Subverting to Survive: Yarnbombing as a Dynamic Tradition
Andy Marlow | University of Hertfordshire
I first encountered yarnbombing in 2010 in a local North Warwickshire park. Here trees and railings were festooned with long striped scarves and multicoloured pom-poms. The yarnbombing was a source of delight and excitement for my two young daughters. My wife, an accomplished crafter, told me that she believed it to be the work of “guerrilla knitters”. I was deeply affected by the display, and despite the whimsical decorativeness, I was convinced that the phenomenon I was witnessing was loaded with meaning. As the years have passed, yarnbombs have grown in popularity almost to the point where they blend into the urban landscape.
Whilst we may have grown accustomed to seeing these displays, it is clear that their forms and social functions have undergone changes. These increasingly complex and decorative displays are generally viewed positively, often being regarded as a form of gentle, low-impact graffiti. However, this apparently gentle, covert artistic movement has its origins in subversion, activism and gender politics. In this article, I will trace the ways in which the radical US yarnbomb movement developed into the colourful and whimsical street art we see in the UK today. In the process of doing this, we will also investigate the concept of “tradition” itself. As a folklorist, tradition stands at the centre of my discipline, but it is also an important concept within many other fields of study. Moreover, “tradition” has a currency within popular discourse, where the term is generally selectively applied to activities to signify their age and cultural importance. In this common usage, a tradition is in essence a static phenomenon, that signifies a specific social grouping. In the context of an increasingly multicultural society, such ideas are potentially divisive. A reassessment of tradition may enable us to de-politicise the concept and see it instead as a unifying societal force.
The first recognisable yarnbomb displays appeared in Texas, USA. The invention of the activity is generally attributed to Magda Sayeg, who in the early 2000’s installed a number of small fibre art displays in her home city of Houston. However, to fully understand the process whereby the primarily domestic activity of knitting became a preferred method of political activism, we must unspool the thread a little further[WG1] . In fact, we must travel back to the febrile climate of the post-war United States where established social conventions were being challenged on multiple fronts. This period could be viewed as a golden age of protest, and the ways in which many disparate groups took direct action in search of equality have been well documented. Civil rights, gay rights, anti-war and nascent environmental groups all came to prominence in this period.
From within this milieu arose a new tranche of feminist theorists. These “second wave” feminists were not simply concerned with political emancipation and the franchise. Instead, they argued for equality and autonomy in all spheres of social life. Sexual and economic freedoms may have been the most visible of these aims, but a reappraisal of women’s artistic works was also a significant element of the doctrine. In this way, second-wave feminists defined the material output of women’s creativity as valid and valuable works of art. Moreover, for second-wave feminists, involvement with traditional female crafts was an act of political empowerment. Following this feminist reappraisal, the ‘tradition’ of knitting had adapted or evolved, but only in so far as what it meant to some of its practitioners. The types of items being made remained unchanged, as did the methods being used and the environments in which they were created.
By the late 1990s, a new spirit of engagement with wider political and ethical causes became apparent in feminist thought, this is generally described as third-wave feminism. Within this movement, women’s crafts were co-opted into use as direct forms of protest and activism. The politicisation of knitting, pioneered by the second wave, became fully realised. Guerrilla knitting was an early example of this. Here knitting and other crafts were removed from the domestic setting and performed in incongruous public spaces, such as on public transport, in restaurants or at sporting occasions. In this way, the act of making visible these ‘domestic’ activities problematised notions of male and female gendered spaces and concepts of active or passive engagement with the world.
The advent of yarnbombing took this a step further. Here the displays themselves were used directly as a method of highlighting and protesting around specific causes, activities or events. Soon after Sayeg’s early experimentations, several communities of activist knitters appeared in Houston, and then across the country. Unlike the example of guerilla knitting, the pieces being produced were not standard items of clothing. Instead, the yarnbombers created oversized wraps, shawls, cosies, and pom poms, designed specifically to be installed in public spaces. The impact of these displays arose primarily from the incongruity of so domestic an art form being displayed in an impersonal public setting, and the contrast between the soft, colourful, and often playful nature of the knitted pieces with the hard, utilitarian environments in which they were hung. Very quickly a yarnbomb framework emerged, predicated upon the movement’s essential duality of creativity and protest.
Yarnbombing soon travelled beyond the US, becoming a truly global phenomenon, and the activity’s unique blend of creativity and protest was clearly one of the reasons for this rapid transmission. One of the most notable yarnbombs, (and one which exemplified this duality) was the mettiamoci una pezza (‘lets patch it’) project, carried out in the Italian town of L’Aquila. Here a group of women organised a yarnbomb display to draw attention to the lack of action taken by local and national authorities in response to an earthquake that had devastated the town in 2009. The display featured a large quantity of knitted and crocheted patches which were strategically attached to the unrepaired city centre.
The UK was an early adopter of yarnbombing, and initially, the activity here closely resembled the creative/protest model from the US and continental Europe. However, quite quickly something odd happened. In the UK, this dual-aspect model became disentangled, with each strand developing separately. The protest strand found its outlet through an activity often referred to as “craftivism”. Craftivism and yarnbombing have many aspects in common, and at some times, and in some locations, the two seem to coexist as a single tradition. Craftivism utilises needlecraft techniques (usually embroidery or cross-stitch) to produce pieces of work actively promoting a clearly identifiable single political, social, or environmental issue. The politicised nature of this activity is encapsulated within its name, a compound of craft and activism. Moreover, in the UK, the Craftivist Collective has gone so far as to publish a ten-point manifesto. The final point summarises the movement’s aims:
10 Make the change you wish to see – If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind & just, then let’s make our activism beautiful, kind and just. So pick up your needle and thread and join us in crafting!
Yarnbombing in the UK followed quite a different trajectory to craftivism, and continues to evolve in new and unique ways. I believe that it is possible to identify three broad phases within British yarnbombing. As mentioned, the first of these closely resembled the original yarnbombs from the US. Here, relatively simple pieces were hung in groups or individually. Thematically, these tended to be abstracted patterns, or somewhat surreal imagery. In common with those from the US, the impact of these arose from the unexpected use of fibre art techniques to produce street art. A notable example of this early UK yarnbombing is the Stitch the City movement, founded by an artist named Lauren O’Farrell, who worked under the pseudonym Deadly Knitshade. This group produced whimsical, cartoon-like images which were distributed around the city. However, even at this early stage, differences between British and American yarnbombing can be distinguished, with the UK leaving much of the politicised nature to craftivism. Beyond the inherent subversiveness of using fibre art outdoors, these yarnbombs appear to be primarily artistic enterprises and do not seem to be demonstrably linked to any ethical or social cause. Moreover, O’Farrell coined the phrase “Yarnstorm” as an alternative to yarnbomb, as she believed it to be less aggressive and confrontational. This too clearly distances the works from a sense of political activism.
Yarnbombing spread very quickly out of the capital, and with this movement came further adaptations. In towns and cities across the country there began to appear large, unified displays. One factor that distinguished these displays was the variety of items produced and the varying levels of technical ability on show. It seemed apparent that the groups creating the displays were made up of crafters with varying levels of experience, with novices producing simple wraps and patches, whilst the most experienced created ever more complex pictorial and sculptural works. Another defining feature of these displays was the themes they covered. These tended to be easily recognisable British calendar customs, such as Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter. It is difficult to identify any element of protest or politicisation in these displays. Instead, the intention seems to be to foster a sense of community solidarity, using recognisable imagery and events.
The latest stage of yarnbomb development in the UK is the post-box topper. These are generally highly complex, sculptural works of knitted and crocheted art, and as the name suggests they are displayed on the tops of post-boxes. Unlike the large displays that went before them, these pieces appear in isolation. Moreover, it appears that these are not collaborative, communally created works, but instead seem to be the product of a single, highly experienced and skilful crafter. It is likely that this shift towards individually created pieces is largely a consequence of the covid pandemic, and the periods of lockdown. Clearly, it would have been impossible for crafting groups to meet physically during the lockdowns and whilst online meetings would have been possible, it is likely that many groups would have become less cohesive and connected. Thematically too, the post-box topper marks a further development within UK yarnbombing. At first sight, it may appear that the subjects of the toppers are unconnected, however, the large majority could be categorised as being nostalgic. Far and away the most common subject of the topper is the royal family. Also commonly depicted are the armed forces, scenes from both world wars, figures from history and literature, and historical events. Moreover, the fact that these pieces utilise post boxes, is in itself telling. These items of street furniture are themselves iconic and are redolent of an imagined golden age of cosy social cohesion.
We can see then, that in a little over a decade, yarnbombing has moved a long way from its origins as a facet of third-wave feminist discourse. It appears clear that in the UK, the activity was seized upon by existing crafters and crafting groups. These groups used the activity to fulfil their own agenda; to showcase their skills, to inspire and instruct a new generation and to brighten what they saw as an increasingly impersonal townscape. It is not surprising that the works created by these UK yarnbombers reflected their values and ideologies. Viewed in this way, the trajectory of yarnbombing in the UK, from activism to social conservatism becomes easier to understand. Moreover, it enables us to see this development of yarnbombing not as a dilution of the original tradition, but as a valid and significant practice.
More than this, the example of yarnbombing provides us with a unique insight into the concept of tradition, demonstrating that it is not only capable of adaptation and change, but that this dynamic nature lies at its very heart. From yarnbombing’s appearance in Houston to the recent iterations in the UK, the activity can be seen to have passed through a number of distinct phases. Each phase represents the adoption of the activity by one of a diverse set of groups. In this way, the tradition has managed to encapsulate the values and ideologies of disparate strata of society. Therefore, we can see that when we adopt this dynamic definition of tradition, far from being a source of division within society, tradition becomes a unifying, societal force.
Adamson, Glen, The Craft Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2010).
Hemmings, Jessica, In the Loop: Knitting Now (London: Black Dog, 2010).
Hemmings, Jessica, The Textile Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2012).
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Ranger, Terence, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Andy Marlow is a recent graduate of the University of Hertfordshire’s Folklore Studies master’s degree programme. He is currently conducting research into the adoption and curation of urban public spaces by individuals and community groups. Part of this research is the creation of a “historypin” page, collating yarnbombs in the United Kingdom.