Knitting for peace

How Peace Fleece's wool revolution helped end the Cold War.

How Peace Fleece began

At the Peace Fleece farm, snuggled in the foothills of the White Mountains in western Maine, Peter Hagerty is up before dawn. Like many farmers in this part of Maine, he begins the day by lighting fires in wood-burning stoves in the farmhouse and barn. He feeds his animals – the draft horses he still uses to work the fields, and the sheep. But before he engages in these rather typical farm duties, he checks his e-mail for news from his business partners -- in Russia.

Since 1985, Peter and his wife, Marty Tracy, have been working closely with farmers in the former Soviet Union, buying wool and forming relationships in the hope that, through trade and a mutual wish for harmony by ordinary citizens on both sides of the Cold War, a sort of grassroots peace could be fostered. They hoped to accomplish this through the making of a humble product: a yarn called Peace Fleece, spun from the wool of U.S. and Soviet sheep.

What Peace Fleece has done in the years since – bringing together farmers and artisans in the United States, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East – might be called a "wool revolution," quiet and gentle but effective nonetheless.

The Peace Fleece story
"It's a funky little operation," Marty says of Peace Fleece, whose offices are situated in a three-story hay barn. "But it's a thriving, humming thing." Twenty years after it began, and well after the Soviet Union's collapse, Peace Fleece is scurrying to keep up with demand for its thick, richly coloured Russian-American yarn. The Peace Fleece farm itself is a place where hope and healing seem as abundant as the hay in the fields or the sheep in the pasture. Local at-risk kids spend time here, finding therapy in caring for the horses. Peter himself sought healing when he and Marty moved here in 1973, shortly after his return from the Vietnam War. But the ultimate purpose of Peace Fleece has been to cure a particular and overwhelming hopelessness shared by many Americans – and Soviets – at the height of the Cold War.

"When we first started Peace Fleece in 1985," says Peter, "I was very convinced we were going to die in a nuclear war. I needed to find a way out of a depression I couldn't shake."

"We were both very, very upset," adds Marty. "We felt like we had to do something, we had to act. It was the only thing that seemed to calm us down."

Inspired to create
"When you really get worried about this kind of stuff," Peter continues, "I've learned that if you can just get on the phone and talk to the person on the other side of the conflict, even though you may not totally resolve the problem, just starting the resolution can make you feel so much better." With the belief that agriculture can be a medium that brings people together, Peter came up with the idea of finding a Soviet farmer who, like him, grew wool. "We thought we'd see if we couldn't get Soviet and American farmers together," he says, "to make a product called Peace Fleece."

Peter is a natural-born storyteller and, in his words, the story of how Peace Fleece came to be takes on an almost legendary quality. "I was forty-one when I first went to Russia," he says, "and not at a good point in my life. I had been pretty angry coming back from Vietnam, and I had moved to the farm pretty angry, and I knew what I was against, but I didn't know what I was for." In the spring of 1985, he boarded a plane to Moscow and began to find out.

"I didn't speak any Russian at all, and I didn't know anyone," he continues, "but I had this idea of meeting a Russian farmer. I walked out of my hotel on a Friday morning and looked around. Across Red Square, there was a hotel with a name I could read: the Hotel Nationale. I walked in and started wandering aimlessly." When he got to the fourth floor, he found a door with a brass plaque bearing the name and address of a New York company. He tapped on the door, and it was answered by a woman who looked at him and declared, "I danced with you in the eleventh grade."

A surprise meeting
As it happens, this acquaintance, miraculously resurfacing in this foreign place, was exactly the person Peter needed. The woman and her husband, agents for a small American company well known and respected in Russia, quickly put him in contact with a wool broker named Nikolai Emelianov, who agreed to sell Peace Fleece its first Soviet wool. In February of 1986, after a circuitous journey, this small bale of wool arrived at Boston Harbor – where the longshoremen promptly refused to off-load it because it was a communist product. The story hit the Associated Press, and Peace Fleece was instantly in the public eye. "The story of a small family farm in Maine doing trade with the Soviet Union was just too good to pass up," Peter says.

Marty adds another perspective: "I saw this tiny, crummy bale of wool," she says, "and I was thinking, 'We're going to start a business with this?'" But she abandoned her work as a potter and signed on fully nonetheless. She has been coordinating the business end of Peace Fleece ever since.

Page 1 of 2 – What's next for Peace Fleece? Find out on page 2.

Excerpted from Knitting for Peace by Betty Christiansen, with photos by Kiriko Shirobayashi. Excerpted by permission of Stewart, Tabori & Chang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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