By Martha Bowers
Ottawans were shocked by the early arrival of winter a few weeks ago and had to quickly dig out their mitts, hats and coats. Although the weather was unseasonably frigid for November, can you imagine how much colder it gets in northern Canada? But thanks to a Glebe resident, many people in remote northern communities have been receiving hand-knit hats, mittens, blankets, socks, slippers and sweaters for the past seven years.
When she was turning 40, Anita Barewal and a friend decided that, rather than celebrate with an exotic trip or other adventure, they would do something meaningful and collect knitted clothing to send to children in isolated northern climates to help keep them warm during the long, dark winter. Families in the Canadian North often struggle to balance the cost of warm clothing against other essentials such as food and shelter so it seemed like a perfect thing to do. The women formed the Warm Hands Network and put the word out for donations through Glebe business Yarn Forward. Within a month they had collected 50 items to send to the Innu in Labrador and by the end of the year they had 800 articles of clothing!
The Network is now international with some 400 knitters around the world. About 50 per cent of donations come from other countries and 50 per cent from Canada (10 per cent from Ottawa). Barewal and her Ottawa group link the artisan knitters, crocheters, communities and shippers, but all of the items come to her Glebe home on First Avenue for sorting, packaging and shipping.
First Air is a generous partner that delivers the boxes to northern communities at no or marginal cost twice a year. Local physicians who travel to the North to provide medical services in clinics will also take boxes of clothing as part of their luggage. When the boxes arrive in Rankin Inlet, Gjoa Haven, Pond Inlet, Innuvik, Iqualuit, Cape Dorset, Igloolik, Moosonee and Resolute Bay, community partners who include local health workers, elders, school and daycare leaders ensure that the clothing goes to those who need it. In the past month, the group has sent a shipment of warm hand-knits as well as Christmas gifts donated by a corporate sponsor to a group of children in Igloolik.
Barewal says that the people are amazed that the articles are handmade and come from individuals and not the government or large corporations. “Taking the time to make something new sends a message from southern Canada or Florida or Australia that ‘we see you.’” The children realize that they are not invisible but part of the wider Canadian community. Treating people with dignity and respect is a hallmark of the organization.
If communities request it, Warm Hands will send yarn and needles (hard to find and expensive in the North) so that people can make their own winter wear. Recently they received a request for fur coats that are no longer being used. Local sewers in the North who traditionally made fur clothing will “up cycle” or repurpose the fur as liners for boots or parka hoods.
Warm Hands is successful because it asks for in-kind contributions, not money (although cash donations can be used to purchase boots and help with shipping costs). Wool is preferred but acrylic is suitable for blankets. Items are labelled with washing instructions, photographed and catalogued.
If you enjoy knitting, have an old fur coat gathering dust in your closet or are interested in contributing in other ways, contact Warm Hands at email@example.com. “There are so many needs in Northern communities, and we love adding to the Network,” Barewal notes. “If they can make a contribution in some other way, I will find a job for them!” This includes non-knitters, for she would like to get local schoolchildren to participate in the project by partnering with schools in northern communities.
For more information or to get involved, visit the website: www.warmhandsnetwork.org where you will find details about materials, patterns, yarn shops, partners and projects. There are also wonderful stories on the blog www.warmhandsnetwork.blogspot.ca and Facebook page.
Martha Bowers is a proofreader and regular contributor to the Glebe Report.