Above: What makes a beanie? These might look like berets but they’re clearly beanies in spirit.
By RACHEL McFADDEN
Here’s a Mad Hatter’s riddle for you: Where’s the world’s largest festival celebrating the art of keeping your head warm? No, not in the frigid climes of Scandinavia or Alaska but here in Alice, centre of the desert heartland of Australia.
This year’s Beanie Festival was the 18th and Friday’s opening night at the Araluen Arts Centre was attended by thousands sharing in the head-warming festivities, catching a glimpse of the mad hats on show, and sipping wine, chai and coffee with old friends and new.
A long queue to get into the exhibition, from one end of the foyer to the other, did not deter the die-hards, to judge by the excited chatter and air of great anticipation.
It certainly was worth the wait: the eclectic array of beanies really were out of this world – in fact there was even an alien category. The gallery was brimming with laughter, crazy designs and vibrant colour as visitors modelled the latest designs.
Entries had come in from all over Australia and from countries as far away as Germany and Japan.
“You can’t not have a giggle at some of the entries,” self-proclaimed volunteer ‘beaniologist’ Deb White said.
Deb, dressed in an Adi Dunlop (Beanie Festival Founder) design to match her outgoing personality, said it was not uncommon for people to travel for the event and those who come alone soon find companionship.
“This is the holy grail for craftspeople as far as I am concerned,” Deb said. Her own craft is spinning.
One making the pilgrimage – leaving her husband behind – was Jenny Gunson who flew in from Adelaide to attend the four-day festival. She was not surprised to find three others on her flight who were doing the same.
A certain kinship exists amongst craftspeople, she said and she found the community friendly and embracing. Since last Thursday she had met people from Newcastle, Canberra, Geelong and Coffin Bay who had all come for the festival.
Right: New friends, Biggan Ryd-Dups (wearing beanie) and Jenny Gunson.
The word has also been getting out overseas. One of this year’s esteemed judges, Biggan Ryd-Dups, said she first heard about the festival five years ago in London and was thrilled to finally get here.
“This is the most fun I have had in years,” she said. “I can not believe the creativity and skills of the entries … some are absolutely crazy.”
It’s the eccentricity of some entries that keeps art collector Brian Tucker coming back from his home in Brisbane. In its 18 years he’s missed only one Beanie Festival.
With some 50 beanies in his collection, Brian says he is taken by anything unique and has spent up to $1000 on a beanie: “They really are pieces of art.”
There’s no doubt that they are sought after: one of the beanies in this year’s collection, by local craftsperson Nancy Hall, was priced at $3000 (pictured at right).
The festival expects to attract around 12,000 visitors and judging by Friday night’s attendance it was well on the way to achieving those numbers.
Brian hopes the festival continues to attract interstate and overseas tourists as Alice Springs occupies a special place in his heart and really is the “unknown jewel of Australia.”
Left: Alan from Apollo Bay in South Australia shows off his choice.
Leaving the exhibition, I am not surprised to find Jenny and Biggan, once strangers now friends, engrossed in conversation discussing their favourite designs. They are gleeful as they tell me they’ll catch up in Adelaide to discuss plans for a beanie entry in next year’s festival.
“Perhaps I’ll ask my Swedish friends if they would like to contribute,” Biggan said. “It would be great to see some Swedes in the mix.”