PHILADELPHIA — Jessie Hemmons did her first public “yarn bombing” in 2009, crocheting a 12-inch cozy around a bike rack in downtown Philadelphia. It was small but colorful, tangible. She knows that most who walked past didn’t notice it.
Her more recent works in the city have been harder to miss: the words “TIME’S UP” in white letters on a 4-by-3-foot black background affixed to a wall; a pink bikini atop the business suit of a larger-than-life statue of a late politician known for brutish behaviour; a quote from “Game of Thrones’” Daenerys Targaryen, “The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands,” hung on a wall in pink letters on a green, 6-by-6-foot background.
“It started as something I felt I could do to insert a certain femaleness or womanliness into street art. I didn’t have to make street art as men were doing it to fit in,” said Hemmons, 32, of Philadelphia, whose Instagram tag is ishknits. “Now that the space and platform are there, I can start to be more overt and bring attention to certain issues like women’s equality and civil rights.”
Modern yarn bombing — also known as yarn storming, guerrilla knitting, yarn graffiti or graffiti knitting — has come a long way since 2005, when Texas artist Magda Sayeg used some extra yarn to knit a doorknob cover for her women’s boutique, then made a cozy for a nearby stop-sign pole, and then another. Sayeg, the “mother of yarn bombing,” unknowingly ignited a craft craze.
While some fiber artists choose to keep their statements simple and stick to snugly dressing items ranging from bikes to buses with interlocking loops of yarn, others use their knitting and crochet needles to create works designed to agitate, excite or inspire.
And they’re not the first to do so.
“There’s a long history of women using handicrafts, the tools available to them, for subversive aims,” said Hinda Mandell, editor of the upcoming book “Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats” (Rowman & Littlefield).
During the American Revolution, Mandell said, women showed their patriotism by shunning fine British textiles and wearing clothing made from coarser, homespun cloth. During both World Wars, “Knit Your Bit” was a national campaign to encourage women to make socks and sweaters for soldiers fighting overseas.
In 2017, in Women’s Marches across the country, pink hats with cat ears signified female empowerment.
Mandell, who is on Twitter as @crochetactivism, cites one yarn artist who knits tiny gray hangers that she puts in public places and sends to politicians taking up abortion rights issues. “The soft yarn with the fatalistic image of the hanger is really arresting,” she said.
The Tempestry Project, an initiative founded in Washington in 2016, encourages knitters and crocheters to make banners in blocks of different colours, from light blues to bright reds, to represent changing temperatures.
In many instances, yarn bombing could be considered vandalism, even if the works can be removed with scissors and without damage. Hemmons says that most people who talk to her mid-installation are positive, but twice people have reported her to the police. She evaded capture both times, and successfully installed her work in one case: a fanny pack on the city’s famous “Rocky” statue.
In Vermont in 2014, a woman was arrested and others cited for trespassing when they staged a “knit-in” protest at a gas company that proposed a controversial pipeline.
Yarn crafts appear to be gaining in popularity along with the do-it-yourself movement in general. The Craft Yarn Council, a Texas-based trade association, estimates that 38 million Americans are active crocheters or knitters. The group’s executive director, Jenny Bessonette, says the number has grown in part because of the development of new yarns, including faux fur, “rumple” and multi-colored “cake” yarns.
“People used to think, ‘That’s my grandma’s craft,’ but our research and social media following tells us that more and more younger people are picking up knitting and crocheting,” she says.
Mandell, an associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Communication, said she uses crocheted pieces to send messages. After a Jewish cemetery in Rochester was desecrated in 2017, she created six-pointed stars with hearts in the middle and placed them on pine trees near the broken tombstones. After 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, Mandell helped organize crafters who made and installed 2,500 of the heart-within-a-star symbols there.
“When there is an event in the news that is upsetting to me, I respond with yarn,” she said.
Many knitters and crocheters see their crafts as stress relievers. Philadelphia crochet artist Nicole Nikolich, 27, has used her art to make political statements but much of her work is more light-hearted. She makes and installs giant flowers or quotes like “You’re so gorgeous,” a line from a Taylor Swift song.
“For me, it’s mostly about just creating and beautifying, making people stop and smile,” said Nikolich, known on Instagram as lace_in_the_moon. “What’s really great is when someone reaches out and says, ‘You really made my day,’ or ‘I saw your new piece on Instagram and my run this week will be based on finding it.’”