For Jayna Zweiman, the Pussyhat Project was always going to be tough to top. With the global women’s march on January 21st, the ubiquitous hand-knit pink hat achieved unique cultural significance and has since been featured on the cover of Time Magazine, acquired by the V&A Museum in London and adorned the heads of many a celebrity. Hillary Clinton recently confirmed that she has one. But for Zweiman, the project’s runaway success was proof that her work had just started. Enter Zweiman’s second act, Welcome Blanket, the subject of a new exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.
While similar to Pussyhat in its grassroots approach, Welcome Blanket tackles a different issue: immigration. Even as President Trump was urging us to “build a wall,” the Los Angeles-based Zweiman was doing a little math. She calculated how many miles of yarn it would take to run along the proposed boundary between the United States and Mexico. Rather than associating the almost 2,000 miles with a concrete barrier, she felt it could instead be used as a guideline in the creation of soft, warm blankets for refugees starting anew in this country. The Welcome Blanket is both a symbol of protest, as well as a practical necessity for those who arrive here with few possessions.
“After the travel ban was proposed, I kept thinking about immigrants at the airport,” Zweiman said. “When my grandparents arrived in the United States, they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty. It was a joyful moment. But today’s refugees land at LAX. No one is there to help or welcome them. It’s important that these people know that they are wanted and that they are part of the fabric of our society.”
Zweiman and her team created a pattern, then reached out over social media to the Pussyhat network of thousands of dedicated knitters, quilters and crocheters. They were instructed to come up with a 40x40 inch blanket along a note of welcome that includes the knitter’s own family immigration story. These were then sent to the Smart Museum where they are being cataloged and exhibited until December 17th. After the exhibit closes, the blankets will be distributed to immigrants through partner resettlement organizations.
Beyond the blankets themselves that are rapidly filling the stark white museum walls with various blasts of color and zany patterns, the Project is designed as a means to encourage dialogue. Programming and conversations on human rights are planned for the fall. Local Chicagoans are even encouraged to drop in to the museum, where they have extra supplies on hand, and contribute. There are virtual versions of the exhibit on Instagram, Twitter and FaceBook.
“My dream is that every family arriving here is greeted with a Welcome Blanket,” Zweiman says. “Our country is based on ideals to create a more perfect union. So many people are giving whatever they can to try and achieve that. I can give this.”