Celebration of hat draws thousands to the Red Centre, writes Pamela Wade.

What are the odds? There are 5000 beanies on display at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs, sent here from all over Australia and from as far away as Britain, the US and Japan, but the first one I pick up has been made in Stewart Island.

I read the label and imagine Helen Bissland taking a ball of fluffy brown wool one wet, wintry night and, sitting by her fire in Halfmoon Bay, knitting this soft and cosy beanie, then decorating it with a handful of gold buttons.

And now here it is, plumb in the middle of Australia's parched Red Centre, to be tried on, admired and, at some point over the next four days, bought by one of the nearly 9000 people attending this quirky festival.

It all started in 1997 with a party, but instead of Tupperware or naughty undies, it was beanies, cheap and simple to make, that were offered for sale as a way to give employment and income to women living in remote Aboriginal communities like Ernabella, 400km away along a dusty desert track. Already skilled in traditional methods of weaving and spinning, the women adapted easily to the new techniques of knitting, crocheting and felting shown them by people like Adi Dunlop and others who came to call themselves "beanie-ologists".


It wasn't long before these old crafts were producing new art, and now the highlight of the annual festival is the competitionstaged in the adjoining gallery. There's conventional art in there too, including a masterly portrait by Albert Namatjira, but the beanies aren't out of place.

Colourful, bizarre, inspired, the beanies are flights of fancy that incorporate birds and animals, boxes of chocolates, fruit and flowers. These aren't just hats to keep the head warm: they're pieces of art.

The announcement of the winners draws big crowds; but the festival is continuously busy with people coming to admire, to buy, to watch the Beanie Olympics - a speed crochet event - and to learn at the workshops where Aboriginal women pass on their skills. The festival is a celebration of not just textile art and craft, but the joy of sharing knowledge and creating something practical and beautiful. In the words of one beanie-ologist, "You walk around with love on your head".


* Further information:
The Beanie Festival, an annual event, takes place in June. See beaniefest.org

A good place to stay in Alice Springs is Quest Apartments. See questalicesprings.com.au

For more information, visit australiasouthback.com
Pamela Wade was in Alice Springs as a guest of Tourism Northern Territory.

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