Knot Your Grandmother’s Yarn

Crocheted Wall Street bull, pic by Olek, NYC, 2010.

By Sarah Emily Gilbert 

Leather, move over.

Furs and leathers are surrounded by controversy for their use of animal skins. They represent the exotic, the risqué, and the fierce. Yarn, on the other hand, comes from goat farms and often suggests homespun domesticity and grandmothers. However, the typically unsexy material is undergoing a revival. Thanks to women who are using the medium in unconventional ways, yarn is becoming a means of personal expression.

Yarn art has gained popularity with the help of the “yarn bombing” movement, where artists dress everyday objects like bicycle racks, park benches, or telephone poles in a vibrant crochet covering. While some of the public artworks are commissioned, a true bombing is unannounced, leaving a colorful surprise for city dwellers on their morning commute. Since the early 2000s, Magda Sayeg, a Texas native, has been responsible for a myriad of these displays, but she is best known for covering a bus in Mexico City with knitted blankets. In 2005, she founded Knitta Please, a group of Houston knit graffiti artists, and over the years, similar groups have formed worldwide.

In London, Knit the City’s Yarn Corps “sneakily stiches” phone boxes, bollards, and the like. They’ve completed larger projects for prominent companies, such as their Woolly Owools yarn storm for designer Ted Baker in 2013. To announce the opening of the Ted Baker store in Leeds, the group placed their adorable knit owls throughout London. Knit the City’s puns are just as masterful as their handiwork. Yarn artist, Deadly Knitshade, founded the group in 2009 and wrote a book about their rebel crocheting in Knit the City: A Whodunnknit Set in London.

Bold Stitches

One of the scene’s most prolific artists is Agata Oleksiak, known as Olek. Unlike her knitting counterparts, Olek works alone. Originally from Silesia, Poland, Olek moved to Brooklyn, where she took the city by yarn storm. You might be familiar with the colorful winter sweater she crocheted for the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street on Christmas Eve, 2010. Like the sculpture’s original artist, Arturo DiModica, Olek created the piece without permission in response to the most recent stock market crash. The popularity of the sweater-clad bull ignited people’s desire to use yarn in similar ways.

“When I started, nobody could spell the word crochet, no one was doing it,” explains Olek. “Albert Einstein said, ‘The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one else has been.’ So in 2012, I crocheted his statue in Washington, D.C. I am still surprised I was able to pull it off guerilla style with all the special service and police that surround that area.”

Olek is internationally recognized for her yarn storming, but she is also known for her fierce independence. As the movement gained momentum, Olek took her work in a different direction. “I separated myself from the yarn bombing scene simply because I didn’t like it,” she says. “I felt like a mother who was disappointed with her children’s choices. It lacked creativity and originality. People were not pushing themselves to make new choices and, instead, were repeating what was publicly approved.”

Olek’s redirection not only increased yarn’s popularity, but also its power. Knitting and crocheting are often stereotyped as the passive activities of homemakers, but Olek helped turn them into forms of activism. “As an active supporter of women’s rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression, I have used the broad appeal of my work to display my solidarity with those stifled by oppressive laws worldwide,” she explains.

In September 2016, Olek, along with a group of Syrian and Ukranian women, covered an entire home in Kerava, Finland with hot pink crochet. During the Winter War in 1939, bombs landing nearby had threatened the home, and the family who owned it had to flee. As many of the women who assisted Olek were refugees, the project symbolized their ability to recreate a home for themselves, work as a community, and bring hope to a seemingly bleak situation.

At times, Olek’s work can be delightfully irreverent as when she enclosed humans in crocheted head-to-toe onesies as part of her exhibit, Knitting is for Pus**** at the Christopher Henry Gallery in New York. She also crocheted, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” on the streets of London for an International Women’s Day project at Stolen Space Gallery. At other times, her art is simply extraordinary, as when she concealed a four-car locomotive in Lodz, Poland in just two days.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Olek’s provocative creations, the yarn aficionado has been widely recognized for her work. She was named one of 40 influential American craft artists under 40 by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As a result, Knitting is for Pus**** was included in the Smithsonian’s 2012-2013 40 Under 40: Craft Futures Exhibition. For the installation, Olek displayed a crocheted replica of her studio apartment, which featured a cozy covering for every item in the space from the ceiling to the toilet. Her work has been shown in other prominent galleries and museums worldwide including the Brooklyn Museum and Art Basel Miami, where she covered walls, boulders, and people in crochet for Women on the Walls, a mural project that celebrated female artists and the changing face of street art. Olek has also received press in publications such as The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and Vogue.

Knitting is for Puss****, pic Jeffrey Kilmer, NYC, 2010.

Sewn Into Film and Fashion

Film director Una Lorenzen has caught on to the yarn trend, and more importantly, the fearless women behind it. Her 2016 documentary, Yarn follows Olek and a handful of other female artists from around the world who are using the unexpected medium to spread influential messages. Recently, the film was screened at the 8th Annual Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York City.

Yarn is also stitching its way into the fashion scene. Prior to the yarn craze, if someone said your sweater looked handmade, they’d likely be met with some side eye. However, in the DIY era where hipsters rule and cool and casual is king, a handmade look can be the goal. Often times, the more nuanced and unique an item appears, the pricier it becomes. This has created an ideal environment for knitwear to enter the world of designer fashion.

The prominent fashion website, Fashionisers named crocheted outerwear as one of spring/summer 2016’s biggest trends. Tommy Hilfiger’s 2016 spring ready to wear collection featured entire ensembles made of yarn, along with crocheted bikinis, sandals, jewelry, and other warm-weather essentials. London Kaye, a more recent addition to the New York street-yarn scene, partnered with Red Valentino for a knit-inspired capsule collection. The classically trained dancer went from pirouettes to purl stitches when she started crocheting playful scenes on fences. Now, her special edition knitwear is selling for upwards of $750.

A Close-Knit Community

On January 21, 2017, there was a yarn bombing of a different sort when pink knit hats with cat ears covered the National Mall during the Women’s March on Washington.

Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman of Los Angeles started the Pussyhat Project as a way to show female solidarity in the wake of the 2017 presidential election. Suh and Zweiman’s project called upon women to knit, sew, or crochet pink “pussyhats” to send to marchers for them to wear at the rally. With the aid of social media, it is estimated that over 50,000 hats were sent to the nation’s capital from crafters around the world. As a result, the hats came to not only symbolize women’s reappropriation of the taboo euphemism into a term for female empowerment, but also their reclamation of knitting.

The Pussyhat Project brought knitting out of the home onto the streets and into our political system. Like a nationwide knitting circle, it provided women a safe, female-centric arena to generate dialogue and voice their concerns. Each crafter’s personal story was stitched into a hat, which in the end, created a blanket of will that relayed a message of power and protest at the capital.

To pull a loose string on the knits of 2017 is to unravel a multifaceted world of art, fashion, and feminism. With the advent of social media and social networking websites like Ravelry.com, knitters and crocheters have been able to connect with fellow enthusiasts and share their creations with the masses. This has contributed to the resurgence of knitting and a revamping of yarn. Maybe it’s time to whip out your knitting needles, because along with formidable females, yarn is here to stay.

“Our Pink House” in Avesta, Sweden, pic by Mikael Bakaldin