Crafting Welcome: The Welcome Blanket Exhibit

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Tucked into a lawn-hemmed corner of the University of Chicago campus, The Smart Museum of Art – the UC’s local exhibition space – is currently HQ for the Welcome Blanket Project. Welcome Blanket is a crowd-sourced project that is sending donated crocheted, knitted, and quilted blankets to new immigrants, migrants, and refugees living in the U.S. Along with the blanket, the program is asking that each crafter enclose a personal message of welcome to their blanket’s recipient. The project imagines and performs a mass-scale welcome through letters and yards and yards of yarn and fabric as a way of creatively resisting current “build a wall” rhetoric.

The gallery blurb on the wall clarifies:

By overlapping art, craft, design, architecture, social activism, political resistance, social media, and civic engagement, Welcome Blanket offers a concrete way to explore abstract ideas. Not only by making the concept of a 2,000-mile border wall tangible through yards of yarn, but also by blurring the spaces between individual stories and collective conversations. It connects a large-scale installation in a museum gallery with small-scale local craft circles with single links between a blanket maker and a new neighbor.

How do we make large-scale civic engagement meaningful, positive, and creative for each individual?

How do we intimately understand international crises?

How do we share our singular stories in an understandable way?

I see value in simple acts of welcome, reception, and inclusion through craft. A simple handmade blanket is not much: it does not change legal frameworks and practices. It does not significantly alter the difficult and precarious economic and social conditions of living for refugees and other newcomers to the U.S. And, it is likely not going to change the opinions of people who are committed to shoring up the borders of the country. But, a blanket gifted in this way sends a meaningful message to the individuals and families whose lives are being affected by the recent shift in policy and public sentiment on immigration in the U.S. I have also learned, through joining a local Welcome Blanket knitting circle, that contributing to the project is a way for people to materially make sense of what’s happening and find voice, agency, and community again in concrete and productive ways. Like others, I think with my hands and must grapple with things when working through bigger questions.

My sense is that simple messages and gestures like these, taken by a critical mass of crafters, can restore a sense of hope.

The Space

Imagine being given the best hug you have ever received from a good friend. This feeling of embrace, warmth, and acceptance permeates the Welcome Blanket exhibition space – you’re surrounded by a collection of handmade gifts whose purpose is to offer a little bit of colour, warmth, and comfort.

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Building a wall of welcome

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In line with the exhibit’s theme, the Welcome Blanket space invites visitor-participation. You’re welcome to sit and knit a while, peruse through a binder of personal welcome-notes written by various blanket-makers, or (if you’re new to knitting or crochet) take a seat and try your own hand at basic blanket square-making. The knitting circle meets weekly in this space, and it has been lots of fun to spend some time stitching at the Smart with other UC knitters, transforming what is usually a ‘private’ and solitary activity into one performed in a public and shared space.

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Knit (and crochet) happens.

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Having found out about the Welcome Blanket Project very recently, I knew that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful act of craftivism, despite never having made a knit-object on this scale before. So, it looks like a foray into blanket-making for me. More on the specific blanket-making process soon!

If you’re heading Chicago-ward in the coming time, the exhibition will be up until December 17th. And if you are interested in donating a blanket yourself to the Welcome Blanket Project, the deadline has just been extended from September 5th to November 4th. So that more people can participate, Welcome Blanket is covering the cost of shipping blankets to the Smart Museum in the US. Learn more at welcomeblanket.org

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