Winter nights can be chilly in Alice Springs, making it the perfect place to celebrate the humble beanie.
Alice Springs Beanie Festival started humbly too, in 1997 when local teacher Adi Dunlop began showing Indigenous women in the remote Central Australian community of Yuendumu how to crochet. Most of the women had never worked with wool before, but they ended up making 100 beanies that year, which Dunlop took back to Alice and sold to her friends at a "beanie party" with the proceeds going back to the community.
"Everybody thought they were fantastic," says Jo Nixon, Dunlop's niece, who has been running the festival ever since.
"They said, 'Can we do this again next year?' So we did, and it's grown from 100 beanies to 6600 beanies."
The four-day festival is held at Araluen Arts Centre at the end of June, and it's huge. There's Beanie Central, where those 6600 beanies were sent in from all over Australia this year (about a quarter of them from Central Australia), and the National Beanie Competition and Exhibition of 300 wearable artworks, from around Australia and overseas. There are workshops, food trucks and stalls, and live entertainment.
This year's festival kicks off with a free opening-night party under the stars on the Friday night. There's a Welcome to Country and a few speeches and the competition winners are announced. Then Nixon is crowned "Queen Beanie" and presented with a 20th anniversary beanie decorated with 20 crochet hooks and declares the 2016 exhibition open. The crowd surges into the arts centre and the warmth of its central heating to peruse and purchase the beanies on display.
Felt is big this year, so are animal motifs (including Nemo, budgies, kangaroos and a menagerie of embroidered moths), and entries span the creative spectrum from the Hair Beanie made from human beard trimmings to the most exquisite tea cosies ever to grace a teapot.
The next morning at Beanie Central, I join hundreds of Alice locals and tourists swarming around tables piled high with hand-made beanies, trying them on, Instagramming beanie selfies, asking strangers for fashion advice. Everyone is in high spirits, while trying to decide which beanies to buy: the plain knitted beanie one could wear to a football match, the matching-pair breast beanies, maybe the sea-green mohair slouch beanie sparkling with sequins? There's something for everyone. That's the beauty of a beanie: anyone with a head can wear one.
Outside, Indigenous women sit at long plastic tables quietly teaching and demonstrating crocheting, weaving, knitting, spinning and needle-felting, which is particularly popular in the communities. "It's a faster medium to work with," says Nixon, "but it's also more rewarding and they can use more pictures in it than they can with crocheting, which allows them to be more creative."
As a not-for-profit community event, the festival is all about giving back. Most of the events are free to make them accessible to everyone. Food stalls raise money for local charities and causes such as the CWA and Alice Springs Women's Shelter. Most importantly, the proceeds from beanie sales, a record $200,000 this year, still go back to Indigenous communities, where they're used to run beanie-making workshops throughout the year. The resulting "mukata" (beanie in Pitjantjatjara) are sold at the Beanie Festival the following year, completing the beanie circle of love.
If you miss the festival, you can still get a dose of beanie: the exhibition runs for three weeks after the Beanie Festival and there's a travelling Colours of Country exhibition featuring award-winning beanies from previous years. Or go to next year's festival, to be held June 23-26, 2017.
Chances are you'll see Nixon there. Although she has a day job, as an audiologist at Alice Springs hospital, she's not about to retire as "chief beaniologist" any time soon. She loves the festival too much.
"I love the community aspect of the Beanie Festival, working with the volunteers [about 150 from all over Australia and overseas], and having the Indigenous women come in from the communities. They're a bit shy and then they get here and they go, 'Oh wow!' and the tourists just love working with them. It's so full of joy and colour and love. It's a really beautiful festival."
Qantas flies direct to Alice Springs from Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities. See qantas.com.
ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
The next Alice Springs Beanie Festival is on June 23-26, 2017. Entry to the exhibition is free on opening night or $15 for a weekend pass; entry to Beanie Central is by gold coin donation (beanies range in price from $5 to $120); and workshops cost $10-20. See beaniefest.org
Chifley Alice Springs Resort, right in town, has rooms from $129 a night; see silverneedlehotels.com/chifley/alice-springs. The more deluxe Lasseters Hotel has rooms from $135 a night, see lasseters.com.au
Louise Southerden was a guest of Tourism NT.