PIFA’s ‘Knitting Peace’ incorporates stitches and wishes of Philly crafters

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This weekend, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts opens with acts from around the world.

One of them is a Swedish circus that performs acrobatics on huge sculptures made of yarn. Philadelphia-area knitters were invited to contribute their own handiwork.

The Swedish company Cirkus Cirkör will perform “Knitting Peace” at the Merriam Theater. It’s a pun — the circus troupe asked area crafters to think about how knitting can foster peace in the world, and then knit a piece from white yarn, which will be added to an exhibition in the lobby of the Merriam.

Several fashion students at Moore College of Art took up the challenge, knitting 26 white peace flags. Sophomore Vanessa MacHenry made a white flag beaded with tiny fake pearls.

“I instantly had a personal message I wanted to put across: gun violence and the killing of black youth,” said MacHenry. “I used the beads as the symbol of bullets, to represent lives that were lost, special lives.”

Senior fashion designer Emily McCann machine-knit a double layer flag, hand manipulated to resemble tree bark.

“Because we knew it was part of a collaborative piece, it was a humble thing,” said McCann. “You’re making a tiny part of something so much bigger. This could be a patch on a pair of pants, but in the end it’s more exciting.”

All the pieces submitted by local knitters will be added to an exhibition of pieces, all knit with white yarn that travels with Cirkus Cirkör. Each piece will be tagged with the individual artist’s thoughts about how knitting promotes peace.

The acrobatic circus performance onstage at the Merriam incorporates fabric- and yarn-based props made from castoffs the company salvaged from textile factories around Europe.

“I think the idea of art is to teach people empathy for each other,” said PIFA artistic director Jay Wahl. “How might we knit peace? How might the trash of the world — the cast-offs — rather than tear us apart, how can they bring us together?”

An informal meetup group of hobbyists called Philly Knits created a 63-foot scarf, made from smaller pieces by 15 knitters working together.

“People had very different reactions,” said Dawn Shaeffer, a Philly Knits coordinator. “For some, it was a chance to work collaboratively with other people. To undertake something that gives them pleasure and share that pleasure with a larger community.”

Suspended above the sidewalk outside the Merriam Theater on South Broad Street will be a massive 35-foot-by-8-foot patchwork quilted awning made by students at the University of Arts. Some of the students used broomsticks as knitting needles. It will remain aloft until the end of the festival, April 23.

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