When in times of fear, danger and tragedy, a little comfort can go a long way. That’s the thinking behind the Izzy Dolls – small knitted figures that have become a symbol of peace for children enduring the impact and aftermath of war, as well as natural disasters, around the world.
For Shirley O’Connell, a keen knitter herself, it was a campaign she was keen to get involved with, and she has been organising efforts in Canada since 2004.
“I was watching the news broadcast the evening of 26 December 2004, when the reporter started talking about the tsunami that had hit Indonesia and surrounding countries,” she remembers. “The devastation was horrible and they showed pictures of people trying to find anything familiar and looking for loved ones. The shock on the faces of children brought me to tears and I thought, ‘If only they had something to hug for comfort.’”
In the same moment, Shirley recalled hearing about a mother in Canada who knitted little dolls in memory of her son, for children who were the victims of war.
“I thought if these little dolls could bring comfort to the children of war, couldn’t they also bring comfort to children suffering because of natural disasters?”
The mother’s son was Master Corporal Mark Isfeld, otherwise known as Izzy.
Mark’s idea for the dolls came about when, during his first peace-keeping mission to Croatia, Mark noticed a doll lying on a pile of rubble from a bombed house, and thought of the child who had lost it. His mother Carol knitted some small dolls, and Mark distributed them to the children he met while on missions across the world. Later, while on a subsequent tour, Mark was killed by a mine. His unit named the dolls ‘Izzy’ in his honour, and continued to distribute them.
“In January 2005 I was able to make contact by telephone with Mark’s mother, Carol, and asked her permission to participate in this project and invite others to join in also,” says Shirley.
As a soldier and humanitarian, Mark had seen the difference the dolls could make to the children who received them.
With this in mind, Shirley was keen to see at least some of their knitted efforts go to the Syrian refugee children pouring into Canada.
“Many have arrived with only the clothes on their backs, and have experienced and witnessed a life of fear, destruction and possibly death, along with the upheaval and uncertainty of what the future holds for them,” she says. “The Izzy Dolls are only six inches in height, so that children can easily carry them, tuck them in their pockets and hug them for comfort whenever they are afraid or feel lonely. Every stitch of the dolls was made with love and I believe that children instinctively sense that the dolls were made by people who care about them.”
The basic Izzy Doll is made simply with stocking stitch. “You knit a rectangle with tapering at the top for the head. Then knit one row, purl the next row – repeat.”
The doll is sewn together using matching yarn and then lightly stuffed. “More advanced knitters add hats, and decorate with various stitches, use yarn that looks like hair, add ribbons, belts, and so on, but we ask knitters not to use any hard items such as buttons or beads that could cause injury, and ask that only soft yarn be used.”
You can read more of Shirley’s story in Simply Knitting issue 157, which is available as a digital download.