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Cultural Indicator


It began gently, innocently. A clothing boutique owner in Houston created a knitted cozy for the doorknob of her shop, and people began to take notice. Pretty soon, she and a group of rogue knitters were stealthily providing bright multi-colored covers for stop signs, telephone poles, and lamp posts citywide, all tagged with their handle, Knitta Please. This being 2005, people posted pictures of the knitted bits on the internets, and the gently subversive act of yarnbombing spread worldwide with alarming rapidity. Legions of hipster chicks who were already knitting up a post-feminist storm finally had a delightfully craftivist outlet. Yarnbombing collectives formed in major metros in the spirit of situationist disruption, and groups of guerilla knitters would steal out after dark and apply their skills to anything in the urban environment that looked a bit chilly or bare.

Quickly noticed by urban trendspotters, yarnbombing’s charming visual impact was soon co-opted by parks departments, art museums, and car commercials. The woman in Houston who started it all is no longer knitting by hand or covering items illegally at night — she manages a team with looms, and they work on pieces commissioned by corporate sponsors who want their ads and artifacts to exude an oh-so-now Grandma Revival warmth. She’s even partnered with Sunglass Hut to wrap glasses frames in a bit of soft whimsy. Where will it end?

Yarnbombing may have a faddish quality to its meteoric rise but it’s an indicator worth noting, because it speaks deeply about our current yearnings and sensibilities. Steeped in a DIY ethos that celebrates the handmade and the human, yarnbombing’s beauty and power comes from the spirit it brings to everything it touches. While the hard-edged tags of traditional urban graffiti are cultural signifiers of gang violence, willful destruction of property, knives and guns and drugs and devaluing of human life, yarnbombing turns this visual language around completely, cueing grandma and soft blankets and hugs and gentle unconditional love. Putting a warm blanket onto a filthy metal streetlamp is preposterous, but profoundly beautiful, evocative of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Filling Station, which illuminates an unexpected hand-crocheted doily in a grimy old grease-covered gas station, and concludes: Somebody loves us all.

Although yarnbombing has gone from fringe to mainstream in a matter of years, there’s no denying its still-powerful visual impact. Whether in a Prius commercial or on the fire escape of a time-scarred tenement, yarnbombing speaks of tenderness and care and humanity, because of the powerful maternal symbology of wrapping a child in a hand-made blanket. When we see a yarnbomb, we can’t help but feel a little warm inside, but not in a mawkish way, because the gesture is intrinsically subversive. We are living in a world of soulless mass-produced objects, and yarnbombing adds a layer of much-craved humanity to everything it touches. Even if mass-produced on a loom for a mercenary car company trying to tug at the heartstrings of their “creative class” target audience, yarnbombing still manages to add a layer of soul to everything it touches. We automatically anthropomorphize its inanimate recipient, and we imbue the swaddling gesture with tender care. And for a brief moment, a formerly soulless object comes alive, and the oppressive gritty indifference of the urban landscape is illuminated as if from within.

Yarnbombing’s power comes from our pent-up yearning for the human touch, and from the creative class’s increasing dissatisfaction with the urban environment. There’s an interesting cultural migration happening, documented most notably by Garreau in his Edge City 2.0 (or “Santa-Fe-ing of the Planet”) concept, where he tracks the recent movement of the creative classes out of major metros and into areas that are human-scale, connected to nature and community, beautiful and livable in ways that concrete jungles simply aren’t. The thinking goes that our adaptive imaginations can develop aesthetics of urban grime and raw concrete and rusty metal and warehouse chic, but our millions of years embedded in nature will ultimately overrule, and the physical and psychic yearnings for fresh air and natural landscapes will prevail as environmental psychology becomes more well known. Yarnbombs, like urban agriculture, are a direct expression of the desire to make the urban environment human and alive. They are the aesthetic counterpart of food trucks; although streetlight cozies will not fill your stomach the way grilled cheese sandwiches might, they comfort us just as deeply.

Will yarnbombing fade away one day? Perhaps when people stop knitting, and urban environments stop being cold, dehumanizing and filthy. Sure, there are many jaded people who recognize its faddishness and its corporatization. (Google “yarnbombing jumped the shark” and you’ll see many eager for this phenomenon to die.) But even without the edge of illegality, yarnbombing is still compelling in its own right. The profoundly maternal gesture, coupled with the situationist spirit of play and disruption, is far too deep to ignore or vanish completely. It was a citizen’s group, not a corporation, that declared June 11th, 2011 the first ever International Yarnbombing Day.

Like the recent bacon fixation, yarnbombing is one of those phenomena that will just get bigger and bigger, eventually settling comfortably into its cultural role, fans and detractors clamoring all the way. As art, yarnbombing’s aesthetic contribution is as significant as Christo’s fabric-wrapped bridges, and its use of the homespun vernacular and the human-scale is revolutionary in its own right. Yarnbombing will soon become as oversaturated as the word “artisan,” but its mark on early 21st century aesthetics will be indelible, and it will open the gates for many more acts of aesthetic urban humanism to come.

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© egg, 2012. Excerpt from upcoming book by Hilary Bromberg, The Birth of Neonaturism.