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Getting Bombed in Boise: Yarn Bombing and Libraries

by Ruth Patterson Funabiki

Introduction

Surprising sights greeted participants at the 2011 Idaho Library Association annual conference.   Bright blue “monster feet” peeked out from under projector screens.  The banquet room podium microphone was wrapped in a rainbow of colors.  And random colorful objects appeared on water carafes and coat racks at Boise’s Centre on the Grove.  Two members of the Idaho’s Special Projects Librarian Action Team (SPLAT) had prepared a yarn bombing for the conference.  In addition to a presenting a show-and-tell conference session, Heather Redding (2011) created a handout with a bibliography for prospective librarian yarn bombers.

Sometime in the last two decades, knitting and other traditional fiber crafts began to evolve into active public art forms.  In the catalog for an exhibition entitled “Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting,” McFadden, Scanlan & Edwards (2008) theorize that rising interest in handcrafts may represent a response to the increase of digital technologies in our daily lives.  They also suggest that after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, groups of crafters may have formed because people were seeking communities of personal support.

Ruth Scheuing (2010) traces the origins of yarn bombing to an Austin, Texas woman named Magda Sayeg, whose inspiration led to the 2005 creation of a tagging group called Knitta.  Yarn bombing quickly spread all over the world, often with positive responses from public officials.  Two popular contemporary books document the movement and inspire fiber artists.  Yarn bombing: the art of crochet and knit graffiti (Moore & Prain, 2009) and Lela Nargi’s Astounding Knits (2011) display colorful examples from both professionals and amateurs.  Yarn bombing is a lively presence in social media, with multiple Facebook pages, and it appears on hundreds of boards on Pinterest.  It is no surprise, then, that commercial craft enterprises are not far behind in promoting yarn bombing.  A recent article in Time (Luscombe, 2011) identifies June 11 as International Yarn Bombing Day.

There is very little scholarly work to date on the subject of yarn bombing.   But, in her recent sociology master’s thesis, Jennifer N. Vchulek (2011) used focus groups to explore the motivations and influences for individuals who participate in yarn bombing.  She identified the motivating factors for yarn bombers as urban beautification, fiber arts legitimization, and ideas of anarchy.  This article describes those factors and suggests ways in which librarians might wish to encourage local yarn bombing activity to enhance or increase public library awareness.

Motivations for yarn bombing

Urban beautification

Many of Vchulek’s subjects indicated that they viewed yarn bombing as an opportunity to “improve the local landscape” with their handcrafted items.  This could be accomplished either through “enhancement” of existing artistic features, or by using colorful knitted or crocheted products to draw attention to “under-appreciated” items such as bicycle racks and parking meters.  Urban enhancement was definitely the point of view of Crosley (2011) who argues that although yarn bombing is often described as tagging, it belongs in the arena of public art rather than graffiti because it is intended to please average people.  Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010, Chelsea Conaboy dubbed yarn bombing the “anti-graffiti.”

Fiber arts legitimization

Vchulek found that countering the image of knitting as a “grandma” activity is another common motivation for yarn bombers.  Minahan & Cox (2007) explore this in depth in their article, describing how many young contemporary women discovered and developed a feminine Third Place after reading Debbie Stoller’s Stitch’n Bitch: a Knitter’s Handbook (2003).   As they put it, “Stich’n Bitch groups are formed by and for women who get together to knit as a highly social form of creative leisure production.”

Ideas of anarchy

Finally, a number Vchulek’s respondents seemed to identify tagging as an antiestablishment activity.  One of her focus groups got very excited while talking about dressing in black ninja costumes and sneaking around in the dark to install their yarn bombs.  Other “bombers” ply their trade in the bright sunshine and hope for the best.  Streetcolor’s Blog describes one such escapade at the Berkeley Public Library in http://streetcolor.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/yarnbombing-the-berkeley-public-library/   When dealing with city officials, it may sometimes be “easier to get forgiveness than permission.” (Bloch, 1980)

Library applications for the three kinds of motivation

How might Idaho librarians apply Vchulek’s observations in a way that enhances library programming and public image?  Based on the three motivations that Vchulek found, there are a number of possibilities.

Urban beautification

An urban beautification approach might appeal to existing community fiber arts groups–some of which may already meet at the library.  For instance, librarians may wish to invite a holiday-oriented “bombing” inside the library on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day.  The Fourth of July might lend itself to an outdoor event at the library or some other public venue.   Any of these colorful efforts might be newsworthy for the local press or television.

Recently, the Lodi Public Library in California hosted a yarn bombing as a part of its National Library Week celebrations.  A notice in the local newspaper invited participants to create colorful knitted or crocheted strips that were 6 inches wide and 100 inches long.  The library hosted an “assembling party” on April 2, and the “bombing” took place on April 9.  The yarn bombing was featured on the library website, and recorded in a video at:  http://www.lodi.gov/library/events-2012-03-Yarnbombing.html

Not every public library yarn bombing is greeted with enthusiasm!  In Berkeley, California, the North Berkeley public library branch disassembled some colorful wrappings applied to its brand new bike racks during a grand opening celebration.  Fortunately, a kindly library staff member preserved the wrappings and returned them to their maker. And Donna Corbell, Director of Library Services, was later quoted as saying “We explained to the woman that we would be glad to talk to her about putting it back up at a future date if she wished to.”  (Taylor, 2011, para. 8).

Fiber arts legitimization

The growing interest in fiber arts and crafts represents an opportunity for library program planners.  Local fiber arts groups can be invited to display their creative and decorative work in the library.  Elementary classes in knitting and crocheting present an opportunity to showcase library books and videos.  In addition, 4H groups and Girl Scout troops might also be invited either to attend instructional programs or to lead them.

Ideas of anarchy

For any publicly-funded institution, there will be limitations on this aspect of yarn bombing!  But, certainly yarn bombing offers library users an opportunity for artful free expression.  Magda Sayeg’s website and blog continue to inspire both political and aesthetic creations at: http://www.magdasayeg.com/home.php.  Several free-spirited, first person accounts of library yarn bombing escapades–including the unsuccessful North Berkeley Public Library installation– appear in a blog authored by Berkeley’s Streetcolor:   http://streetcolor.wordpress.com/

Conclusion

Yarn bombing is on the rise as a craft and art form.  Its urban origins do not limit its applicability in any size community.  Yarn bombing is also an extremely flexible medium.  It can be a solo or group effort, performed either outside or indoors.  These are among the many reasons for libraries to consider yarn bombing for community-building, public relations, and entertainment.

References

Bloch, A. (1980).  Murphy’s law book two: more reasons why things go wrong.  Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers.

Conaboy, C. (2010, April 13).  Anti-graffiti knit work, or ‘yarnbombing,’ brightens cityscape. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Crosley, S. (2011, January 1).Wild and woolly. Hemispheres. Retrieved from: http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2011/01/01/wild-and-woolly/

Luscombe, B. (2011, June 20).  A ripping good yarn! Step aside, graffiti artists, here come the knitters.  Time.

McFadden, D., Scanlan, J., & Edwards, J.S. (2008). Radical lace & subversive knitting.  Woodbridge: ACC Editions ; New York: Museum of Arts and Design.

Minahan, S. & Cox, J. (2007). Stitch’n Bitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality. Journal of material culture, 12, 5-21.

Moore, M., & Prain, L. (2009). Yarn bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Nargi, L. (2011).  Astounding knits: 101 spectacular knitted creations and daring feats.  Minneapolis: Voyageur Press.

Redding, H. (2011). Get bombed! Yarn bombed, that is.  http://www.idaholibraries.org/files/Yarn_Bomb.pdf

Sayeg, M.  Magda Sayeg: current projects. http://www.magdasayeg.com/home.php

Scheuing, R. (2010). “Urban textiles: From yarn bombing to crochet ivy chains”  Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings.  Paper 50.  http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/50

Stoller, D. (2003). Stitch’n Bitch: a Knitter’s Handbook.  New York: Workman Publishing.

Taylor, T.  (2012, April 9).  Berkeley library not thrilled about yarnbombing. Berkeleyside.  Retrieved from http://www.berkeleyside.com/2012/04/09/not-all-creative-contributions-welcome-at-library-reopening/

Vchulek, J. N. (2011). “Tag! You’re It!”: A social examination of urban yarn bombing. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Ruth Patterson Funabiki, Law Library, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Getting Bombed in Boise: Yarn Bombing and Libraries

  1. I just saw this but we held a yarn bomb during the summer to help launch a fiber arts group in the library: http://on.fb.me/PfxSS0

    Posted by Travis Porter | September 11, 2012, 1:01 pm
  2. Here is the text of a letter I composed in response to this article. My assignment, for a course in the Cuesta College Library and Information Technology program, was to compose a letter of introduction:

    I am writing to express my appreciation for the article, “Getting Bombed in Boise: Yarn Bombing and Libraries” by Ruth Patterson Funabiki in the Spring 2012 issue of The Idaho Librarian.

    Attention paid to yarn bombing in this article goes a long way toward promoting it as a legitimate art, particularly one that is of benefit to libraries.

    I recently embarked on an advocacy project of leaving yarn bombing tags at libraries. These small-scale items take the form of crocheted banner messages that wrap around a railing or tree branch.

    The tags bear messages like “Support Libraries.” “Love My Library.” One recent creation bears the Dewey classification number for books about knitting and crochet.

    I am glad to see The Idaho Librarian and the Idaho Library Association encouraging the art of yarnbombing as a way to enhance libraries’ programming and public image.

    Like the article states, “yarn bombing offers library users an opportunity for artful free expression.” As a yarn bomber, I choose to use this free expression to advocate for libraries.

    Sincerely,
    Cynthia M. Parkhill

    Posted by Cynthia Parkhill (@CynthiaParkhill) | June 30, 2012, 4:03 pm

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  1. Pingback: Spring 2012, v. 62, no. 1 « The Idaho Librarian - November 13, 2012

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