What is Yarn Bombing ?
Yarn bombing, yarnstorming, guerrilla knitting or crocheting, urban knitting or crocheting, graffiti knitting or crocheting – these are all names for a relatively new counterpoint in street art. Showing up on trees, lamp posts, monuments, benches, and other elements of everyday cityscape, the practice is a new artistic form that has been invading our streets in brilliant colors, bringing street art and craft together. As just one example of a range of new and creative forms of activism, artists have been using colorful displays of knitted or crochet yarn rather than paint to cover a vast range of objects in public space. It seems that wool and crafts bring about qualities such as authenticity, or at least a longing, a desire to relate to our humanness, to ourselves and others, on deeper and more genuine level. Sentimental in a way that it seems to relate to our emotions first, yarn bombing is tactile in nature, connoting familiarity, intimacy, immediacy, or closeness. But just as any other street art practice, it can vary greatly in style, aesthetics, and meaning.
Knitting and Crocheting as Art
As textiles became available to a large portion of society in the 19th century due to a change of its production and consumption, various textile and fiber arts and crafts such as sewing, weaving, embroidery or quilting, penetrated average households as activities mainly reserved for women. As often part-time and casual activities done at home, these crafts were identified with domesticity and women’s creativity and thus devalued and described as non-productive. Demoted to “feminine crafts”, these practices became simply a characteristic of an attractive and thrifty wife. With the rise of the Feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, textiles and fiber began to be reintroduced into “high art”. The movement has reclaimed this realm to include these artistic practices that had traditionally been relegated to the lower status of “women’s work”. The Judy Chicago’s installation Dinner Party from 1979 was one of the first acclaimed art pieces that included needlework and fabrics and it functioned as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization. Chicago and other artists such as Anni Albers, Faith Ringgold, Olga de Amaral, or Alighiero e Boetti, started bringing textiles and fibers into new contexts and exploring social and conceptual implications of their usage, paving the way for generations of textile and fiber artists to come.
The History of Yarn Bombing
The complete history of yarn bombing is lost in the mists of time and has been attributed to several different people. It is believed that the practice has first originated in the United States when Texas knitters tried to find a creative way to use their leftover and unfinished knitting projects, creating a form of “inoffensive graffiti”. Yet, the start of the contemporary movement is often attributed to Magda Sayeg from Houston who has coined the term after first covering the door handle of her boutique with a custom-made cozy in 2005. It attracted attention from passersby, inspiring Sayeg to venture further with the idea of covering objects with yarn. She became curious about the idea of enhancing the ordinary, the mundane, even the ugly, and not taking away its identity or its functionality, but just giving it a well-tailored suit out of knitting. First starting with small “yarn bombs” such as sign poles and fire hydrants in her hometown, she has soon ventured into transforming urban landscapes into her own playground, ultimately leading her to establish the yarn bombing crew, Knitta Please. As she explains, “we still crave and desire something that’s relatable”.
While Sayeg’s foray into yarn bombing was somewhat accidental, she spurred on a global community of yarn bombers, with yarn bombing crews founded across Europe, North America and Australia. One of the first yarn bombing collectives was Knit the City from London founded by Lauren O’Farell who has moved the concept from simple “cozies” to the “stitched story”. O’Farell was also the first to introduce the term “yarnstorming”.
Magda Sayeg on Yarn Bombing for TED
The Purpose of Yarn Bombing
Initially, yarn bombing was almost exclusively about reclaiming and personalizing sterile public places and giving them a personal touch. Having a need to create something fun, unexpected and beautiful, these artists used yarn to create warmth and comfort inside the urban environment that was often perceived cold, depressing and unfriendly. By doing so, they break the routine of the passers-by, making them stop for a moment to admire the work or even criticize it. Also, by yarn bombing an ordinary and usually neglected object, they draw attention to it, telling a certain story or a joke. Over time, the art form has developed in a variety of ways through the practice of collectives and artists working worldwide, each with their own agendas and aesthetics. Many yarn bombers see it as an act of subversion on a number of levels. While some tend to subvert norms about knitting and how it should be employed and enjoyed, others are about subverting ideas about femininity and domesticity by taking a homemaker medium into the society. On the other hand, others are drawn to the peaceful protest aspect of yarn bombing, often rallying around activist ideals such as feminism, politics or anti-consumerist sentiments in their installation activities. Knitting protests can attract and speak to a different demographic than placards and public marches, as creative approaches help alleviate the anxiety people are feeling without endangering them.
Contemporary yarn bombers are redefining the tradition of knit and crochet, bringing yarn out of the house and into the world. Reinventing our relationship with this colorful tradition, they are making a creative stance while building one of contemporary art’s hottest trends. Besides Magda Sayeg, one of the most well-known artists working in this field is Agata Oleksiak, also known as Olek. Her work explores sexuality, feminist ideals and the evolution of communication through colors, conceptual exploration and meticulous detail. She constantly pushes boundaries between fashion, art, craft and public art, fluidly combining the sculptural and the fanciful. Employing the traditional technique of crocheting, she expresses everyday occurrences, inspirations and hopes to create a metaphor for the complexity and interconnectedness of our body and psychological processes. Founding one of the most famous yarn bombing collectives Knit the City, Lauren O’Farrell is best known for playing a major part in the beginnings of the UK graffiti knitting street art scene. Working under the moniker Deadly Knitshade, she has also created the Stitch London craft community. She is attributed with creating the “stitched story” style of graffiti knitting, using amigurumi and handmade objects to create themed artwork rather than the traditional cozy. Speaking about their work, the members of her collective state “it takes a woolly hold on forgotten public spaces and gives them a soul […] treats the whole world as an art gallery […] encourages others to bring their own city to life in ways only they can imagine.“ London Kaye is another street and crochet artist who uses yarn as her medium aiming to change appearance of cities and landscapes around the world. Her work ranges from whimsical to subversive. “I love that I’m doing something that’s so clearly a feminine craft, and putting it out there on the street with anybody else who’s doing it”, she explains. “Street art’s definitely done by mainly men. And I like to be able to bring that female perspective into the whole thing.”  Although yarnbomb installations are typically found in urban areas, Stephen Duneier, aka Yarnbomber, is the first to introduce it to the wilderness with numerous permitted projects in Los Padres National Forest beginning in 2012. An avid outdoorsman on a mission to draw people back to nature, Yarnbomber creates large-scale installation art in the mountains of Santa Barbara, California. Each of his projects exists for a maximum of 9 days before disappearing. One of his most famous works is the Lizard’s Mouth Yarnbomb from 2014 when he wrapped 18 of the boulders 3,000 feet above Santa Barbara in handmade fiber art. One of the biggest community-led yarn bombing project was Knit the Bridge from 2013, an outreach project by Fiberart International. The grassroots project brought many diverse communities of Pittsburg and Southwestern Pennsylvania together to create a large-scale, aesthetically stunning, fiberarts installation on the Andy Warhol Bridge in Pittsburgh. Over a thousand of knitters worked together to yarn bomb the entire bridge with more than 600 colorful blankets, covering the most of its metal structure.
The Questions on Ethics
Despite its popularity, this genre of street art found much criticism among other artists as well as art fans in general. It has been widely derided as a hipster fad or dismissed as cutesy. On the other hand, yarn bombing has spurred ethical controversies more than once. Olek has recently wrapped pieces in Cancun’s Underwater Museum with her signature camo-graffiti crochet in a campaign to “save our seas”. Yet, Mexican authorities and the Underwater Museum were looking to press charges as the artist had tampered with the museum’s art without permission and damaged sea life growing on the statues in a protected wildlife area in the process of creating her uninvited installation. This case has again brought up questions about the values surrounding the art and practice of graffiti knitting. Indeed, yarn bombing can be damaging in some situations. Since the yarn doesn’t stick to the surface like spray paint, it would eventually be cut away in the best case, or left to rot in the worst. Trees are often what people are concerned with. Some experts argue that the practice can harm trees growth or attract unwanted insects on it. If the artwork is left up to chance and weather, there is a possibility it can temper with a natural habitat, or pollute it at least. Another issue that has been raised regarding yarn bombing is using yarn for what some may call useless projects. Some feel that this copious amount of yarn could be used for other things, such as making clothes for those in need, for example. As one Twitter user put it, “the first time I saw yarn-bombing, I saw people sleeping under trees that were better dressed than they were.”
The Awareness and Responsibility
There’s no question that the needle arts are having a moment. This year also saw the release of the critically acclaimed documentary Yarn about international yarn bombers. The film weaves together wool graffiti artists, circus performers, and structural designers into a visually-striking look at these creative women. In addition, The Museum of Arts and Design in New York is currently exhibiting an elaborate exhibition titled Crochet Coral Reef. It celebrates 10 years of an ongoing project by sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim and their Los Angeles–based organization, the Institute For Figuring. Mixing crocheted yarn with plastic trash, the work fuses mathematics, marine biology, feminist art practices, and craft to produce large-scale coralline landscapes, both beautiful and blighted. At once figurative, collaborative, worldly, and dispersed, the exhibition offers a tender response to the dual calamities facing marine life: climate change and plastic trash.
In the midst of the growing popularity of the medium and practice, yarn bombers should maintain an awareness of the environment they are working in. In order to do as little damage as possible, they should fix their works to a surface that cannot be altered and affected. They should do the research on the site they are planning to cover in order not to destroy the animal habitat. Since the work invades a public space, they should also take a responsibility for it, making sure their statement meets their personal ethics. Editors’ Tip: Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit GraffitiYarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti is the definitive guidebook to covert textile street art. This full-color DIY book features twenty kick-ass patterns that range from hanging shoes and knitted picture frames to balaclavas and gauntlets, teaching readers how to create fuzzy adornments for lonely street furniture. Along the way, it provides tips on how to be as stealthy as a ninja, demonstrates how to orchestrate a large-scale textile project, and offers revealing information necessary to design your own yarn graffiti tags. The book also includes interviews with members of the international community of textile artists and yarn bombers, and provides resources to help readers join the movement; it’s also chock full of beautiful photographs and easy step-by-step instructions for knit and crochet installations and garments.
- Harris, S. (2016) What is Yarn Bombing? Felt Magnet
- McGovern, A. (2014) Knit one, purl one: the mysteries of yarn bombing unraveled. The Conversation
- Anonymous. (2017) “Yarn bomber” hopes to bring new perspective to street art. CBS News
- Prain, L. (2014) On Yarn Bombing and Ethics. Leanne Prain
- Nagan, R.L. (2014) ‘Yarn Bombing’ Is The New Graffiti, But Is That OK? Odyssey
- Anonymous. (2016) Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS. Museum of Arts and Design.
Featured image: Yarn Bombing, via pinterest.com; Lizards Mouth Yarnbomb by Stephen Duneier. All images for illustrative purposes only.