to be a large patchwork of colours.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Breadner said she thought people who died were becoming numbers, or statistics, or part of a new total at the end of each day. The three knitters came up with the idea of the blanket when people were locked down in Ontario and urged to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. She said people were feeling helpless at that time.
“Those faces and those beautiful souls, it felt like it was being lost,” she said. “We put our heads together, we’re knitters. By default, we were like, we’ll do it knitted related. And we sort of put the whole plan together.”
Blanket to represent ‘physical heaviness’ of grief
Breadner said inspiration for the project came from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt, a project started in San Francisco in 1987 to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, was comprised of thousands of three-by-six foot cloth panels, stitched by friends and family members.
Selections of the original quilt went on tour in the U.S. and Canada and Canadian panels were added to the quilt. The additions remained in Canada to form the start of the Canadian AIDS Memorial Quilt, according to the Canadian AIDS Society.
“We needed a visual to represent the gravity and the sheer physical heaviness that the country feels during this pandemic. To put together a large art installation blanket but involving a massive amount of other knitters throughout the community, it brings us all together. It gives a sense of hope,” she said.
The name of each person who has died will be attached to each knitted square in a fabric name placard, if his or her family consents, along with the person’s province of origin. Names will be visible on the squares. If families choose not to have the name displayed, only the province will be shown.
Squares that represent front-line workers who have died will be made out of blue wool and a specific blue colour has been reserved for essential workers. “Fallen” maple leaves made out of yarn will be attached to their squares.
All names of the dead are to be published in a memorial book that will travel with the blanket when it is expected to go on display next year. A photo and story of each person who died, the name of the knitter and why they knit the square, can be included with the name in the memorial book. The book will curate the blanket, Breadner said.
Breadner, Day and Sharpe hope to display the blanket for the first time in January 2021, the first anniversary of the first presumptive case in Canada.
The blanket is important at a time when people cannot mourn their loved ones in the usual ways, given provincial restrictions on the size of gatherings, Breadner added.
“The biggest component for us is to be as respectful as we can be for all of the families,” she said. “Whatever they want to share, they can share. Whatever they don’t want to share, that’s okay too.”
Knitters can register on the COVID-19 memorial blanket website, specifying their name and the name of the person represented by the square. Once they knit their squares, with a standard type of wool and according to a set pattern, they mail the squares to the address provided. Then a team of volunteers will assemble the blanket.
Breadner said the three might have to rent a gymnasium to assemble the blanket. Volunteers are needed for assembly. Any yarn shops in Canada that are willing to be drop off sites are also urged to contact the three.
Breadner said assembly has already begun. She said the project has 15 squares so far and nearly 400 knitters have registered on the website.
Knitting since the age of eight or nine, Breadner said she believes in “craft activism” and views each kind of art as having its own community. She has a sheep farm and manufactures yarn.
“I felt that this was a really good way for us, as a community, to show Canada that we care and we grieve with you and we feel for your family,” she said. “If we can provide even one sliver of solace or comfort, then we have done what we can do.”
Knitters involved in project ‘for the long haul’
Breadner said she realizes the project will continue for some time as the pandemic runs its course. “The intention of the blanket is that it will continue to grow until it doesn’t need to grow anymore. This is a ongoing project that we’re in for the long haul.”
The three are also creating small, individual blankets that will be distributed to various agencies and knitters can volunteer to help with those as well.
The goal, eventually, is to have the main blanket on permanent display.