Yen Magazine: Knit Wit

The new Yen is out and it has my article on knit graffiti and the ‘mother of yarn bombing’ in it. Go buy. Here’s the article.

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Who doesn’t love a good yarn? Magda Sayeg is taking knitting to the street with her woolly graffiti, which demands nothing more than a smile as you spot a colourful tag in the most unlikely of urban spaces.

Magda Sayeg, founder of guerilla knitting group Knitta Please, is sitting on a sandstone wall between a park and a busy city road. Beyond the road stands the concrete jungle. In the park people are busy with their lunchtime boxercise class. Magda is stitching the lengths of a long colourful knitted piece of material together. It will soon cover a sign post that has no sign.

“This is perfect!” she says as she spies the metal pole. We have come from putting hats on the giant chess pieces in Hyde Park, much to the bemusement of the old men earnestly considering their next move. Magda says the chess pieces were her favourite tags since arriving in the city a few days earlier – until now.

“This is my statement piece,” she says about the pole. “It’s really what it’s all about.”

Magda is probably one of the only people in the world who would look at a signless sign post and see the perfect canvas for her art. The so-called ‘mother of yarn bombing’ has been decorating urban landscapes with her colourful knitted tags around the world for the past four years. Her work is steadily gaining recognition and Magda has begun to expand into installation pieces for galleries and hotels, such as The Standard in Los Angeles.

It started out innocently enough when she was sitting at her desk in a clothing store in Houston, Texas. Boredom compelled her to wrap the cold metal door handle on the front entrance with the scarf she was busily knitting at the time. Magda then began to notice something. The soft knitted covering on the door attracted people’s attention. It was no longer just an inanimate object – it became soft to the touch and pleasing to the eye, something to interact with.

“I did the door handle and the people who passed by the shop really liked it,” she says.

Shortly after this revelation Magda felt the urge to wrap the stop sign pole across the road. She enlisted the help of a friend who offered up an unfinished baby blanket for the cause.

“That was our first piece and it was so much fun. People got out of their car that time and stopped and took pictures in front of it, and touched it and brushed their head against it. It was clearly causing a stir and I knew that if this was just a door handle and a stop sign pole, I was ready to lay it on! We did every stop sign pole in the whole neighbourhood. And then we started to come up with all sorts of fun ideas, like antenna cosies – so we would tag people’s cars and put this knitted piece on their antennas.”

Her work is an homage to women’s crafting traditions and its association with family, warmth and love but it is also about bringing that warmth to the hard urban landscape – making it softer and more engaging. City-dwellers have expertly honed their tunnel vision in their day-to-day lives but as people walk past the pole, now wrapped in a bright patchwork of yarn, which Magda’s husband “the installer” expertly sheathed over the top, it is evident that people’s perception of this normally mundane object has changed. Passersby smile as they remark to friends, kids point at it and pull at their mother’s hands, some people even stop to touch it.

“I’m taking a craft that is really familiar and bringing it into a different context, which I think, on the most part, has been quite successful. It brings up nostalgia, it brings up warm feelings, thoughts, memories. That’s what it did for me – that first piece was a cold door handle that was inanimate and I wanted it to be warm and fuzzy and make me feel good. I didn’t really go beyond that – any more thought or ambitions – but when I realised I liked it and other people liked it, that’s when I decided to continue doing it.”

Magda is a fan of subtlety. Her favourite pieces are small exclamation points of colour in places where it may go unnoticed. However, her biggest feat was not so subtle. She was commissioned to cover the whole outer shell of a bus in Mexico City.

“The bus will always be the sweetest one,” she said. “I started off doing antenna cosies and stop-sign poles. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be wrapping a bus in Mexico city!”

Her artwork challenges not only the traditional crafting of yore but also the raw, hard-edges of street-art and has thus drawn criticism from both older generation crafters for using yarn in a non-utilitarian way and graffiti artists who see knit-tagging as ‘soft’ – no pun intended.

“There are some graffiti artists who hate me. I think it’s because I’m not conforming to be like an arrogant male – I’m sorry, I don’t feel the need to have this persona in order to get legitimacy,” she said. “In any case, I think yarn is bad-ass, just as bad-ass, if not more, than spray cans. I mean, it’s been with us from the beginning of our time. God, if you think about it, there is so much that is threaded in our lives, DNA for instance. Thread and what you can do with thread is amazing.”

And to those who chide her for not expending her energy knitting blankets for the homeless, Magda has a simple message – back off, it’s art.

“I don’t want to get too artsy about it but I don’t think that because you can make a jumper with it, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything else with it. It is still powerful and compelling and can be other things. And I think that is what people are engaged about. Sometimes we need things that don’t have to do with the basics and just have to do with feeding your soul. People undervalue that part and it is really important. Even people that don’t necessarily think they are into art. Sometimes you look at a flower and you smile, sometimes you look at a bird up in the sky and you smile. These things are visual and I think necessary in every day life.”

Which is exactly why Magda is bringing these visual delights to a street corner near you. Forget waking up to smell the roses, it’s all about feeling the yarn.