When the Carrboro Arts Committee proposed a yarn bombing project to the Board of Aldermen, its members envisioned lampposts brightened by blue and yellow cozies, benches warmed by rainbow-colored blankets and a town covered in color in unexpected places.
The Carrboro yarn bombing project is an example of mainstream acceptance of this guerilla form of street art. Over the past six years, yarn bombing has evolved from a small group of knitters sewing cozies around urban fixtures to an international movement that adds color and comfort to dreary, harsh urban environments.
Vanessa Hays is a knitter working on the project. She has been yarn bombing Carrboro and the UNC campus since February. Examples of her work include a hat on the statue of a woman outside of Carr Mill Mall and knitted leaves hung in the trees outside Weaver Street Market. All of her pieces in Carrboro disappeared within one or two weeks, but she doesn't know who removed them.
While Hays said she's enthusiastic about the Carrboro project, she acknowledges the phenomenon's mainstream, even commercialized, acceptance conflicts with the original rebellious intent of yarn bombing.
"It seems like a cool idea to me ... but sort of the spirit of it is to do it without official approval," Hays said.
Like yarn itself, yarn bombing (also known as yarn storming or guerilla knitting) is a fuzzier form of street art. Although "bombing" is a graffiti term, yarn bombing lacks the danger of say, a Banksy piece. And although technically illegal, yarn bombing isn't heavily prosecuted because the knit cozies can be easily removed.
While yarn bombing has become popular in some cities, others are not so accepting. A knitter from Berkeley, Calif., who, as an homage to graffiti culture, prefers to remain anonymous, goes by the pseudonym Streetcolor. She has yarn bombed in cities across the country, including Asheville and Charlotte. But, she said, officials in the North Carolina cities were not as tolerant as those in her hometown.
"The three bike racks I put up in Charlotte came down in eight hours, which is a record for me," Streetcolor told the Indy. "In Asheville, one parking meter stayed up for two weeks and then was taken down. So those cities are strict and you might even get ticketed there. As yarn bombing gets more known, there might be more tolerance."
Streetcolor said that when she yarn bombs in a new town she does it at night to avoid being caught by police or local parks and recreation officials. But once she gets a feel for how accepting the town is, she yarn bombs during the day and elicits positive reactions from passersby.
"When I yarn bombed in Asheville and Charlotte, the people who talked to me on the streets were very encouraging and excited, but told me that the city would not allow graffiti," Streetcolor said.
The yarn bombing movement can be traced bto Magda Sayeg and her guerilla knitting group, Knitta Please, founded in 2005 in Houston. Since then, yarn bombing has gone global, inspiring groups like Masquerade in Stockholm and Knit the City in London. The movement, predictably, has been aided by the Internet. There are hundreds of pictures of yarn bombings on Flickr, and this year, knitters on Facebook and Ravelry organized the first International Yarn Bombing Day, held June 11.
Over the past few years, the movement has attracted commercial attention outside of online knitting communities. In 2009, two knitters from Vancouver, Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, published Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti. In 2010, Toyota hired Sayeg to knit a Prius "sweater" for an ad. A documentary about Knitta Please is in production, the trailer for which was played before many showings at the SXSW film festival this year.
Jan Gehl, professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen, has extensively researched the quality of life in public spaces. He distinguishes between functional activities—those that take place regardless of the quality of the environment—and recreational activities, those that depend on what a place can offer and the way people feel about it. According to his website, he believes that the best urban environments foster community by encouraging both kinds of activities.
However, many urban areas prioritize functionality and cost over recreation, which leads to an abundance of gray concrete and steel and a lack of inviting spaces. Where public design fails, it's up to individuals to add color and comfort, and yarn bombing is a way to do that.
"It's so satisfying to see how yarn bombing humanizes and domesticates a street," Streetcolor said.
Some knitters view yarn bombing as a comment on the masculinity of urban spaces. Carol Hummel is an artist from Newbury, Ohio, who won a public art competition in 2005 for her installation on a tree outside of the Cleveland Heights City Hall. She covered the trunk of the tree, from the base to the highest branch, at a height of about 600 inches, in a red, yellow, pink and blue striped cozy. The tree remained covered in yarn until 2008. Her website says that the installation took a "natural object representing masculinity and strength" and covered it in a "handmade blanket representing femininity and comfort."
Hummel told the Indy that she has never had trouble getting official permission for projects. "The city not only supported my project, City Hall fought for it. They adamantly wanted me to crochet the tree in front of City Hall," Hummel said. However, she admits, she later learned that Cleveland Heights is the "tree city," which probably contributed to officials' enthusiasm for her project.
Hummel, who has been using yarn in her artwork since 2003, said that the tree in Cleveland Heights was not intended to be a yarn bombing, simply an artistic installation using yarn. She realizes, though, that her installation coincided with the rise of the yarn bombing movement and has inspired many yarn bombers.
Since then, Hummel said, she has yarn bombed with and without permission. In 2009 she took part in a project much like the Carrboro one, to yarn bomb Cleveland Heights and Larchmere, Ohio. She and a team of volunteers covered 200 parking meters, 15 light poles and 50 trees.
"As an artist, I think yarn bombing is a way to bring art to the people," Hummel said. "Whether yarn bombing is done in stealth or with permission, I think it's an extremely positive, creative, uplifting, happy experience for the people creating it as well as the people seeing it and living with it."
Although Streetcolor enjoys the spontaneous aspect of yarn bombing on her own, or with one or two accomplices, she acknowledges that a new development in the movement is to form groups for large, permitted installations, and that often that is the best option for knitters who want their work to last. She said, "It's different than the street art that I do but it's still wonderful."
The Carrboro Yarn Bombing Subcommittee, made up of arts committee members Laura Korch, Hassan Melehy and Stephanie Russ, have relied primarily on word of mouth and Facebook to recruit support and welcome knitters of all experience levels.
It's uncertain which Carrboro landmarks will be yarn bombed. However, since the project members sought town approval, only town-owned property can be covered—although a loophole in the guidelines states that project members can ask private businesses and residences to yarn bomb on their property, but not as part of the official town project.
Once the pieces are completed, which could take from two to four months, yarn bombers plan to install all of the pieces simultaneously. One morning, this fall, residents of Carrboro will wake up to a brighter, more colorful world.
Rebecca Collins is an intern at the Indy.
Correction: A typo has been corrected; see comments below.