Take back the knit

Pub date March 29, 2011


STREETWISE The dinosaur outside my library makes my day. Someone knit a little green bike rack cozy with floppy yellow spikes, right next to the rack that now has a custom-sized, rainbow-colored, beaded sweater. Indeed, the whole neighborhood has been knit-tagged — the stretch of Divisadero between Post and California streets has nary a rack that hasn’t been dressed against the spring chills.

The woman who answered the phone at Atelier Yarns, the knitting store down the block on Divisadero, didn’t know who had done the pieces, which is not to say they’d gone unnoticed. “They’re really good,” she said. “I wish I knew who had done them.”

Digging further, I fell into the deep abyss of Internet craft blogs and found that the Western Addition isn’t the only place where knit is joining the textures of the concrete jungle. Across the world, “yarn bombing” groups have sprung up. Last year, a group altered the Oakland-Berkeley border’s controversial “Here There” statues, knitting a colorful cozy over the T in “There” that renders the words equal, symbolically erasing the hierarchical positioning of the two bergs. There have been knitted seat covers on Philly’s Blue line subway and a knitted tank cover in shades of Pepto-Bismol pink in Copenhagen — not to mention jauntily decorated stop signs, trees, and railings the world over.

Magda Sayeg, a.k.a. PolyCotn, is generally regarded as the mother of this peaceful barrage. So I called her to find out why she — and now the rest of the world — yarn bombs.

It all started seven years ago with a knit cover for the doorknob of her Houston art studio. “It was about me making my door-handle pretty,” she remembers. Then she knitted a cover for a stop sign, which attracted lots of attention. “People would get out of the car, take pictures, scratch their head.”

She did more pieces. She formed a yarn bomb collective called “Knitta Please.” Since then, Sayeg has knitted everything from a riotously rainbow cover on a Mexico City bus to a powder pink coat for a single stone on the Wall of China.

Sayeg’s work makes knitting, once a private activity, part of the public domain. “You’re taking something so traditional and homey and placing it in an environment — graffiti art, it’s so male-dominated.”

Which is not to say that she doesn’t locate yarn bombing inside the tradition of street art. “I identify with the street artists more than the knitters,” Sayeg says, remembering the first time she saw the moaning cartoon faces of a gallery show by seminal SF street artist Barry McGee. “That really rocked my perception of what street art was. You could say [the yarn bombing] story started there.”

Like “traditional” street artists, Sayeg uses her creations to make her mark on her physical surroundings. She loves tagging the redundant bits of the urban landscape, like street posts whose signs have been removed and rendered useless. “It’s a visual pollution that we just accept. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t cover up something that’s not needed.” She pointed to the 3-D video game sprites of Space Invader and moss graffiti artists like Edina Tokodi as others who “are putting the can down” in the street art world.

But Sayeg also likes how yarn bombing questions the assumptions of what knitting is, which brings us to the question of the genre’s feminist interpretation. Though there are certainly male yarn bombers, you can’t deny that this kind of functional art, and craft in general, has historically been thought of as “women’s work” — and has had its worth denigrated and minimized as such. With yarn bombing, “there’s something there that might make people uncomfortable. An edge to something that never seems edgy. Like we’re supposed to be making sweaters and socks,” Sayeg says.

That stereotype has been turned on its head by craft activism, a form of protest that has its modern day roots in the 1980s and ’90s peace demonstrations at Greenham Common Royal Air Force base in England, where the U.S. military installed cruise missiles in 1981. Women gathered around the cyclone fencing at the base, stuffing its grid with knitted objects and hoisting handmade signs that read “Women’s Struggle Won The Vote, Now Let’s Use It For Disarmament.”

More recently, as Kirsty Robertson recounts in an essay in Extra/Ordinary (Duke University Press, 306 p., $24.95), the Revolutionary Knitting Circle held a “knit-in” at the 2002 G-8 summit in Alberta, Canada. Betsy Greer — who has a day job as an anti-sweatshop activist and also wrote an essay in Extra/Ordinary — coined the term “craftivism” to describe efforts similar to her own antiwar cross-stitch art. In Greer’s words, craftivism is “about using what you can to express your feelings outward in a visual manner without yelling or placard-waving. It was about channeling that anger in a productive and even loving way.”

Which is not to say that all urban crafters — as I’ve come to think of the men and women reclaiming textile and other forms of craft in a modern setting — are explicitly political. I was reminded of Sayeg’s desire to subvert the masculine face of street art when I visited the SoMa studio of Amy Ahlstrom, a San Francisco textile artist who is taking images from the walls of cities and translating them into painstakingly crafted quilts.

Ahlstrom, who has made her own clothes since her Molly Ringwald childhood, started quilting as an art student in 1991. She had a successful career in comic art and returned to stitching in 2005. “To me, this is a very natural thing,” she says, surrounded by her eye-popping creations hanging on stark white walls. “This was the most unique way I could speak to the world.”

Living in the Mission, Ahlstrom found the neighborhood’s murals, street signs, and tags an integral part of her city life. She began photographing them and was struck by an urge to alter their context. “I saw this tag and thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be funny in gingham?’ “

Like a textile DJ, she cut and sewed patterns made from the digital images she had captured into textured Dupioni silk. Now she’s working on a series of pieces dedicated to the visual cues of specific neighborhoods. Her SoMa quilt contains depictions of furniture leaping from public art installation “Defenestration”‘s decrepit Sixth Street building, Jeremy Novy’s ubiquitous stenciled koi, and the neon signs of Holy Cow and Brainwash. She’s not the only artist to harness the power of the quilt — Ben Venom is another SF quilter who creates heavy metal motifs from old band shirts (his “Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep!” skull-cross design is a Guardian staff favorite).

Ahlstrom brings the street to textile and the yarn bombers bring their textiles to the street, but they all work to the same end. Though Ahlstrom’s pieces will sell for hundreds of dollars and hang like the gallery pieces that they are, she creates them with the intention of breaking down the art world stipulation that craft cannot be art.

She cites the Gee’s Bend quilts as one inspiration for her work. Gee’s Bend is a small Alabama River community whose women inhabitants came together to have their quilts exhibited by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 2002, to great critical acclaim. In contrast to previous exhibitions, the quilts were not divorced from their functional use — museum literature placed the stories of Gee’s Bend quilters front and center in an attempt to highlight how the beauty of their geometric patterns was accentuated, not diminished, by their status as household objects.

So what did the gentle crafter of my beloved dinosaur have in mind when she or he looped that clover green around the bike rack? You’d have to ask the knitter — but at the very least, they’ve made their presence known.