Yarnbombers: A new breed of graffiti artist

3 August 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Jane S certainly doesn’t look like a street artist. As she sits in her light green turtleneck, sipping hot chocolate and laughing about the importance of choosing the right baby name, it’s hard to imagine her spraying tags under the cover of darkness.

It’s fitting then that Jane’s chosen weapon is a set of knitting needles, not a spray can. She’s part of a growing number of people called ‘yarnbombers’, that is, people who use knitting to decorate public spaces.  Yarnbombing is a peculiar concept, to say the least.  It’s a combination of polar opposite social groups: the knitters and the street artists.

Knitting, of course, brings to mind images such as Granny by the fire, childhood itchy woolen hats and lovingly prepared baby booties. Street art, on the other hand, conjures up anything from hooded teens down dark alleyways to the far more popular Banksy, depending on where you sit on the art vs. crime debate.

The two concepts make strange bedfellows yet yarnbombing is a trend that’s slowly gaining in popularity.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon that many believe began in Texas, USA when Magda Sayeg started a group called Knittaplease.  The group was Sayeg’s ‘response to the dehumanizing qualities of an urban environment’, a way of adding to the streetscape ‘a human quality that otherwise rarely exists.’

Jane echoes these sentiments, saying ‘I think it’s nice to make people look around their urban environment’, yet for her yarnbombing is more a fun pastime. Earlier this year, Jane wasn’t sure what she wanted to knit; a ‘yarnbomb’ seemed like a fun and slightly frivolous way to use her wool.

She created a cover for a lamppost and one night pinned it up outside a textiles shop on Gertrude Street. Unlike an angry shopkeeper scrubbing off a graffiti tag, the owner, Pene Durston, was so delighted with the new addition to her streetscape that she promoted it on her blog and interpreted Jane’s offering to mean that someone had left a ‘knitted love letter’ to a nearby tree.

Although the tree in question did attract Jane with its many knitted doilies (added by the shop owner and her friends), a ‘knitted love letter’ was entirely Durston’s description – an interpretation that Jane found ‘quite funny and sweet.’

While the lamppost was Jane’s first yarnbomb, Durston is an experienced ‘bomber’. Yarnbombing to her is ‘about taking textile art into the community’. Reactions from the public can often be surprising. As an example, Durston points to a visit she received from the City of Yarra Council. Durston expected a reprimand for the tree coverings outside her shop and was surprised when the council’s arborist insisted she keep the doilies up, saying ‘we love it and have discussed it at City Council!’

So why is it that lampposts and trees covered in knitting are welcomed when a wall covered with spray paint (notable exceptions aside) is derided as an eyesore? In part, it may be that it’s simply very difficult to feel threatened by the appearance of woolly artifacts.  As Jane points out, ‘people get upset about graffiti; you can’t really get upset about knitting. It’s soft and fluffy and just a little bit silly.’

Durston agrees, saying yarnbombing is a form of graffiti but people ‘feel a bit warm and fuzzy about it when they see it because it’s so friendly.’ She also points to the fact that a yarnbomb can easily be removed: ‘it’s low-impact; it isn’t permanent; it’s not going to last forever.’

While Durston and Jane S see yarnbombing as an individual pursuit, yarnbombing has become something of a social movement through groups like Magda Sayeg’s Knittaplease. Perhaps this is not surprising given its overseas popularity, with groups popping up in Britain and two Canadian authors even writing a book on the subject.

The American press in particular has picked up on the movement with articles appearing in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

Although the trend has moved a little slower here in Australia, Durston is quick to point out that yarnbombing is definitely entering the mainstream. Projects such as the controversial Big Knit, where the community knitted a cover for Footscray’s historic Stockbridge; and Sydney’s Toy Society, who leave handmade toys around the city, are two examples of community members getting behind the yarnbombing movement.

Durston refrains from commenting on whether yarnbombing entering the mainstream is a good thing but does say its sporadic nature is part of the appeal. Although she admits she finds it ‘more exciting when it comes in dribs and drabs,’ she still believes yarnbombing’s growing popularity is a positive trend, especially when children in schools are being encouraged to learn to knit.

She points out that people need only knit something five centimetres by ten to become a yarnbomber and concludes, ‘that’s the motto for yarnbombing: anyone can do it.’

As for Jane S and future yarnbombs from her, she’s focused on baby booties at present but assures us, ‘there will be more.’

Sarah Green is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.