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Knit together: how yarn-bombing is taking hold

by
22 April 2022

Christian groups are using their needles to make a public statement. Pat Ashworth investigates

Felicity Howlett 

Yarn-bombing on the path up to Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. The bombing is arranged annually by a local charity called GAGA (Goodwill and Growth for Africa). Click on the gallery for more images

Yarn-bombing on the path up to Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. The bombing is arranged annually by a local charity called GAGA (Goodwill and Growth...

MY FIRST encounter with yarn-bombing was on the pier at Saltburn-by-the-Sea, in north Yorkshire, where a jaunty knitted Shakespeare with quill pen and raven leaned casually back against the railings as the surfers rode the waves and the tide washed beneath.

He was accompanied the whole length of the pier by characters from literature: everything from Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll to the Life of Pi, and the delight on people’s faces was as good a tonic as the ozone.

Yarn-bombing — sometimes called guerrilla knitting — is more than a craft. It is art form, gift, and gentle protest all rolled into one, springing up overnight on post-boxes, railings, and trees, in parks, gardens, and churchyards, and on the city streets.

It’s not about marking territory, although it can be highly political: encasing a tank or a field gun in knitting does more than emasculate its power. Churches have taken it up as a thing of beauty, a tool of mission, and a way of connecting with the community that can have a lasting impact.

Barley VillageBarley Flower Tower, Hertfordshire, completed in 2021

Barley Flower Tower, in the rural benefice of St Margaret of Antioch (St Albans), is a supreme example. Alison White, a parishioner with a background in design and textiles, was the inspiration and driving force.

Standing, miserably socially distanced, in the village shop in the dark days of the January 2021 lockdown, she reflected on the burning need for people to do something that made them feel part of something, even if they couldn’t be together physically.

The church badly needed funds to provide a lavatory, disabled access, and a servery, too. She hit on the idea of knitting and crocheting a vast net of giant flowers to cascade down the spire, and produced a flower template to be sold in the village shop.

Three hundred would make “a bit of a display”, she reckoned; 400 would be “a bit more of a display”. In the end, they had 1452 six-inch flowers, in a spectrum of colours, and the fire brigade came to help attach it to the building and peg it out on the ground.

 

MAKING was, at first, a solitary exercise at home, necessitated by the lockdown. But the Rural Dean of Buntingford, Canon Ruth Pyke, recalls how, when the rules were relaxed, groups of five, sitting two metres apart, were able to meet in the lofty, airy church building to stitch flowers on to netting resurrected from the churchwarden’s garden.

Knitting groups in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Buckinghamshire joined in, including those who normally knitted for premature babies but whose work had had to be suspended out of early fears of Covid transmission. Expats in the United States and Australia joined in.

“It just blossomed,” Canon Pyke said. “It brought well-being, it combated isolation, and it helped us move on.”

The project ran for three months, gaining momentum all the while. When the net went up on the spire on 22 June 2021, it was an instant marvel, attracting cameras from the BBC and a wealth of other publicity.

Canon Pyke became accustomed to finding people in the churchyard who had heard about the flower tower, and could not wait to come and see it.

The church became the backdrop for summer gatherings of all kinds, and the project raised £12,000 in all. Running repairs when necessary enabled it to survive the gales, and when it finally came down, in October 2021, the net was cut up and the flowers sold for £25 a piece. Someone who had found isolation difficult told Ms White, “I think you saved my life.”

 

THE Revd Dr Christine Dutton, a Methodist minister and tutor in evangelism and leadership at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, understands better than most the power of yarn-bombing.

Felicity Howlett Yarn-bombed trees near Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Her doctoral studies embraced working with a “knit-and-natter” group on an Ellesmere Port estate over a two-year period, and the Covid lockdowns, she says, galvanised the congregations she was serving into becoming more creative and innovative than before.

She was seeking to explore how knitting was being reclaimed from an overlooked skill — a “granny hobby” — to something that transformed the lives and individuals of communities in small but significant ways.

The 60 women she studied were giving birth to new Christian communities centred around knitting, “reclaiming public space to witness and share the gospel message”.

She remembers how, in December 2018, eight women gathered at Wesley Church Centre in Chester to pray, before taking out 365 knitted, crocheted, and crafted angels and placing them round the city walls. They had been created by churches around the city, with community groups and the local wool shop taking part.

To each was attached a message of hope, peace, and joy, a hashtag for social media, and a website link so that anyone who found an angel could follow up the story and connect with others.

“They offered local churches the opportunity to articulate their faith in a demonstrable way: first, praying for their communities as they create the angels, and then physically engaging in evangelism — going out to share the good news of the coming of Christ into a world in need of God’s love,” she says.

Angels were discovered by children on their way to school and people on their way to work. There have since been stars for Advent and daffodils for Easter.

When church buildings were closed, many chose to use their outside space, their windows, railings, and gardens to “convey the good news for those who would pass closed buildings on their daily walks”.

It was forget-me-not crosses which spoke most deeply. “People knitted and crocheted these to express that, while we could not gather together or express the hospitality or generosity of an open building, we were holding our community and city in prayer. We had not forgotten them, and were waiting and longing to be able to return to an open building,” Dr Dutton says.

She took them on funeral visits or to funeral services on behalf of those who could not attend. “It was an act of pastoral care, really,” she says. “As well as forget-me-nots forming the cross, expressing the pain of those we had lost to Covid-19, and not being able to gather to mourn together, congregations knitted extra crosses to be given and sent to grieving families as an expression of care and prayer.”

The tactile nature of knitting is one of the factors that makes it comforting, but slowing down is also a factor, she considers. “It induces a contemplative state which picks up historically where religious orders did lacework — people would use the repetitive nature of the task.

“When I did my research, women would often say: ‘I come down in the morning and have a cup of tea and do my knitting.’ There’s a connectedness in all this, a public act of doing.”

 

BEVERLEY MINSTER has used yarn-bombing to reflect its history as a place of sanctuary in medieval times. Those claiming sanctuary could stay for 30 days, and helped around the church in exchange for food and lodging. Most left England; a few stayed in Beverley, and, in common with pilgrims, left their graffiti on the walls as a form of devotion to St John.

Anna Knowles, who inherited the project from her predecessor as Learning and Engagement Officer, said that knitting for the Minster with that same object in mind had begun as a way of bringing people together outdoors in a safe environment.

“People find sanctuary in being together and engaging in something creative,” she says. “We have found this to be particularly important during the lockdown periods.”

Matthew Todhunter A knitted Christmas angel: yarn-bombing in Tynemouth by knitters from the North Shields and Whitley Bay Methodist Circuit

In Henley-in-Arden, a community yarn-bombing scheme began in 2016, when one individual, Annie Davies, was joined by people helping her to decorate a holly tree that was growing out of the wall of St John’s.

It grew into the campaign “Adopt a Tree”, which spread to the high street. There was a nativity in a tree that lit up at night. There were riches to be exclaimed over in knitted bees, flowers, and spiders’ webs.

The Remembering Tree, in Stratford-upon-Avon, is in the true spirit of yarn-bombing. A fund-raiser for the charity Goodwill and Growth for Africa UK (GAGA), a tree somewhere in the location is secretly decorated every December with a covering of 1500 knitted squares, half produced by women from poor communities in South Africa, and half by local communities, including all the schools in the town.

It invites donations in celebration of a loved one, and has raised £5000 to date. After a six-week period of display, the squares are washed and recycled into blankets to be either sent back to Southern Africa, or given to a local homeless charity.

Those behind the project emphasise: “Yarn-bombing is a quiet — somewhat underground — movement, and it has its shock-and-awe value. Although Stratford District Council are fully behind the Remembering Tree, and aware of its location, we want to keep it a secret so that you can get a great sense of pleasure from the surprise.”

Other trees in the town have carried knitting in celebration, including trees that line the path at Holy Trinity.

Laura EtheridgeDetail of the forget-me-not cross made during the pandemic

The yarn-bombers of St Michael’s, Stoke Gifford, “like to bring cheer to Stoke Gifford and the surrounding area by displaying knitted and crocheted items for everyone to enjoy”. Knitters from St John’s and the community in Highbridge, Burnham-on-Sea, created 1212 pairs of Christmas bells last December, secretly distributed in the small hours for people to find the following day.

It was the fifth year of operation: in previous years, they have made angels, stars, candles, and choristers. Each pair of bells includes a festive message from St John’s, and residents are encouraged to put them on their Christmas trees.

“We know children especially love finding the knitted items, and we hope it brings a lot of joy to the community of Highbridge,” a knitter from St John’s, Lorna Williams, said.

There’s even an International Yarn-Bombing Day, which this year takes place on 11 June. Organisers describe it as “when fibre-freaks from around the world go on a knitting rampage to embrace the world in warm, fuzzy comfort”.

“It is about creating a sense of belonging and conveying meaning, as well as drawing attention to something that is ignored by most people,” they say, highlighting 104-year-old Grace Brett, who planted her designs on 46 landmarks around the Scottish Borders in 2016, and who was “possibly the world’s oldest street artist”.

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