• Margaret Knight and Lynn Berry are the women behind the knitted poppies initiative. (Facebook/5000 Poppies)
People all over Australia are knitting poppies for a giant memorial - and it's all thanks to two women.
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

30 Aug 2017 - 3:36 PM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2018 - 11:41 AM

When Lynn Berry and her sister-in-law Margaret Knight started knitting a few poppies to honour their fathers' service in WWII, they had no idea it would lead to them travelling around the world, meeting the Royal Family, and inspiring a nation.

It was 2013 when the ladies had the idea of knitting 120 poppies for their fathers, Wal Beasley (14/32nd Battalion – Australian Imperial Forces) and Stan Knight (Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment – British Army).

For Berry, a fibre and textile artist from Victoria, it was a very personal project to pay tribute to her late dad. 

"He never ever talked about [his war experiences]," Berry tells SBS.

"He came back in tact and married my mum and they had a large family, and he was a family man, really salt-of-the-earth.

"He had a wound on his back that was a bayonet wound. We asked him questions about it and he never wanted to talk about. He just wanted to put it behind him."

Their simple tribute of love proved to be an inspiration to others. When people saw Berry and Knight out having lunch, chatting and making poppies, they became curious, wanting to know what they were doing, and why, and whether they could join in.

Berry and Knight's personal project turned into a community project, as they set a new goal of making 5,000 knitted and crocheted poppies in time for Remembrance Day 2014. They called it 5000 Poppies and the membership started growing. 

"We thought that 5,000 poppies would be a bit of a stretch, but we'd get some help and we'd probably be able to do it," Berry says.

"I don't think we needed to have worried really! We had 5,000 poppies from July to November, so we had 5,000 poppies when we did our official launch, which was on Remembrance Day 2013."

Former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu got involved, and suggested tying the projects to the four years of commemorating the centenary of battles in World War 1, from 2014 to 2018.

And the poppies just kept rolling in.

By the end of 2014 they had 100,000 poppies. In March 2015 they teamed up with landscape designer Phillip Johnson to create a stunning tribute garden at the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show.

Then on Anzac Day 2015, they covered the steps of Melbourne's Federation Square with a huge carpet of 257,000 knitted poppies. 

"The display that we put together for that was quite spectacular," says Berry. "It was mind-boggling." 

From there, they took their mountain of poppy creations to England to set up an installation at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Thousands of people flocked to see more than 300,000 (2,000 square metres) handcrafted poppies in the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital.

Among them were the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Rupert Murdoch and wife Jerry Hall, and the future UK Prime Minister Teresa May.

"The Queen was extremely gracious. She was just very down to earth, loved it, thought it was wonderful,"Berry says.

"The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Wills and Kate, they were amazing and they were really interested. They got down and looked at all the poppies with dedications, and they read them all and wanted to know the stories behind them."

From there, Berry and Knight went to France for the centenary of the Battle of Fromelles, and planted 26,000 poppies on stems in a field. "That was just the most beautiful week I've ever spent, I think I cried every day," Berry recalls.

For Anzac Day 2018 they have created some small installations - one in Sydney at the Westfield Miranda Shopping Centre, and another at the Melbourne Museum's WWI Love and Sorrow exhibition - as they work towards their final big project: 62,000 poppies on stems in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial for Remembrance Day 2018.

"What we're doing at the War Memorial is recreating a field of poppies, so it will be like walking through those fields of Flanders poppies that you see in Europe, and incredibly evocative," says Berry.

"People will be able to walk through it. You'll be able to immerse yourself in it, which will be beautiful."

Berry is quick to point out, the "mammoth" undertaking is the work of many thousands of people, not just herself and Knight.

"I'm just one person. I've got a team of 20, and there are 50,000 people and more than have been involved in pulling this whole project together. And everybody has their story, which is why they're involved, and that's what makes it so special," she says.

But it has been a labour of love for Berry, who gave up her job in marketing and public relations four years ago to work unpaid on these projects.

"I actually think this is my life's work for the moment, and I'm really okay with it," she says. 

These days she can make a simple knitted poppy in under 10 minutes, and estimates she's made two or three thousand of the red flowers to date. 

One pair of sisters in their group have made a staggering 5,000 between them.

Berry says the concept has connected with so many people because anyone can knit a poppy, and she's encouraging everyone to get involved.

"I think it's a time-honored skill anyway, and it has some resonance with Australia's war activity anyway," Berry says.

"People remember their grannies knitting balaclavas, and socks and undies in wool so it kept the soldiers warm while they were in the trenches.

"I also think it's a very very simple way of doing something that has so much meaning. It's got so much heart, it's got no political agenda, it's a bit of fun, if you join a group there's a lot of camaraderie... and then there's the overall finish. You can say, I was part of that."

It has grown from a small, personal project, to a huge, nation-wide effort, and his inspired similar poppy knitting groups in the UK, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Despite growing much bigger than she ever expected, the project is still very personal for Berry.

"It was our lovely little project, now it's a lovely big project," she says.

"Dad would be proud because it's just been such a success, and he would love it for all the people that we're honouring, but he would be very bemused.

"He would say, 'what do you mean you're knitting? What does that mean, love?'.

"He'd be very proud that it started with him, and he would be quite overwhelmed I think by what's happened as a result of that."

If you want to find out more about the 5000 Poppies project, or download a poppy pattern, visit the project website

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