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Knit one, purl one: the mysteries of yarn bombing unravelled

Who exactly is behind the knitted bike rack cover that you walk past at the local park? And what is it that drives someone to cover a tree with intricately knitted creations? Yarn bombing – the practice…

Who yarn bombed these trees? There are many reasons knitters take their work to the streets. jenniferworthen, CC BY-NC-ND

Who exactly is behind the knitted bike rack cover that you walk past at the local park? And what is it that drives someone to cover a tree with intricately knitted creations?

Yarn bombing – the practice of using knitted or crochet yarn to cover (typically public) objects – is just one example of a range of new and creative forms of activism, as explored by Winnifred Louis and Emma Thomson in their recent Conversation article on protest in the 21st century.

I have conducted a series of interviews with yarn bombers in Australia and overseas – and I have been able to unravel some of the mysteries of the yarn bombers. Who are they and what it is that compels them to take their knitting public?

Yarn bombers take to the streets

Yarn bombing installation in Melbourne. Alyce McGovern

The concept of yarn bombing is thought to have originated in the United States in 2005 when Texan shop owner, Magda Sayeg, unhappy with the bland landscape around her, decided on a whim to knit up a doorknob cosy for the shop. It attracted attention from passersby, inspiring Sayeg to venture further with the idea of covering objects with yarn, ultimately leading her to establish the yarn bombing crew, Knitta Please.

While Sayeg’s foray into yarn bombing was accidental, she spurred on a global community of yarn bombers, with yarn bombing crews founded across Europe, North America and Australasia.

Research on yarn bombers reveals that they span a range of demographic profiles.

While women constitute the majority of yarn bombers, it’s not unusual for men to get involved too. Yarn bombing is typically carried out by those in their 20s and 30s – but people in their 60s and beyond can also be found getting in on the act. One of the most active groups in Australia is Knitting Nannas Against Gas.

From my own research I have found there are a range of reasons why people get involved in yarn bombing, including: subversion, protest and art.

Subversion

‘Yarn Corner’ yarn bombing installation, City Square, Melbourne. Alyce McGovern

Yarn bombers get a kick from participating in something a little bit rebellious; and this subversion occurs on a number of levels.

They may be subverting norms about knitting and how it should be employed and enjoyed. Equally, yarn bombers may be about subverting ideals of the feminine and women as homemakers. They may even be seeking to subvert ideas about the space in which yarn bombing installations occur. As one Australian interviewee in her 50s told me:

[Women] use a very homemaker medium to go out in society, their society, their local area usually where they live and leave these craftworks around … they’re actually going out and doing something altogether very different and they’re attracted by the naughtiness of it and that’s interesting – the attraction that that has … it’s a safe way for women to be naughty because we’re not supposed to be naughty.

The notion of risk also plays a part in the excitement of the act. Another interviewee explained the feelings that were evoked when she first began yarn bombing:

I live in a country town, and word gets out about those sorts of things and there is a high chance of being seen by somebody … I don’t know … I thought someone might stop and go, “Hang on a minute, what do you think you’re doing? Aren’t you a respectable member of society?”

Protest

Many yarn bombers are drawn to the peaceful protest aspect of yarn bombing. Some crews have been known to rally around activist ideals in their installation activities.

Twilight Taggers

These forms of protest primarily centre on feminist ideals, political statements, or anti-consumerist sentiments.

One interviewee I spoke with felt that it was important for yarn bombers to have a message in their actions. She undertook her first project as part of the 350.org campaign for climate change awareness. More recently, such ideals have been evident in protests from the Knit Your Revolt Tricycle gang against Queensland’s anti-bikie legislation.

Another young Australian interviewee saw yarn bombing as a way for feminists to voice their opinions:

Some of the things that I wanted to do are very much feminist stuff as well. I know there’s a group of felters who make felt cervixes … And I actually wanted to do that as a campaign against sexual violence. Because if you think about the amount of people who draw penises and nobody blinks an eyelid. But a nice little knitted vagina …

BaboMike

By far biggest drawcard for yarn bombers, however, is the opportunity to beautify public spaces. A number of yarn bombers I spoke with wanted to reclaim sterile urban environments and give them a personal touch. One 30-something female interviewee from Canada stated:

Most of my yarn bombs are about beautification or just adding a little bit of colour to a space.

In this way, yarn bombers see what they do as a “good” form of street art. a female yarn bomber from Australia told me:

I mainly do it to beautify an area, especially if there is a lot of graffiti, I like to show that not all “tagging” is bad.

Ultimately, the common thread that connects the yarn bombers I have spoken to is that they believe the activity serves a broader purpose by sharing messages – political or otherwise – with the community.

As they say, this ain’t your grandma’s knitting!

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Jon Cassar

    ex-teacher

    Instinctively I kind of knew there would be some kind of 'protest' behind this activity. It's harmless though and better they crochet their angst than take to the streets.

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    1. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Jon Cassar

      Why do you use the word "angst" (meaning fear)?
      It makes it sound as if this kind of protest is somehow different to "taking it to the streets" when both actually end up there - one more permanently even than a one off march.
      BTW crochet is not the same as knitting ;)

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    2. Andrew Bromage

      Research Engineer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      I'm obviously not Jon, but I think I read his comment slightly differently than you did. The word <i>angst</i> has a specific connotation, namely, that it is non-directional. <i>Furcht</i> is dread or foreboding about something. <i>Angst</i> is the same emotion, but not directed at anything in particular (e.g. modern life or the state of the world in general).

      I think what he was trying to say is that it makes sense to march and protest if you have <i>furcht</i>, but not if you have <i>angst</i…

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    3. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

      In reply to Jon Cassar

      @Jon Cassar

      > It's harmless though and better they crochet their angst than take to the streets.

      Not a big fan of Democracy eh? Welcome to the list of 'persons of interest'!

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    4. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Andrew Bromage

      My question rather concerned the connotation of non-'rational' fear, as if women react to emotions or irrational fear (you call it non-directional Angst) with knitting protests - whereas street protests, I assume, require more rationality or fearlessness to engage in.
      (Angst is just a more common German use of Furcht and can be both: Angst/Furcht vor [insert specific] or ängstlich (fearful/sich fürchten...) which can be unspecific, but that wasn't what I thought was meant by @Jon's comment)

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  2. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    For protest reasons - I'm all for it

    For any other reason - stop wasting resources

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  3. Jay Wulf

    Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

    Thank you for a great article.

    I always thought personally for it to be little ineffective, yet aesthetically pleasing.
    I put them in the same genre as 'Guerilla urban gardeners' and 'Grafitti artists' (boo hiss).
    All people who assert their claim to the living spaces they use that transcends that idiotic notion of colourful pieces of paper and dead trees somehow granting people 'ownership' over stuff.

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  4. Elizabeth Bathory

    9-5 project drone.

    Dear Yarn Bombers,

    The guerrilla knitting on the bridge over Throsby Creek is looking very tired and worn......would someone do us local residents a favour and please revitalise it? I'm surprised it's been left to decay for so long - but would look lovely if re-done.

    Thanking you in advance and keep up the good work!

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  5. Liam O'Dea

    Principal at Livestock

    In the small town of Warwick in very southern Queensland we have a Jumpers and Jazz festival every July, which features decorating the trees down the main street in all manner of knitwear. Various groups and individuals compete to create the most artistic and original decorations.

    There is zero political or social messaging attached to this.
    The town is somewhat elevated and by Queensland standards fairly cold in July. Tourists tended to stay away. Some good thinkers decided to turn a liability into an asset . and despite derision at first "Jumpers & Jazz" keeps drawing increasing numbers of tourists to t he town. And the local creative talent has another outlet.
    No politics, no protests, just a lot of fun.

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  6. m

    logged in via Twitter

    I love yarn bombing, I really do - it's great to see it out and about. I have a question tho, about the trees - How does it affect them? (Really, I have no idea) How much air, sunlight and rain does the trunk of a tree need to survive? How does it effect the ecosystem of micro-organisms that rely on the trunk? Does it prevent the bark from coming away naturally? What happens when the yarn starts to break down? What happens if the synthetic yarns don't break down - is it possible to 'choke' the tree?
    I really love yarn bombing, but I worry when I see it on the natural environment. Unless someone can show there are no harmful effects, please keep it on the built environment :)

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    1. Amy Kate

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to m

      There is absolutely NO damage to any tree whatsoever. Firstly, a tree gets water from its roots underground and light from its leaves high up - not through a trunk. Secondly, if you're prepared to wear a jumper next to your skin, a tree trunk is going to be just fine. I mean, think about the axe that you need to cut into a trunk...

      Lastly, the rain and weather usually destroys yarn bomb sites within 6 months, where when disintegrated will just go in the garbage trucks. Not bad if you ask me. Recyclable space :)

      I am quietly so pleased when I see both yarn bombers knit for beauty and for protest. Not all of us can scream and shout and I applaud people who find their own way of expressing themselves. Knitters rock on xx

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    2. m

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Amy Kate

      Hi Amy

      Thanks for your thoughts - I also posted this on facebook and got a few responses which I'm copying and pasting below:

      Person 1: Welllll I have a couple thoughts about this. Yarn bombing is awesome, when it's ugly things like bike racks. But trees, idk. What about all the insects that rely on the tree for their home/foods? They will totally be fucked. And the birds? I can see a bird getting their leg caught in the yarn trying to take some for a nest.
      If the tree is allowed to grow…

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    3. Amy Kate

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to m

      Well you're entitled to your opinions - which is what they are - not tried or tested fact. I happen to strongly disagree with all of them. No yarn bomb sites are permanent, mature trees do not grow trunks in a few months, birds do not land on trunks, they use branches - sigh...

      Anyway, I respectfully disagree. I know that that's why it's called The Conversation but I feel like this one has hit a dead end.

      All the points that you and your friends have made hold no bearing in the reality of this craft. It's so obvious by your comments that you have never participated or even seen much of it.

      I do wish people would know first-hand what they are talking about before offering such strong personal 'conclusions'.

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    4. Jon Cassar

      ex-teacher

      In reply to Amy Kate

      Wow, even knitters fallout.

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