I have a confession to make: I’m not generally fond of yarn bombing. But the film Yarn, featuring four fiber artists and narrated by Barbara Kingsolver, is making me rethink that stance.
As in other fields (such as pottery) that bridge the span between “art” and “craft,” a problem for fiber artists trying to make a name for themselves is that they encounter resistance from both the arts community and the general public in trying to get their work taken seriously. Olek, featured in this film, mentions an encounter with a man who dismissed her work because her medium is yarn rather than paint or some other more traditional fine arts medium. Paradoxically, she has publicly discounted the work of other yarn bombers and fiber graffiti artists as not being real art. This got under the skin of many knitters and crocheters, who consider that they put as much skill into their more functional endeavors as Olek does into her art pieces.
Happily, Tinna and the other artists featured in Yarn have a higher regard for the craftsmanship of their fellow fiber artists.
Fiber arts skills are no longer strictly necessary in an era of mass-produced textiles. Practitioners of knitting and crochet do so not because they need to make clothing but because the craft gives them a means of self-expression and embodies — literally – the threads of culture, tradition and friendship that tie us together. Modern knitters have a phrase, “knit-worthy,” to designate a friend or relative who they deem worth the time and care required to make a garment by hand. If the potential recipient is ungrateful or careless, they’re not worth the investment of labor and attention. A pair of hand-knitted socks contains about $24 in yarn and $100 in labor, so it is not worth a knitter’s time to make socks, let alone a sweater, for someone who regards them as no better than something bought at Target. Bespoke clothing is much more personal than off-the-rack; the textile arts connect the giver and the recipient in an intimate relationship.
At the same time, it is routine for non-knitters to undervalue or denigrate the craft. As any knitter knows, the act of knitting in public invites strangers to approach and demand that you knit them a hat or scarf or to insist that you ought to be knitting for a charity rather than making a scarf for yourself.
The artists featured in Yarn use their craft as a means of bridging the gap between public and private worlds. It is precisely the intimate nature of handmade textiles that these fiber artists are using to establish connections between the audience and their environment.
Tinna Thorudottir Thorvaldsdottir, a yarn graffiti artist from Iceland, talks about respect for the craftsmanship and materials of knitting and crochet as a means of women’s artistic expression. The fiber arts are traditionally undervalued specifically because they are seen as women’s work, done in private and strictly for personal use. Practical art is not of lesser value just because it is practical. She sees the fiber arts as a way of honoring women’s legacy and contributions to society. Her art is a way of bringing “female energy” to the gray, hard concrete surfaces of urban streets, connecting the interior and exterior worlds. Taking needlework out of its “indoors” context and putting it outdoors as art makes people see it differently.
Tinna also uses her work for political purposes. One of her pieces protests the political situation in Iceland. She takes her “crochet graffiti” to Cuba and discusses the subtlety needed to protest in an environment where artists go to jail for being too open in their criticism of the government.
Tinna’s view of her work and its context in the greater world of women’s work is in direct contrast with the stance of the second artist. Olek, born in Poland, talks about growing up under a Communist regime where self-expression was discouraged. Her project “Locomotive”, which wraps a train in crocheted blankets, is an expression of the increased open-mindedness of modern Polish society. Despite her earlier statement to the New York Times, here she says that she sees her art as a storytelling medium that ties people and generations together.
Olek uses crochet as a medium for protesting environmental degradation and other issues. Overall, however, I had a hard time figuring out what Olek was trying to say. She has four actors who wear head-to-toe crocheted outfits that obscure their faces. These are seen dancing in city streets, posing on lava flows in Hawaii, and climbing trees, but the viewer is given little context to decipher these characters’ symbolism.
Tilde Björfors, Artistic Director and Founder of Circus Cirkör in Denmark, uses knitting as a metaphor for struggling with the complexities of life. Life is full of tangles and complications. Like the tightrope walkers in the circus, we are all walking on a thin line and trying to make sense of the world around us. The artist takes the material and can make it into anything.
The fourth artist profiled is Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, co-founder of Net Play Works. Toshi started her career making static textile sculptures in a traditional art context, meant to be observed, not touched. Even though Toshi’s background is in the fine arts world, not craft knitting, it has taken decades for Toshi’s interactive work to be seen as art, not just playground equipment.
Toshi found that the isolated, static nature of fine art sculpture didn’t satisfy her. Textiles are made for people, for comfort or clothing. When she started making works that people could climb on and interact with, she found the missing component. Her textiles became living things. The children playing in her sculptures feel the each other’s movements through the net-like structure of the work.
The movie rambles a bit, but overall the threads do come together as a cohesive garment. If Yarn has an overall theme, it’s interconnectedness, either with the traditions of the past, with each other, or with the world as a whole. The divide between art and craft knitting and crochet is, in actuality, a very thin one, and (despite Olek’s protestations) should be abolished, just as the wall between street art and gallery art is crumbling with the advent of artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. And we should value women’s traditional mediums as much as we value more stereotypically male mediums such as paint or metal.
Mara Riley is the author of Whatever Shall I Wear: a Guide to Assembling a Woman’s Basic 18th Century Wardrobe and is a lifelong fiber addict. She can be found at marariley.net.