Yarn Bombing and the Nefarious History of Knitting

valerie

I know what you’re thinking, you’re imagining, by the title of this blog, that I’m going to take the school-marmy/hipster/main stream (yes, knitting is all of those things) art of knitting and spin it into something it’s not. You think I’m going to smear an ancient and respectable craft by zeroing in on a few freakish examples of social deviance.

While that sounds fun, what I actually hope to do, is uncover the very real, seedy, subversive, anarchist and/or fascist history of the craft all the way to this present moment where a rosy-cheeked young lassie named Valerie S. is plotting a series of yarn attacks with her Peaceable Yarn Army all over the borough of Hackney in London.

Let us begin with my hastily researched, but drop-dead accurate, mini-report called:

 A People’s History of Knitting:

(Points that Substantiate My Thesis Are Featured in Caps)

Madame_Defarge_Knitting_by_sarah858

1793, French Revolution times. A certain specimen of market women (lower class) show up at guillotine beheadings and death row trials with their knitting projects, basically as a way to say “EFF you” to the victims. Click click click went their needles. Ploop ploop ploop went the heads during the period known as the REIGN OF TERROR. (The sounds might not be historically accurate.)

These VULGAR, BLOODTHIRSTY Jacobin women are known as les tricoteuses (female knitters). To add insult to injury, they wore DUMB HATS. Les tricoteuses inspire Charles Dickens to create the character of Madame Defarge, a villainess who knits names of future guillotine victims with encoded patterns of stitches. This turns out to be a very good book.

earlofcardigan

1832-1866, James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. You mean that kind of cardigan? Yes. That kind. The cardigan sweater is named after an insufferable, incompetent fop who worships fashion instead of military science. You’ll be happy to know the men in his light brigade are issued button-down knitted waist coats so that the look very snazzy when they are slaughtered by the Russians.

When Brudenell was a child he FELL OFF A HORSE, which may or may not have given him an itty bitty bit of BRAIN DAMAGE. Oh yeah, and he was an ADULTERER, ELITIST, and according to Wikipedia, a PEST and a BULLY. Also he CHEATED AT DUELS. And BANNED THE CONSUMPTION OF DARK BEERS from his regiment. He died from a stroke precipitated by FALLING OFF HIS HORSE.

1921: The Prince of Wales.edwardviii Future King Edward VIII (but not really because he abdicates the throne and is basically exiled to the Bahamas) known henceforth simply as The Prince of Wales, CO-OPTS the Fair Isle Sweater from Scottish fisherman. He even poses for portraits in them. The layer-cake patterned sweater quickly becomes all of the rage in England. Dresser drawers at Cambridge and Oxford overflow with Fair Isle sweaters, so much so that the young students can barely shut them.

How is this bad? Turns out The Prince of Wales is a known NAZI  SYMPATHIZER, BON VIVANT, RACIST, ADULTERER and CARRIER OF SMALL DOGS.

I think you can see why I was greatly concerned that my friend Valerie seems to be experimenting with yarn bombing. Was the sweet little farm girl from my past turning into a fascist/bon vivant or worse?

Under the guise of an interview for my blog (which actually did end up in my blog), I made an appointment to computer chat with Valerie about her new hobby. Here is a transcript of the interview (more or less).

My Computer Chat with Valerie

1:57 PM me:  So tell me, Valerie, how did you get mixed up in the world of yarn bombing?

Valerie: i officially got into yarn bombing when my husband was inspired by seeing some other yarn bombing work, and thus commissioned me to organise a group

val&justin

(Here’s where I learned that Valerie isn’t just some wide-eyed recruit, but the ringleader of the Peaceable Yarn Army.)

1:58 PM Valerie: Yarn bombing is, from my perspective and experience, a community-based movement to bring a little light into otherwise dark and dank places.

me: That doesn’t sound very sinister (I say, pretending not to think it sounds sinister).

1:59 PM Valerie: Well, the local authorities may not appreciate it…to them, it is subversive and evil. Maybe. Not always. But it’s good to have an us v. them mentality. I’m being sarcastic a little bit.

me: ( I don’t want to directly call her evil, so I ask:) Can yarn bombing be used for evil?

Valerie: i think YB’ing can be perceived as evil by some. For example, our recent installation was removed not by us…and we have no idea who took the panels off the trees. To some, it may be a nuisance or eye sore or, maybe even stupid.

knittree

me: Have you ever thought of yarn bombing and then yarn staking-out? So you can see who is removing your work and punish them? (The thought just occurs to me that yarn-staking-out should go hand in hand with yarn bombing).

2:02  PM Valerie: Totally. Our installation was directly outside our house, and I literally woke up in the middle of the night to check on it after the first tree was rendered naked, but I never caught anyone.

me: I bet it was the bobbies (I say as a way to passive-aggressively point out that she is breaking the law).

Valerie: yes, the bobbies on lorries

2:03 PM me: Do you ever call them boobies? (I say to keep her talking.)

Valerie: Only to their face, never when they can’t hear us.

me:  (I see she has the same wry Valerie humor, which is a relief.) How many people are in your army?

Valerie: There are 3 head honchos, but MANY people contributed pieces.

2:04 PM  me: (three doesn’t sound bad, but MANY does, so I say:) So how does yarn bombing work?

Valerie: Yarn bombing works in the way that the bombers want it to work. it’s quite decentralised.

treesweater
(Here’s where I notice that Valerie is spelling things the British way with s’s instead of z’s)

2:05 PM me: (Sounds like anarchy or tea parties, I think. But I say:) Is yarn bombing a way of tagging ugly things? That’s another question. (I remind her I’m asking questions so it feels more like a legitimate interview.) Is it an aestheic statement?  Oops, not aestheic, asthetic… (My various attempts to spell aesthetic are deleted here.)

Valerie: I would say that yarn bombing aims to tag things, reclaiming them as having worth and beauty…but, perhaps have been made dirty by disuse/abuse. In front of our house is a little “park” that is notorious for being where dogs of the ‘hood go to poo

me: Have you every thought of making a poo sweater…I mean knitting a little sweater for the poo? (I do not actually think this is a good idea.)

2:06 PM Valerie: I do think something to that effect was considered.

me: (Well, it’s an okay idea.) So did you come up with the name Peaceable Yarn Army? Or PYA for short.

Valerie: i believe I did. PYA could mean “punk yo ass.”

me: (I think of a few other things that PYA could stand for, like Please Your Auntie and Probably Young Adult, but I decide not to mention them.) Are there any old ladies out there yarn bombing? (I ask this question so she’ll know I don’t think this activity is appropriate for old ladies).

IMG_1779

Valerie: I tried to get our neighborhood old people’s home to contribute, but they never responded. We did have one 70ish Danish lady do a little bit, but then we also had 9 year olds

me: (I almost bust a nut but don’t.) What would happen if you run into another yarn army in the middle of night and you both intended to knit around the same tree?

Valerie: i think in that hypothetical situation, we’d all be so happy to see each other that we’d have to argue as to who actually got to do the tree.

me: So you would join forces?

Valerie: i can only speak for our group, but i think we would attempt to join forces. all yarn bombers, i believe, should be allies.

me: Are you anarchists? (I ask, but I already know the answer because look at this picture of a yarn bomblette from my own neighborhood.)

IMG_2073

2:14 PM no, we’re…hmmm…not sure. i’ll have to think about our political association

me: What about someone like me who can’t knit? Could I just go tie ribbons around things? (I ask this even though I would NEVER in a MILLION YEARS tie ribbons around public property).

2:15 PM Valerie: that question was raised in our very group. it was suggested that a person could get a sweater from a 2nd hand shop to be cut up. i DO think that other textiles could be used, but it would be a bit difficult to mix different mediums on the same panel

Me: (This is getting awfully technical so I ask): How do you yarn bomb anyway?

2:18 PM Valerie: it depends on how secretive you want to be. we measured the trees after dusk. i tried to vaguely map out how to separate the various trees — so, for some of them, we divided the space up in 6″ blocks to make it easy for people on the fringes to just submit something small. those of us more invested in the project did larger bits. then, we gathered all the pieces together and sewed them into panels/blankets. early early in the morning, we installed them, fastening them with cable ties.

me: Wow, that is a lot of strategery (I say realizing I just made her get even more technical).

2:22 PM Valerie: a friend of mine is doing a large bridge in Pittsburgh. that’s a little less covert (insurance!), but it really does take all shapes (literally).

valyarn

me: (I feel uncomfortable knowing about crimes before they happen so I change the subject away from the bridge.) What are you going to yarn bomb next?

Valerie: we have enough to do another bombing, but we’re having trouble deciding the where

me: Hmm. I’ll try to think of something for you. (Oops again, wrong question if I don’t want to know about future crimes. Good thing I’m not a journalist, I think. I also think I would NEVER give the PYA any yarn bombing targets.)

2:26 PM Valerie: Use the google maps thing and go around our streets looking for places that need sprucing up. We are also limited by our noviceness in knitting. i do squares and rectangles, mostly a straight stitch. nothing fancy.

2:27 PM me: Righto. Maybe a parking meter? (I say because I am too lazy to look at Google maps.)

Valerie: Yeah, we don’t have those here

me: Parking is free??? (I ask).

Valerie: No, there are these kiosk things

me: Oh right. Hmm, so it basically has to be something round and post like?

yarnbomb

Valerie: For our skill level, yes

me: I’m trying to think of round, post like things. (All I can think of are posts and I’m not gonna say that.)

2:29 PM Valerie: yes…and things that no one necessarily is in charge of caring for. That’s when it’s likely they will stay up longer

me: So you never yarn bomb private property? (I ask, as if all I care about is private property.)

Valerie: it’s very much public art or, i think it should be. It’s like tactile graffiti.

me: Oh, tactile grafitti, I like it. (But secretly I wonder who wants to touch things in public?)

From here, I basically conclude the interview, because I don’t know what else to say. Just when I’m about to chalk Valerie up as just another farm-girl-turned-terrorist, she sends me this link.

Suddenly I feel so much better about yarn bombing!

Valruins

Since then I’ve realized: Some knitters are good, some knitters are bad, some knitters are both. Sometimes these lines are blurred. Sometimes bad is good inside-out; sometimes good is bad upside down. Sometimes bad is the shadow cast by good; sometimes good is the illuminated face of bad. Maybe I should stop worrying about Valerie so much and tend to my own self. Is there anything I’m doing that’s illegal but harmless? Didn’t I once try to take up knitting? Don’t I have inside/outside, upside/downside, light and dark parts? I don’t know. But my friend is here for lunch so I’m going to have to think about this later.

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