Meet the Ottawa Knitters that Won the Internet with their Scarves on Statues Initiative

By Hannah Alper

Last week, I read an amazing story of kindness, collaboration and action. Overnight in downtown Ottawa hand-knitted scarves were placed on statues. On each scarf a tag was sewn that said only “I’m not lost if you’re stuck in the cold, take this scarf to keep warm!” A photo went viral on Reddit, Twitter, and Pinterest. What a cool idea! It was done with complete anonymity. Even cooler, right? It was a total fluke that a friend of my mom’s shared the story on Facebook and she said that she was proud that her daughter’s teacher was part of this initiative. I went from blogger to journalist as I was eager to interview this club to find out more.

Tanya Simoneau, the founder was so kind to sit down with me in one of her first full interviews, to answer my questions and share the story of her knitting club and the scarves that captivated the internet.  Tanya was so awesome for taking the time to do this with me. Tanya is a grade 5/6 teacher with piles of report cards to prepare and I am so grateful that she found the time to share her story with me! So now, meet Tanya and the women of her knitting club who all believe as I do – little things add up to make a big difference.

Hannah: Tell me about your knitting club.

Tanya Simoneau: In December 2009, my Mum, Rosemarie Hasey, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. She loved to crochet. Over the next year, I gathered lots of her yarn and brought it to my home. It took me about a year to get through everything – emotionally and physically – to be able to really go through her yarn. It was winter of 2011 when I approached my friends to ask if they wanted to get together and craft and try and think of little things we could put into action to make a difference.

Most of my friends were enthusiastic, but many of had really busy schedules and were unable to meet. However, a small group of us began meeting and crafting and talking. We were meeting about once a month and would rotate who would host. In the beginning we made a few blankets that were intended for Blankets For Canada (an organization for which my Mum had been collecting yarn and blankets). When I contacted what was listed as the Ottawa Branch, they told me I could drop them off anytime – in downtown Lethbridge, Alberta! Not to worry, the blankets found a good home – they were donated to Project Linus.

imgresDropping Stitches for a Better World, the cumbersome name we gave our Facebook Group, has changed over the last three years, but there has been a small core of us for a while.

Michelyn St Pierre works at Carefor Health Services. She coordinates homecare nurses and PSWs. She is my best friend and I know I can count on her for anything.

Leslie Grant, who was busy and unable to participate in our Guerrilla Knitting outing, joined our group after asking me to teach her to knit. We worked together at St Elizabeth Catholic School in Ottawa, where she worked as an Educational Assistant. I had started a knitting club with some of my grade two students that were getting into trouble in the yard. She joined that club – and often interrupted my class because she had made a mistake and needed help – and that led to her joining Dropping Stitches.

Stephanie Grainger has recently become our long distance member. After completing her PhD in Biology, she was offered a research opportunity in San Diego, California. She still comes to most of our meetings, though – via Skype! We Skype her in and it’s like she never left.

Anne Dance and I have been friends since high school. She came to a few meetings before going to Scotland to complete her PhD in History. She came back to Ottawa this fall, but was unable to come to any meetings until this past week – what a meeting to be her first in over a year! She had the following to add, “As someone who has returned to a harsh Canadian winter after three years living in the UK, it is really lovely to be a part of a group keen to make a difference and assist those people who don’t have warm clothes”.

Donna Miller is the new kid to the group. She joined us this spring through Steph. Even though Steph was thousands of kilometres away, she knew we would welcome Donna. Donna hadn’t joined us earlier because she was busy in Ireland getting her MD. She has fit right in and quickly became a staple in our group. She’s currently applying for residencies in Canada and we hope she gets one here in town!

And then there’s me, Tanya Simoneau. I learned to knit in high school and I learned to crochet from my Mum. I went to London, Ontario for my undergrad, then returned to Ottawa for teacher’s college. Currently I teach grade 6 and grade 5/6 at St Theresa School. I have a knitting club there, as well, and hope that my students learn the difference that knitting can make.

My husband, Luke Simoneau, designed the tags for us. He sometimes comes to our meetings, not to impose, but because Michelyn makes amazing food when she hosts! He is a crafter himself, so he is welcome to come.

Hannah: Tell me what you love about your group, what you enjoy most about your time together.

Tanya: I love meeting with our little group. It’s kind of like therapy, for me anyways. We chat and work through things that we are going on in our lives. We have so much fun and I always look forward to our meetings. I love having a group of fun, kind, and energetic women that I know I can rely on no matter what.

Hannah: Individually or a group, what organizations or charitable initiatives have you supported?

Tanya: Aside from the scarves, we have made blankets for Project Linus and we’ve collected toiletries for a local women’s shelter. Individually, I’ve also been trying to raise money to sponsor a school through my knitting. I knit cup cosies (like the paper sleeve that Starbucks gives you on your coffee).

Hannah: Now, tell me about the scarves. How did the idea come about, what was your spark?

Tanya: The scarves didn’t come from one place. I had the yarn and scarves and strips of blankets from my Mum and Michelyn and I had been talking about doing some “yarn bombing” for years. We googled Ottawa Yarn Bombing and found that, during International Yarn Bombing Day in June, some other local knitters were forced to take down their work. Michelyn, who was hosting our January meeting, submitted the idea to place the scarves on the statues. She even came over and helped me go through the bags of knitting and crochet that my Mum had made and collected, as well as adding in our own hand knits.

We met at Michelyn’s apartment in downtown Ottawa on the afternoon of Sunday, January 19, and had great fun placing the scarves around downtown. We still weren’t even sure that what we were doing was completely legal, so we ran around, quickly snapped our photos and joked around about “plausible deniability”. To complete the scene, I provided my own spy music, a la Mission Impossible.

Hannah: I love that you sew a special tag that says ” I’m not lost if you’re stuck in the cold, take this scarf to keep warm!” You don’t identify yourselves at all. Why did you do it this way? Was it important to you to be anonymous? How do you feel now that you are not so anonymous? Does it change anything for you?

Tanya: The anonymity was important to us for a few reasons. As I said, we weren’t entirely sure what we were doing was legal but; it was fun to be a random Good Samaritan. It was nice to just know that we had done something good with no ulterior motives. Another reason for the anonymity is that, as soon as our names became attached to the project, it became exclusively our project (in the public eye, anyway) and there were so many other people involved: our members who weren’t able to attend that particular meeting; the many people who had donated yarn, and; most importantly – for me, anyway – my Mum, who did so much of the work that went into this project. I know that she would have loved the beauty and the kindness behind the gesture.

We really wanted to be kept anonymous. Our friends and family knew – I posted our photos on Facebook Sunday evening – but we didn’t think anyone else would really notice at all. Our only hope was that people would find them to keep warm.

Now that we’ve been ‘outed’, so to speak, it actually feels a bit deflating. I don’t think that any of us are happy with how our story came out; we didn’t contact the press. We were all just happy for it to slowly get around our friends as they talked to us about it. It’s been kind of strange to have this little bit of unexpected celebrity but there has been at least one positive outcome and that is the people who have started contacting us, looking to help.

Hannah: How do you decide where you are going to put the scarves? Do you sneak in the middle of the night to hang it?who-i-am-collage2

Tanya: We decided to put the bulk of the scarves on the Valiants Memorial because there is a large group of statues all together and because it’s right in the center of downtown, where they would be seen and, hopefully, used. We also put a scarf on Oscar Peterson (a few blocks away) because he is a favourite statue of ours. The other scarves were put on various trees, posts, and statues that we passed on our walk through downtown Ottawa.

Hannah: So, you leave scarves all around the city for people in the cold, do you distribute your scarves in any other way? Why didn’t you give them to a homeless shelter or just give them to homeless people on the street?

Tanya: The reason that we left the scarves on trees, poles, and statues instead of delivering them directly to a shelter or into the hands of the homeless is complex. One reason is that, had we given our scarves to a shelter, it wouldn’t reach those that aren’t ready to go inside – those who, arguably, need them the most. Also, the demographic that we were looking to reach out to wasn’t limited to the homeless. There are many families and people in Ottawa that, while not homeless, could use a helping hand. There are also those who aren’t needy in the traditional sense: any student, or business person, or anyone walking around downtown in the cold without a scarf could take one and we would be okay with that. Finally, putting the scarves out for people to see created some whimsy for the passersby and maybe cheered them up on a freezing Ottawa morning. An unexpected side effect of putting the scarves out in public has been the publicity; not for us, but for the fact that there are so many people who could use something to keep warm. I hope the awareness doesn’t fade as the weather grows warmer.

Hannah: Now I don’t know if you know this, but on Facebook when Do Something shared your story as of tonight it got 45,164 likes and 32,305 people shared this on their page? How does that make you feel? I think, by the way, that that is awesome.

Tanya: I was in total shock when I saw the numbers of shares and articles our small act was getting. It really feels kind of strange. We didn’t do this for the publicity and we didn’t think anyone would really notice. It’s weird that we have been in the Irish Independent and on the American news. I think it’s awesome that our story has reached so many people and I hope it helps them realize that sometimes it doesn’t take big actions, but just small ones, to change the world.

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