Knitting & Crochet

Knitting for peace

Author: Canadian Living

Knitting & Crochet

Knitting for peace

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.

 

Citizen's diplomacy
It may seem that a small company like Peace Fleece could not have had much impact on the Cold War, but consider that, at the time, it was part of a movement in which American and Soviet citizens reached out to each other to discover a mutual hope for peace that built important bridges between the two nations. Once, while travelling in the farthest corners of the Soviet Union to meet with farmers, Peter discovered a group of Idahoans in an obscure Central Asian hotel. "They said, 'We just decided to meet the folks over here. We decided to sit down with them and have a meal, maybe go for a walk.' It was just that kind of citizen's diplomacy that clicked the destruction meter slightly away from total annihilation," says Peter.

"That's what's so wonderful about knitting," he continues. "All these knitters used to go with us to Russia, and they'd sit in the middle of a square, and they'd just start knitting. Russian women would sit down next to them, and they'd start knitting, and they'd hang out all afternoon, laughing. Nobody was translating. It transcended any kind of nationalistic or language limitation, and I think that's what really allowed us to survive that terribly difficult time."

Expansion to the Middle East
Having moved past the Cold War, Peace Fleece expanded its reach into other countries in conflict. During the Gulf War in 1991, Peter travelled to Israel in an effort to create something similar to Peace Fleece there, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian farmers through wool. The program didn't take off quite the way the Russian endeavor did, as the dangers of interacting with each other became too great for farmers on both sides. Still, the weaving yarn offered by Peace Fleece is spun from Israeli and Palestinian wool, and all the proceeds of a particular colour of Peace Fleece yarn – Baghdad Blue – help support Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a village in Israel established jointly by peace-seeking Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

The personal relationships Peter and Marty formed with farmers, businesspeople, and exporters in Russia count as some of the most rewarding aspects of Peace Fleece. "Our Russian office is in the home of the woman who's been our director for the last eleven years," Peter says. "And in that time, we've gone through everything together. We've shared their grief over the loss of a child and the joy of their children getting married." Understanding their lives shed light on the chaos and despair in which the Russians live. Obstacles like crime and threats to personal safety often interfered with the business. "In the beginning," says Peter, "the degree of dysfuntionalism in Russia was unbelievable. Nothing worked. I finally understood why things wouldn't get done. If a partner had to choose between making a deadline and making sure his child got home from school without harm, he would err on the side of the child. You couldn't argue with their choices. But it's a very difficult way to run a business."

In the last five years or so, much of that has changed. A partnership with a freight forwarding company in Yaroslavl has ensured that importing and exporting happen smoothly and efficiently. And while Russian wool is more and more difficult to come by due to a resurgence in Russia's domestic wool market that keeps most of it within its borders, new sources are being found in Romania.

Beauty and healing
Marty, with her artist's eye, sees improvement in another way. "I went to Russia in 1990," she says, "and I was just in shock. The roads were torn apart, there were no flowers, and people looked miserable. But when I went back two years ago, it was obvious to me that the spirit was lifting. You can see the health of a country by its art," she says. "If people create beauty, then you know they're feeling beautiful on the inside, and a society is in good shape."

Beauty and healing are reflected in all the products Peace Fleece offers, whether it's wool from Eastern European countries regaining their footing after opression, or wool from Middle Eastern countries currently at war, or cheerful knitting needles and buttons hand-painted by Russian artisans. These products all illustrate the different ways knitting and peace are inextricably entwined. "It's all part of a human healing process," Peter says of knitting. Marty, too, believes that when people work with their hands, they open themselves to inner solutions for peace. "If everyone is more peaceful themselves," she says, "they have more tolerance to accept others and work out their own relationships. The back-and-forth process of people trusting each other, being patient with each other, listening to each other, following through – that's peace to me." It's this relationship-building process, besides the simple act of knitting for another, that she hopes true knitters-for-peace will engage in.

Supporting Peace Fleece
For more information on Peace Fleece, or to purchase Peace Fleece yarn and other products, contact:

Peace Fleece
475 Porterfield Road
Porter, ME 04068
www.peacefleece.com


Page 2 of 2
  – Learn how Peace Fleece began on page 1.



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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