26 May 2023

Canberra's Skywhale hot-air balloons can now get stuffed (but it's knit that easy)

| James Coleman
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The woollen Skywhale. Photos: National Gallery of Australia/Katy Griffis.

Typically, inflated objects and sharp points don’t mix.

But this didn’t phase local knitter Katy Griffis, who has turned Canberra’s iconic Skywhale hot-air balloon into a stuffed woollen toy and is now transforming its ‘husband’, Skywhalepapa, into one too.

It’s not for the faint-hearted – the pattern is detailed step-by-step over nearly 30 pages of mostly photographs, with some written instructions.

Soon after Katy learnt to knit, she discovered a penchant for pop-culture toys. Bob (the minion, not the builder) and Wonder Woman are two of her creations.

Wonder Woman in knitted form

Wonder Woman in knitted form. Photo: Katy Griffis.

“For a long, long time, people kept asking me, ‘Can you make me one?'” she says.

“But there’s only one of me, so I started creating patterns and selling them on Etsy so people could make them for themselves.”

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In October 2020, she received a very specific request.

“One day, I got an email from someone who asked if I accepted commissions for pieces. I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. What did you have in mind?’ And I got an email back and it said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but I’m after a Skywhale’.”

Katy and her husband hail from Sydney originally but moved to Canberra in 2013 for work. This happened to be the same year the Skywhale first ‘cast off’ and took to the skies to celebrate the city’s centenary, so she knew exactly what the person was talking about.

It transpired the person behind the question was none other than Patricia Piccinini, the artist who created the Skywhale.

“She asked if I could make a pattern for Skywhale ahead of the launch of Skywhale’s dad,” Katy says.

Many conversations followed over how to translate the shapes of a hot-air balloon into something that could be crafted with knitting needles and a great deal of patience.

“It’s also Patricia’s intellectual property I’m playing with and that’s deeply personal to artists,” she says.

“There was lots and lots of scribbling, lots and lots of unpicking, and I have a very patient husband, is all I’ll say.”

Skywhale went through four test knits before Katy hit on the final one and made the pattern available to download as a PDF file from the National Gallery of Australia’s website.

The process took eight weeks all up. But for a representation of something that’s a bit of a local eccentric, the knitted Skywhale has gone on to make impressions around the world.

“Someone told me the other day there are several roaming knitting groups around Australia that have made multiple knitted Skywhales as welcome gifts for the towns and cities they travel through, which I think is just magical.”

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The COVID pandemic derailed plans for a knitted Skywhalepapa, but he’s finally scheduled to land on the NGA site in September.

“Excited at the moment is the wrong word. I’m a little bit frustrated because he’s got some odd shapes. But getting through that, there’s a lot of knitting, unpicking, knitting, unpicking.”

Meanwhile, the original Skywhale pattern is “having a bit of a polish”, with an updated knitting pattern coming in the next two weeks.

“A lot of knitters use basic shapes, whereas I quite like to layer things so they look a little bit more intricate,” Katy says.

“Skywhale has a piece sitting just above her back that’s not visible at the end. And it seems to have been a difficult thing for knitters to grasp, so doing a relaunch which will include several videos on how to make specific pieces, so people can see how it all goes together.”

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