Three thousand beanies in the Northern Territory, central Australia: sitting on tables, in piles, hung from plastic trellis, in boxes, on heads and/or clutched in hands.
The large room is wall-to-wall wool and colour. Knitted beanies, felted beanies, pom-poms, stitching, bobbles, antlers, ears, eyes.
People wander the aisles of the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. They paw the beanies, searching for The One. It is 1pm Sunday. A tall man with startlingly blue eyes, and a bald head stands in front of a small mirror propped up(by beanies) on a table. A squarish felted eucalypt-green beanie sets off his cheekbones nicely. He is turning his head from side to side. He has been at the Festival since 11am Saturday, and has come back today, in search of The One. He says out loud that he thinks this is it. There is sighing in his voice. He had not planned to purchase at all, yet this beanie speaks to him of river gum, and Australian landscape.
“But I need to see it on someone else,” he says.
I offer. I’ve nothing else to do but look for my One True Beanie, and talk to people. I’m not crafty in the slightest. I have no urge to attend any of the workshops, but I delight in seeing the skill and talent of others, in watching people create, hearing their stories.
I pull the beanie on, over my hair. I’m scarcely the right model, if he’s hoping to see what it looks like on someone similar to himself. I am short, curved, have a round face, and my cheekbones are not prominent. I have red hair, brown eyes, and huge bat-wing glasses.
He pays no attention to me, but circles around slowly, looking at the beanie from all angles. He takes me over to the sunlight coming in floor-to-ceiling windows. He must see it in the light, see how the shadows of its own pointed edges fall.
I have spent less time choosing boyfriends (when I was doing such things) than this man spends on considering this beanie.
Back at the table where he found it, I hand it back to him, and he puts it on, and checks himself out in the mirror again.
It’s the sort of beanie that you could wear to a poetry reading. It’s the sort of beanie that makes a statement. This tall man is not sure he can live up to this beanie. He lived up to last year’s red extravaganza hat by daring to fly, on a whim, to Perth, and go to the footy. How can he possibly top that? How can he live up to this avant garde green beanie that seems to demand arty-fartiness?
“Go to a poetry reading?” I suggest. “Open mic night at the pub?”
He looks doubtful. I tell him that he will be pleasantly surprised. Like I would know. Last time I went to a spoken word night was 1996. I believe times have changed a lot, what with hip-hop, rapping, and other new-fangled things.
He decides to buy the beanie, but will not promise anything. He will let the beanie magic up the experience when the time is right. He walks to the cash register, baulking only slightly at the $90 price. For him, it is worth it. One beanie each year, and let the wool fall where it may.
I miss, by seconds, scoring a Dr Who beanie. A Tardis-blue beanie, with white windows knitted into it, and a felted blue mouse on top, with its own stitched white window. I spend a certain amount of time pouting.
Then, it’s on with the hunt. I must traverse the whole of the room, over and over, each time finding new treasures. I have a list of people to buy for, and love matching personality to hat. Pink for Jane, who loves pink, and wants to be much softer than she presents. Flowers for Chantal, who is a small girl, and a bit of a fairy. I fulfil my list, and then it’s my turn. Purple, green, blue, black, red, rainbow. I find them all, must have them all. I am crazed with beanie lust.
I nearly come to blows with a tiny Chinese woman. We both have our hands on a wild purple beanie, sporting an open felted book.
“I’m a writer,” I plead.
“Me too,” she snaps, and pulls hard. The beanie is hers. “Off shopping list!” she crows, and minces away, swishing her hat from side to side, flaunting to me that she won.
Crafters cruise the aisles, examining work that is not their own. They may have sent 20 exquisite beanies to the Festival, all for sale, or entered in the annual competition, and even though they can knit or felt their own hats galore, they still want The One True Beanie that someone else has made.
I understand. I can write poetry, stories, novels, and memoir, but none of that stops me buying books by the score, written by others. No one true book will fulfill every need.
The theme of the 2014 Alice Springs Beanie Festival is Outer Space. A pure delight for a science fiction fan like me, who met her second husband at the World Science Fiction Convention.
The winning entry for the competition is a grey and brown felted cap, with wire sticking out of it, and planets skewered on the end of each wire. $2000. I revere it for a while, until I realise there is no sign saying Don’t Touch. I take it off its stand and put it on. It’s not quite me, but hey, this is the most expensive piece of clothing I’ve ever tried on.
There are planet beanies, and a wonderful pale blue balaclava with tentacles, and each tentacle ending in an eye. There are alien beanies, meteors, and everything else in between. I take hundreds of pictures, and thrill to see that a nine year old girl’s work has placed in the Junior section. There are young creatives hard at work in the world.
I bring home twelve beanies for myself, and struggle every winter to find time to wear them all. I have my own favourites, and am only now considering selling on some of the ones I don’t often wear.
It started off as a bucket list item: see the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. It became a three day wallow in imagination. I think of the man wearing his green beanie and what adventure it lead him to. I think of the woman who secretly wanted to knit herself a house, and some land to put it on. I think of my childhood sweetheart’s mother, busy at the festival crocheting Anzac Day poppies, and saying: “I don’t buy beanies, I bring ‘em!”, and the text message from her son that night: “I know where you are. Try to stop my tipsy mother going off the rails.”
It’s on my bucket list still, but now it reads: Back to the Beanie Festival. The search for The One True Beanie goes on.
Photo: Alice Beanie Festival _ Alberto