Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2016 (535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery covered its walls with wool scarves last November after a call was sent out to knitters around the world. The scarves on display were later donated to people in need across the city.
Ruth Marshall, a New York-based textile artist, knits realistic and highly detailed big-cat "pelts" that can open conversations about illegal wildlife trade and endangered species.
Yarn bombing (a.k.a. yarn graffiti and guerrilla knitting) events result in everything from phone booths to abandoned lots to parking meters covered in knitted or crocheted pieces.
Some knitters are downloading patterns of human organs, such as gallbladders, heart valves and brains, then hang the hand-knitted results from trees around different cities or use them to teach anatomy.
These woolly acts are all examples of "craftivism" or "craft activism," whose practitioners deliver large-scale political and public art statements with knitted and crocheted pieces.
"Knitting has gone through an evolution, an expansion of the capabilities of what it can be. We are making that huge leap from ‘Knitting is something I wear’ to ‘Knitting is something I use to express,’ " Marshall said in an interview.
Betsy Greer, a writer based in Durham, N.C., posted a definition of craftivism on her blog, craftivism.com.
"Each time you participate in crafting, you are making a difference, whether it’s fighting against useless materialism or making items for charity or something betwixt and between," she wrote.
Knitting has become a call to action. In the case of Marianne Jorgensen, it was a stitched pink blanket she used in 2006 to cover a tank, her protest against Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq War. In the United Kingdom, Wool Against Weapons draped a long scarf between two bomb factories.
"We need you to knit us a balaclava," London photographic artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin said on social media, referring to their London exhibit focusing on a new form of surveillance technology.
"We call on you to knit balaclavas, in any form, colour or shape as long as they resemble a balaclava. These are in fact the only devices that elude or fool this new technology."
Others just want to add touches of handmade to our overly mechanized world by "beautifying" public spaces — wool bombers tend to focus on drab urban landscapes, abandoned buildings or lots.
What value is there to yarn bombing? Answers about craftivism are no less woolly than the answer to "What’s the value of graffiti?" But it’s a great discussion. Every knitted grenade underlines how the medium is the message. If wool bombers are radicals, they are nonetheless a softer, gentler radical. A warm and fuzzy guerrilla artist making nicer graffiti — thoughtful and ecologically minded.
(While the WAG’s scarf-covered walls embraced some strands of craftivism, such as helping those in need, it was a tamer version. Sherri Van Went, a WAG spokeswoman for the event, said the gallery originally wanted to digitally manipulate the facade to look like it had been yarn bombed).
When Brooklyn-based artist London Kaye hung a crochet mural depicting a scene from a Wes Anderson film on the side of a residential building in the trendy Bushwick neighbourhood, the building’s residents were none too happy. Kaye seemed bewildered by their reaction.
"I guess I was just mostly surprised," gothamist.com quoted her as saying, "especially because it’s all made of yarn, and I use yarn as my medium because it’s such a non-destructive piece of the environment, unlike spray paint or regular paint."
Greer’s projects include leaving stitched affirmations such as "You are so beautiful" around public places in cities for people to find.
Craftivists say some of the appeal of knit bombing is it’s a temporary form of disruption, rather than destruction. Generally speaking, knit bombing is not a crime because it doesn’t damage a structure or object.
A tacit understanding of the rules of wool bombing is you’re expected to be a good steward of what you put out in public.
"You should take time to take care of it or take it down," said Greer.
Marshall says using knitting in her "pelt" art was the most effective way to depict the animals in shape and form, but also "the trauma those animals go through when they’re poached."
"The audience has almost always the same reaction. It’s a roller-coaster of emotions," she said. "First, resistance; they’re quite disgusted. Then, immediate acceptance because of the knitted form, which allows for a warm and nurturing aspect."
It’s easier perhaps to use yarn as a subversive art form when knitting is no longer, in our society at least, a necessity.
"I think artists now find knitting to be another way for self-expression. Since they do not need to knit their own socks, for instance, they can use that same knitting time to create larger statements about politics, society and art," said Joanne Seiff, a Winnipeg author of two books on knitting.
There are those who might see a message simply of First World excess in wool bombing. Some brush off craftivism as a fluffy fad — and you might after checking out the website craftster.org, whose manifesto is "No tea cozies without irony" — and take millennials to task for hijacking a craft many people throughout the world still use as a means to clothe themselves.
However, it’s worth noting wool’s subversive identity, or knitting as form of social protest and activism, is far from new. What we’re seeing today in many ways mirrors other turbulent times in history. As fashion historian Tove Hermanson wrote in an essay titled Subversive Knitting on threadforthought.net, "Knitting has a deliciously rich history of political subversion."
Remember Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? She was a fictional representation of the tricoteuses: the knitters who sat next to the guillotine, casually clicking their needles as heads rolled during the slice-happy days of the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. But even as they knit, the tricoteuses were being patriotic to the new regime by stitching coded messages and the names of the beheaded into their work. It was what they could do.
"Historically, knitting was an acceptable way for women to support the cause. Crafts were the only way women could speak out and speak up," Greer said. "The only place they had autonomy and agency was in what they were making."
It follows, then, that knitting gave them a sense of power, and they could also use these traditional skills to attract transgressive attention, Seiff said.
Political acts have weaved their way, so to speak, through the history of knitting. Women were historically rallied to knit during wars to support the troops — a sign of patriotism, as well as, of course, a necessary war contribution. But during the Second World War, the U.K.’s Office of Censorship banned people from mailing knitting patterns in case they contained coded messages.
In one case, knitting was used for code. The Belgian resistance recruited elderly ladies whose windows overlooked railway yards to stitch encoded messages about the trains into their knitting.
The physical setup of cross-stitching and knitting groups create pathways to difficult discussions, Greer said.
"When you’re stitching with people, it’s really easy to get in to deep conversation because you don’t have to look at the other person in the eye," she said. "It’s acceptable to look down at your hands. It’s really common for deeper conversations to start that way."
Some of today’s knitters may also be coming at it from a post-feminist perspective.
"It’s a reclamation of women’s crafts, contentious since the ’80s as anti-feminist," Hermanson wrote.
Stitch ’n Bitch, a term in use since the Second World War to describe women who meet to knit and talk, has evolved in meaning and substance. The expression now tends to encompass groups for whom knitting is an expression of resistance to social and technological change in western society.
Others see knitting from a psychological stance. For all their supreme display of nonchalance, knitting while heads rolled, some would say the Reign of Terror tricoteuses knitted to calm their nerves during their turbulent times. Knitting is said to be very good for relieving anxiety and stress. Some are calling it the new yoga.
Seiff said she sees people use knitting as a tool to stay healthy— "to quit smoking or prevent dementia, depression, or anxiety."
Of course, some of the reason for knitting’s resurgence is simply because it’s enjoyable.
Festivals around the world are growing, such as last October’s Manitoba Fibre Festival, which was attended by more than 1,600 people. So are hipster events such as the WAG’s March 8 Knit Night and massive knit-athons such as the recent Vogue Knit Live in New York’s Times Square — billed as the "ultimate knitting event." The travel section of the New York Times devoted an article to knitting cruises. Ravelry, a database for knitting and crocheting online, has nearly six million users.
It’s definitely crossed the gender line, too, with men taking up knitting like never before. Actor Ryan Gosling starting knitting on the set of a film and has become a fan. The day he learned to knit on set, he told Vanity Fair magazine, "was one of the most relaxing days of my life." Other guys are just content (or not) to let their girlfriends knit them suits, another offshoot of the trend.
Knitting signals reflection. And if it’s a calming pastime, it’s also one with the ability to cause some unravelling.
Karen Burshtein is a Winnipeg writer.