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A Good Yarn

Meet the local creatives combining textile work with social art-ivism

A group of women with a knitted piece of textile art
Dr. Debra Phillips, fifth left, and the North Sydney Yarnarchists at Stanton Library

For almost 10 years, Dr Debra J Phillips and the members of the Stanton Knitting Group have been making very public statements with their stitching.

From yarnstorming trees at The Coal Loader to covering Brett Whiteley Place in woollen breasts for cancer awareness or crocheted sea creatures to highlight the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, this is knitting - but not as you know it.

A practicing artist and an education lecturer at ACU, Debra is the North Sydney ‘Yarnarchists’ team leader and has been making knit happen since 2014.

“I had an idea to yarnstorm the jacaranda tree at The Coal Loader in Waverton,” Debra tells northsider. “Council gave me approval to go ahead and suggested I had a chat to the local knitting group in North Sydney. My mum had taught me to knit and crochet as a child and I’d made a few Lady Di style jumpers in the 80s but I have modest skills so I was nervous about meeting the knitting group and presenting my idea!”

She needn’t have worried.

“They all immediately said ‘when do we start’,” Debra remembers. “We gave the tree a stunning purple coat and when it blossomed, it was a colour explosion.”

The next year, trees in Ted Mack Civic Park were covered in yarn for Seniors Week.

“We did five or six trees that time,” Debra remembers. “We had a real understanding of what each other was capable of and how to play to our strengths.”

The next installation moved to the North Sydney CBD location of Brett Whiteley Place with the group creating a display for breast cancer awareness.

“We made huge pink blossoms and pink balls that looked like breasts,” Debra says. “And we got more of an idea of the scale we could work at.”

Bright red urban textile art
2017's Poppies for Peace

In 2017, the group’s work Poppies For Peace was one for the history books. Over 2000 poppies were crafted and stitched into an intricate ten-metre tapestry-style banner to acknowledge the contribution of nurses from North Sydney to WWI. Names of local nurses were stitched into the piece and design work including circles and linear patches referenced the contribution of non-registered nurses of Indigenous heritage.

It was a huge undertaking, with one regular yarnarchist, who was over 90 years old at the time, creating more than 100 poppies single-handedly. The final work has been preserved in the North Sydney archives by council historian Dr Ian Hoskins.

“It’s so important to recognise the contribution of nurses,” Debra says. “And it brought us so much joy to know that the piece was going to be kept in the archive for future generations.”

Yellow textile art on a tree
Some of the wattle installation was relocated to The Coal Loader

An eruption of yellow followed in 2019 with the group’s popular wattle installation.

“The wattle was an incredible burst of colour in Brett Whiteley Place to highlight urban development,” Debra explains. “When there’s less green space, there’s less space for individuals. Spaces need to be kept sustainable and liveable.”

Multi-coloured textile art in North Sydney
The Refuse of Coral Reef in Brett Whiteley Place, North Sydney

The environment was again the focus of the group’s next piece, The Refuse of Coral Reef, which was created to raise awareness of the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. The expertly executed shoal of sea creatures and colourful coral was purposefully placed where the elements and environment would affect and erode it over time, mirroring the vulnerability of the Great Barrier Reef’s fragile eco-system. Pieces were cleverly shaped around plastic items, highlighting how micro-plastics are destroying coral and killing fish by being ingested.

This project came together during Covid and as restrictions lifted between lockdowns, the group would convene in the open air on the rooftop at Greenwood Plaza, each at their own bench to maintain social distancing.

“There was so much joy being back together knitting and creating,” Debra remembers. “It was a frenzy getting all the work done in time though!”

With plans for 2023’s major yarn installation already in the final phases, and locals completely hooked on their art-ivism, there’s no sign of the Stanton knitters casting off any time soon. “Our fan club want to see something bigger and better each time!” Debra says.

When not working on their large scale installations, the group are the local branch of the Wrap With Love charity, which collects warm wraps made by local knitting groups from all over Australia. The items are then sent to those in need both here and overseas.

Group of women standing in front of multi-coloured textile art in North Sydney
The North Sydney Yarnarchists with former North Sydney mayor, Jilly Gibson (holding the knitted turtle)

“The group produces a monumental number of blankets for Wrap With Love,” Debra says.

And they are always welcoming new members to join their efforts, with fortnightly meetings at Stanton Library on the first and third Tuesday of each month from 2-4pm.

If you’re not a knitter or a crocheter, don’t worry. You soon will be if these ladies have anything to do with it. “Everyone’s sensationally brilliant,’ Debra says. “Some of the members have been knitting for decades and are so generous with their knowledge. There’s a recognition of everyone’s work and achievements, however big or small.”

Debra admits that becoming a yarnarchist has challenged her own preconceptions.

“At the beginning, I thought members in their 90s might not be interested in the creative stuff,” she says. “But I made a huge mistake! These ladies make the most beautiful, technically brilliant pieces and it made me realise, if I’m making that preconception, how many others are too?”

“Where the world can sometimes forget about women over a certain age, we’re here saying we’re part of this community and we’re making a big statement. It’s always an empowering and affirming moment when you see the impact of the finished pieces and can think ‘I’ve left my mark here.’”


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