Take back the knit

Urban crafting weaves "women's work" into protest

Magda Sayeg stitchs up a Mexico City bus


STREETWISE The dinosaur outside my library makes my day. Someone knit a little green bike rack cozy with floppy yellow spikes, right next to the rack that now has a custom-sized, rainbow-colored, beaded sweater. Indeed, the whole neighborhood has been knit-tagged — the stretch of Divisadero between Post and California streets has nary a rack that hasn't been dressed against the spring chills.

The woman who answered the phone at Atelier Yarns, the knitting store down the block on Divisadero, didn't know who had done the pieces, which is not to say they'd gone unnoticed. "They're really good," she said. "I wish I knew who had done them."

Digging further, I fell into the deep abyss of Internet craft blogs and found that the Western Addition isn't the only place where knit is joining the textures of the concrete jungle. Across the world, "yarn bombing" groups have sprung up. Last year, a group altered the Oakland-Berkeley border's controversial "Here There" statues, knitting a colorful cozy over the T in "There" that renders the words equal, symbolically erasing the hierarchical positioning of the two bergs. There have been knitted seat covers on Philly's Blue line subway and a knitted tank cover in shades of Pepto-Bismol pink in Copenhagen — not to mention jauntily decorated stop signs, trees, and railings the world over.

Magda Sayeg, a.k.a. PolyCotn, is generally regarded as the mother of this peaceful barrage. So I called her to find out why she — and now the rest of the world — yarn bombs.

It all started seven years ago with a knit cover for the doorknob of her Houston art studio. "It was about me making my door-handle pretty," she remembers. Then she knitted a cover for a stop sign, which attracted lots of attention. "People would get out of the car, take pictures, scratch their head."

She did more pieces. She formed a yarn bomb collective called "Knitta Please." Since then, Sayeg has knitted everything from a riotously rainbow cover on a Mexico City bus to a powder pink coat for a single stone on the Wall of China.

Sayeg's work makes knitting, once a private activity, part of the public domain. "You're taking something so traditional and homey and placing it in an environment — graffiti art, it's so male-dominated."

Which is not to say that she doesn't locate yarn bombing inside the tradition of street art. "I identify with the street artists more than the knitters," Sayeg says, remembering the first time she saw the moaning cartoon faces of a gallery show by seminal SF street artist Barry McGee. "That really rocked my perception of what street art was. You could say [the yarn bombing] story started there."

Like "traditional" street artists, Sayeg uses her creations to make her mark on her physical surroundings. She loves tagging the redundant bits of the urban landscape, like street posts whose signs have been removed and rendered useless. "It's a visual pollution that we just accept. There's no reason why we shouldn't cover up something that's not needed." She pointed to the 3-D video game sprites of Space Invader and moss graffiti artists like Edina Tokodi as others who "are putting the can down" in the street art world.

But Sayeg also likes how yarn bombing questions the assumptions of what knitting is, which brings us to the question of the genre's feminist interpretation. Though there are certainly male yarn bombers, you can't deny that this kind of functional art, and craft in general, has historically been thought of as "women's work" — and has had its worth denigrated and minimized as such. With yarn bombing, "there's something there that might make people uncomfortable. An edge to something that never seems edgy. Like we're supposed to be making sweaters and socks," Sayeg says.

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