Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Putting a Shawl on a Bell Tower

 Last year two local women schemed up an extraordinary idea.. Their quirky and very original idea was to envelope one of the oldest, grayest bell towers in France in a glorious rainbow of colors. They were determined to create a big buzz for 2020’s annual fundraiser, a national event called The Telethon. Brantome’s event was going to be a charity walk.

The premise was pretty basic, knit hundreds of scarves, stitch them together to make one big shawl, and then hang the shawl from the 11th century bell tower of Brantome. Well, basic in a kind of heroic sense. This was to be a visual display of sharing, hope, and determination. They had no idea how much determination it was going to take. They also had no idea how far flung throughout all of France the desire to participate would spread. But, this was March of 2021 and as the lead organizer said, “Above all we have to believe. We have need of this type of challenge, especially at this moment, to get ourselves out of this covid morass.”

The Telethon was not until the first weekend in December so there was plenty of time to get things done. Or was there? With no exact plan they rolled out the threads for the project one determined step at a time. 

One of the organizers, the director of the local retirement home, knew just where to find a lot of willing knitters. These were folks confined to home. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to participate in the fundraising walk. But they were more than ready to help out by contributing with their hands.

Now those hands needed supplies. This rainbow of joy was going to require a lot of yarn. Six specific colors to match the colors of the Telethon. Yarn and other supplies were going to require money. The organizers doggedly knocked on doors asking for money - it wasn’t until around the first of June that a sponsor was found to pay for the 2880 skeins of colorful wool. Several months lost, but in their determined minds the project was still do-able.

And they were off! The clacking of knitting needles could be heard throughout the region. Word got out to other retirement homes and this crazy idea caught on like wildfire. By early September 90 retirement homes from almost every region of France had contributed scarves. Five hundred seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-year-olds and even one lady of 100 participated. Each product of their labors of joy, sharing and solidarity measured 25 cm wide and 1.5 meters long.

With a tiny office space stacked to it’s limit it was time to find room to spread out so the individual scarves could be stitched together - all 1200 of them! This time the organizers went knocking on doors looking for a work space. Word got around and someone offered the long and empty village hall in St Crepin. It was late October and the knitting changed to stitching.  Day after day they met, sewing all those individual scarves into the one long, long, long shawl.  By early December they had before them one great big colorful mass of scarf.

While that group stitched another one was meeting with the region’s Climbing Rescue Team to coordinate how to get the 150 kilos (about 300 lbs. !) of shawl onto the shoulders of the bell tower. The plan was to roll the knitting onto a spool, attach ropes to the corners, and with the aid of a motorized wench, climbers in the bell tower would pull the shawl up. Voila! What could be more straightforward?

Meticulously rolling up the slithery knitting, three meters wide and sixty meters long, took hours of patience. They were determined there be no snags or hitches for the climbers.

The big day was the Wednesday just before the Saturday Telethon. The operation was set for 8h30.

In an ideal world, that Wednesday morning would be bright and sunny, but as I set off it was drizzling, dark and chilly. I arrived at the appointed hour, but all I saw was a mysterious plastic-wrapped log sitting quietly in the church courtyard and three emergency trucks parked nearby. There was not a person to be seen. I went over to the cafe across the bridge and sat where I could keep an eye on things. At 9:15 there was still no sign of anyone. I was contemplating going home, but I was determined to see how this all spooled out. Finally two women came marching along followed by a gang of men clad in clanking, heavy, red jackets. I overheard a brief “here we go” and the men sprang into action.  The sides of the trucks opened to reveal spools of organized rope and climbing gear. It was now 10:00. The drizzle was turning into steady rain.

Ropes were unspooled, climbers climbed the 120 steps of the bell tower, shouts went back and forth from the ground crew to the tower crew and with the climbers secured in the position ropes began to fly from the high arches of the tower. … it was now 11:00.

The go ahead was given for the ladies to cut the protective plastic off their treasure. What they revealed was amazing. Bright colors glowed in the grayness. Oohs and ahhs escaped from the small crowd that was gathering. The moment had come to dress the bell tower in bright warm colors. A demonstration of how determination and good will can create something bigger than the individual parts. 

Heavy carabiners were attached to one corner of the knitting.  There was yelling and walkie-talkies chirping and the groan of a powerful wench. The shawl and the ropes started ascending. The little crowd let out a happy cheer. But, then there was a catch, a hesitation and everything dropped. The crowd groaned. The long wool shawl puddled at the foot of the bell tower. There was some fiddling with the hooks and ropes, some more yelling back and forth. The wench started up and again the long colorful serpent was slithering it’s way up the side of the bell tower. Everyone was holding their breath. Again without warning the colors melted down and pooled at the foot of the tower. The knitting could not pull up its own weight. To make matters worse the shawl was getting heavier from the steady rain soaking into the wool.

At 12:00 the bells were going to start ringing and anyone up there was going to have to scurry down before that happened. There had to be a way to get this done. It might mean coming up with a compromise, but if that is what it takes that’s what we’ll do. Let’s just get to it. It was 11:45 when the ladies started pulling out scissors.

To decease the weight they had decided to cut the shawl in half, but there was still the problem that the stitching was not strong enough. Word had spread to the nearby shops that things were not going according to plan. The butcher contributed extra strong “thread” used for sausages and someone else offered fine metal wire. Busy hands restitched while the mid-day bells tolled. By now the sun had come out and quite a crowd had gathered to cheer on the workers. This time when the men in the tower lifted the two halves of the shawl they rose up smoothly and fell into place without a hitch.

There were tears and cheers of joy when all of the corners were secured and the gray bell tower was snuggled into an elegant, glorious rainbow of colors and joy. 

The fundraiser was a grand success. Hundreds of people from throughout the region came to Brantome to participate in the walk. They raised 11,000 euros. For a week the shawl gleamed in the bright winter sun. When it was taken down the lovingly made scarves were sent to charitable organizations throughout France. 

What had started as a somewhat hare-brained idea had been pulled off with a few hitches and a lot of determination and love.