Meet the guerrilla knitters

Public places are being decorated with colourful knitted objects. Melanie Clay reports on how this new fad for knitting is changing the world – one stitch at a time
Who would have thought that the simple act of knitting a colourful cosy for a shop door handle would have resulted in the ever-increasing popularity of fuzzy street art or ‘yarn bombing’? Otherwise known as guerrilla knitting, granny graffiti and urban knitting, yarn bombing was born in Texas in 2005 when Magda Sayeg placed that pink-and-blue cosy on the door handle of her quirky boutique. Immediately, passers-by were intrigued. ‘People got out of their cars just to come and look at it,’ Magda recalls.

Inspired by that first cosy, similar knitted objects began appearing on nearby trees, road signs and lampposts. A group of frustrated knitters, called Knitta Please, was formed and together they found a new purpose for their unfinished woollen projects. Word spread via the internet and soon there were groups all over the world. No one knows how many – but they are increasing every day.

Most groups remain secretive, with names such as Deadly Knitshade, Twilight Taggers, Knit The City and Yarn Bombers. They work under the cover of darkness, photographing their handiwork in situ and then posting it on to websites for fellow collaborators to comment on.

One group, the Yarn Bomb Yukon Collective, has unveiled one of the most ambitious projects to date – a knitted cosy for a historic wartime DC-3 aeroplane.

The WI broke the record for the most people knitting at the same time for 15 minutesThe WI broke the record for the most people knitting at the same time for 15 minutes

But while it began in the US, the UK has not escaped the tangled web of fibre art. Last year, the pier at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire was decorated with Olympic themed knitlings by a mystery knitter. The good folk of Mousehole in Cornwall were also surprised to find 69 knitted mice hanging from railings and postboxes.

On Mothering Sunday, meanwhile, Truro was adorned with knitted and crocheted flowers, courtesy of Graffiti Grannys. Norwich was also ‘bombed’ recently, although the knitters local authorities removed the art the same day – much to the chagrin of the Norfolk Ninja Knitters, who took responsibility for the artwork and demanded that their work was returned to them.

Even the Women’s Institute in Stoke Newington has been at it. They held a yarn-bombing event to celebrate International Women’s Day, where nimble-fingered members scaled the highest branches to adorn trees with pompoms. Their president has been quoted as saying how wonderful it was to see the locals wake up and marvel at the colourful sight that greeted them – a fair few smiles were noticed and many photographs were taken. It certainly got heads turning and tongues wagging.

Another WI, this time in South Yorkshire, also had a great time ‘bombing’ the town centre. Group member Donna Tuxford said: ‘The town centre looked fantastic and all the shopkeepers said how much it had improved the area.’

Guerrilla knitters

A Nottinghamshire WI has plans to commemorate the birth of their founder with a yarn installation at their hall in the near future, too. Over the Irish Sea, Dublin’s Molly Malone was yarn bombed, as was the Galway Hooker statue. Also, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen have been ‘targeted’, as have Cardiff and Swansea.

Guerrilla knitting is intended to brighten up public places and bring a smile to the faces of passers-by. ‘In this world of technology, overdevelopment, fewer trees and more concrete,’ says Magda, ‘it is empowering to beautify your environment.’

Many career artists have also taken up the concept – but prefer to refer to their art as ‘installations’. They have also taken the fad much further. New York-based artist, Olek, has covered and blanketed bicycles, swimming pools and even a charging-bull statue – but refuses to be associated with yarn bombing.

‘I don’t yarn bomb, I make art,’ said Olek. ‘If someone calls my bull a yarn bomb, I get really upset.’

A scarf featuring woollen athletes on Saltburn pier railingsA scarf featuring woollen athletes on Saltburn pier railings

Uplifting as it may be, bringing cheeriness, if not a little curiosity, to a dull morning, the act is still illegal and is regarded as graffiti. So far, however, there are no recorded prosecutions as most local authorities regard it as a positive thing, although one Washington urban knitter came close to being arrested when she tried to yarn bomb a signpost in front of FBI headquarters. A guard demanded that she stopped immediately.

‘Ma’am,’ he said, ‘put down the needles and step away with the knitting.’

But is it just for fun or is there a serious side to this urban yarn tagging? Magda has closed the shop where it all began and now employs staff to help her to fulfil her many commissions, knitting not only by hand but with machines, too. Mini Cooper, Toyota, and Smart Car even got her to yarn bomb their vehicles for advertisements – commissions that came with a $20,000 pay cheque; a serious price tag for a woollen cosy, and enough to keep anybody, or thing, warm.