Why is that tree wearing a jumper?
If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, you’ve probably witnessed the work of guerilla knitters who have taken to wrapping their creations around public property
DON’T BE surprised if you see a tree or lamp post near you wearing a new woolly jumper. Urban knitting – the latest form of “polite graffiti” – has been taking off around the world, and is starting to appear here.
Also known as guerrilla knitting or yarnbombing, the movement is thought to have originated in the US when knitters started wrapping their knitting around public property, covering street signs, fire hydrants and trees with their colourful, woolly creations.
As with other such “unauthorised decorations” (like guerrilla gardening), the activity usually takes place under the cover of darkness, with knitted “tags” often appearing overnight in places where you wouldn’t expect to see knitting.
Some view guerrilla knitting as vandalism, althoughhoweverg it has many admirers, and the “artists” post photos onto websites for others to appreciate.
Knitted creations in Ireland have appeared everywhere from statues and parks to Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge.
Guerrilla knitter Cat McGrath knits and crochets flowers. She says that pieces she put in St Stephen’s Green last year are still there. She has also decorated the James Joyce statue.
“I do it during the day. It’s not something one has to be sly about,” she says. “People who see you do it have a very positive reaction. It’s not like spray graffiti, which people see as vandalism. People appreciate knitting as a sensory thing. It has more feminine and traditional values.
“When trees are bare and parks are empty, it’s nice to add colour. It makes people smile. It’s gently subversive,” she says.
Cat says it’s also nice to make an old-fashioned hobby visible again. The Vodafone advertising campaign is also contributing towards that – the mobile operator’s current TV commercials show people starting “Operation Cheer Up” knitting campaigns, attaching colourful knits to public places in Ireland’s cities. “We wanted to do something anti-recession, something bright, colourful and upbeat,” says Cara Twohig of Vodafone. “We looked at colour and a creative approach.”
Gavin O’Sullivan, creative director of advertising agency DDFHB, who created the ad, says the theme of urban knitting seemed a perfect fit.
“Graffiti always has negative connotations,” he says. “It’s very difficult to feel outraged about something that enhances something. Sticking a bit of knitting on a lamp post or something larger brings a smile to people’s faces.”
Gavin says the pieces in the ad were not left up because of possible planning restrictions, but that it’s easier for guerrilla knitters. “They can put it up and walk away,” he says. “I’m almost hoping it might inspire people to go and do it.”
The notion of public art plays an important part in the mix. Limerick art student Eilish Tuite plans to cover an empty building in Limerick city with an enormous knitted blanket. The sculpture student from Limerick School of Art and Design says her project is not just about knitting but also about getting communities involved in art. She has been appealing to knitting groups to knit and donate patches, and says the response so far has been great, with patches arriving from all over the country, from schools and community groups.
Like other urban centres, Limerick now has many vacant buildings, and Tuite’s project aims to address this problem. She says it’s about the protection of buildings.
“Knitting is a metaphor for a gesture of care. I am asking people to think of what’s happening in their city,” she says. “We’ve been living in a society where, until recently, you only thought of yourself. Now people want to be involved in things. Everybody wants to do just a little bit.”
Artist Amie Lawless worked with a knitting group to collaborating on a student art project to “engage and criticise urban spaces in Dublin” last year. They yarnbombed gravestones at Wolfe Tone Park with “grave cosies” and knitted flowers, all placed at night. The park – a former graveyard – has disused gravestones stacked up against a wall, which Amie says were ideal. The project was done with Create, the national development agency for collaborative arts, and was photographed and shown at an exhibition in The Lab in Dublin.
With many new knitting groups in recent years (the so-called “stitch and bitch” clubs), it’s probably no surprise that knitters are going public with their creations. The first guerrilla knitters are believed to be two women in the US who didn’t know what to do with the half-finished things they made in their knitting club, and started tagging monuments and public spaces in 2005, once even covering an entire single-decker bus. They wanted to make street art “warm and fuzzy”.
“The purpose of guerrilla knitting is to be able to go in and do a covert operation and get a kick from it,” says Amie. “It’s a really polite form of graffiti, which I like. I like making people think,” she says. “And it gets people knitting.”