The Warm Embrace Project

“Come From Away” Comes Home

Susan Lightstone Apr 17, 2024 - 8 min read

The Warm Embrace Project  Primary Image

Come From Away runs from June 28 to September 1, 2024, at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre. Photo by Chris Crockwell

In May 2023, more than 2,200 knitted and crocheted squares began arriving at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. The squares came from volunteer crafters around the province and a few from beyond its borders. The deliveries were the culmination of the Warm Embrace Project, and all were set to become an integral part of the set design of the inaugural staging of the hit musical Come From Away, in the place where 38 commercial planes unexpectedly landed at Gander International Airport on September 11, 2001.

That event—and the “warm embrace” of the more than 6,500 passengers and crew by the people of Gander—form the narrative of Come From Away. On that day, ordinary citizens of the town and its environs (population 12,000) welcomed the “plane people” into their homes, churches, and schools, offering comfort, food, and beds. The plane people stayed for up to five days in the province. Many relationships built during that short stay have lasted since.

Come From Away cast on opening night. Photo by Daniel Malen

While the musical has had record-breaking runs around the world, 2023 was the first time it landed in Newfoundland. Stage and costume designer Shawn Kerwin was recruited as the set designer for the Gander production. She met the director, Jillian Keiley, a Newfoundlander and Labradorian, in Gander in November 2022, with the musical set to open on July 7, 2023. Time was of the essence for the set design the two envisioned. Planning began with a wisp of an idea combining three elements: an airport runway, a warm bed, and, finally, a single handknitted dishcloth. The reason for the runway and warm bed is pretty obvious. But the dishcloth? Knitting or crocheting small woolen squares into practical, durable, and warm blankets is a long-held tradition in Newfoundland, where winters are cold, snowy, and long, particularly in isolated outports. Kerwin and Keiley saw a way to make that swooping runway inviting and soft by covering it with thousands of woolen squares. Keiley came up with the name “warm embrace.” Shawn came up with the idea of the “memory squares community project” as a way to engage and involve the many Newfoundlanders who still had vivid memories and thousands of stories of the days following 9/11.

Not only would the community project give Newfoundlanders a chance to tell their stories through the squares they would make—and hundreds of written stories came along with the squares—but the project also built on the rich Newfoundland tradition of working with wool, cooperatively, charitably, and generously. As just one example, more than a century ago Newfoundlanders established an organization to pay the salaries of public health nurses in outport communities. They did it by selling handknitted garments made in homes around the province. That nonprofit organization, the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA), continues to this day with some 175 knitters and weavers contributing their wares.

Kerwin immediately set parameters for the project. She created a palette of colors for the wool: Each square could combine four colors, light, mid, “pop,” and dark, with the pop colors (e.g., scarlet, orange, magenta) accounting for 20 to 25 percent of the square. She defined the sizes of the squares (6 and 12 inches) and instructed crafters to bring their knitting needles and crochet hooks to the communal gatherings. Other than that, crafters were on their own to tell stories directly related to their own experiences: a memory of a person or event, a tribute to someone lost on that terrible morning, a glimpse of the island itself. Wool was provided free of charge to anyone who wished to make squares. Even this element of the project had a long tradition associated with it. The wool came from Canada’s oldest operating woolen mill, Briggs & Little, located in the neighboring province of New Brunswick.

Mabel Miller worked the colors of the Newfoundland tartan into her square. Photo by Abby Moss, Adventure Central Newfoundland

Boots-on-the-ground support for the project was supplied by two Ganderites, designer Jessica Waterman and Abby Moss, a social media coordinator for the province’s tourism industry. They took on the task of organizing the Warm Embrace parties, beginning with a test party in Gander in March 2023. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” recalls Kerwin. They weren’t sure they could pull the plan off in time for the opening of the musical. But the project took off. Several other Warm Embrace parties materialized in arts and cultural centers in small communities around Gander and, then, word of mouth generated a groundswell.

Karen Pond was visiting her mother in Lewisporte, Newfoundland, and was inspired by how quickly a day can change. Photo by Abby Moss, Adventure Central Newfoundland

People started doing their own things, individuals began requesting wool, and squares began arriving from all corners of the province—“and there were a lot of them,” says Kerwin. “The number of people who wanted to be a part of the project was magical,” Waterman says. “We realized that many of them had a story to tell, and this was a valuable outlet for them.”

When Kerwin began unpacking all the squares, she was “blown away. There were squares everywhere!” she recalls. “And the stories were so moving.” Some of the designs were particular to Newfoundland—icebergs and puffins, for example. Others were of the burning Twin Towers in New York City. Many were simply traditional granny squares with poignant stories attached. For Kerwin, the squares became part of the storytelling of the set design. Two squares—one depicting a map of Newfoundland, the other an American flag—formed the anchor of her design on the runway, which formed the backdrop of the set. So many squares arrived that Kerwin was also able to cover the walls of the theater.

Christine LeGrow used colors to represent different aspects of the day. Photo by Abby Moss, Adventure Central Newfoundland

The inaugural 2023 run in Gander was a sold-out success, with theatergoers coming from all corners of Newfoundland and the world. The cast, band, and crew get to do it all over again this summer amid the thousands of squares repeated across the stage and theater. Come From Away runs from June 28 to September 1, 2024, at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre.

Susan Lightstone is a lawyer by training and a writer by calling. Childhood summers spent quilting with her grandmother grew into a lifelong passion for needlework of all kinds. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.