Illustration by Cat O’Neil
It’s a blustery day in October, autumn is well and truly here and I’ve come to Crystal Palace in search of Deadly Knitshade; stitch ‘n’ bitch guru, yarnbomber extraordinaire, cancer survivor and general good egg. She’s been giving me the slip, if you’ll excuse the knitting pun, all week, but thanks to a bit of twitter stalking and a few phone calls I’ve finally tracked her down to the children’s section of Upper Norwood Public Library. Her work is included as part of the Crystal Palace Children’s Book Festival. When I arrive, comic artists the Etherington Brothers are doing an illustration workshop with a bunch of kids, all of whom seem enthralled. As I walk in there’s some kind of question and answer session going on, and about 30 small boys are desperately trying to attract attention to themselves, arms propped-up on heads, hands waiving frantically in the air. One is bouncing up and down in his seat so hard he looks dangerously like he might burst, while another two boys sit at the back, on a child-sized table, scribbling contentedly. It’s a heart-warming scene, but I’m not here to talk about books. It was recently National Wool Week and knitting seems to be everywhere at the moment.
At the very back of the room a couple of adults are milling about, I recognize one as the woman I’m looking for: Deadly Knitshade. I wait for an appropriate break in proceedings before sidling over and introducing myself. I offer to buy her a peppermint tea and she accompanies me to a pub which is fittingly called ‘The Black Sheep’, to talk about woolly stuff. She looks a little tired, to tell you the truth. It’s been a manic six weeks, she explains, she has the flu and she’s been trying to say no to the odd interview, in favour of rest and recovery.
Illustration by Gemma Milly
I feel I should explain a bit about exactly what I’m doing here. It’s a year to the day since I almost died, and I have, somewhat deliberately, made sure I am up to my eyeballs in work so I don’t have to think too much about it. What made me so ill is a bit of a long story, so I won’t go there, but during my recovery I found myself knitting more fiercely than ever before. I’ve made more work in the last 12 months than in the 5 years preceding them, and I think that, for some unknown reason, knitting has helped me to put some of my demons to bed.
Deadly Knitshade, or Lauren O’Farrell, if you prefer to use her real name, comes to knitting from a similar perspective. She first picked up her needles about six months into treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. I can’t help but wonder what her views are on the healing properties of knit. When doctors finally gave her the all clear, she planned to celebrate by sneaking into Trafalgar Square and wrapping a hand-knitted scarf around the neck of one of the lions there, then running away again. ‘That was the plan’, she explains, while I sip my tea, ‘but what started as a personal act of celebration became a massive event when we (Stitch London, formerly Stitch and Bitch London) became involved with Cancer Research UK, and the thing went global. We ended up with enough scarf to wrap all four lions and each patch had a story to tell, some contributors knitted for fun, some for company and some to celebrate their own recovery, others knitted for people they’d lost. I knitted a patch for my dad, who I lost to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was one and a half. There were others who were actually receiving treatment, and came along on the day, it was brilliant’.
Illustration by Rosie Shephard
That was 2007, and since then the people at Stitch London, and it’s yarnbombing off-shoot, Knit the City, have been very busy indeed. The latter, in particular, has attracted a lot of media attention of late. Yarnbombing, in case you have never heard of it, is like graffiti but with knit instead of spray cans. Its exponents cover street furniture including stop signs, bollards, or phone boxes with knitted cosies, they ambush public art with strange woollen creatures, creating intricate and amusing stories and encouraging the viewer to interact with a space they may otherwise have taken completely for granted. It is a shame that yarnbombing has been widely interpreted in the mainstream media as little more than a cutesy fad. Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that it is cute, but I can’t help but think that, if they used any material other than textiles: wood, metal, ceramics even, it would all be taken far more seriously. Of course, the effect would be utterly different.
Knitting has strong nostalgic connotations, like a big snugly jumper it comforts and soothes, it is inherently non-threatening in a way no other material is, and the objects produced with it can’t help but inherit the same properties. Knitters are generally patient, meditative people (you have to be patient and meditative to learn in the first place), and they aren’t into conflict. It therefore follows that yarnbombs (the people at Knit the City prefer to call them yarnstorms) are usually about as agitating as a cashmere cardi, but does that make them ultimately pointless?
Stitch London and Knit the City have never been particularly interested in making big political statements, preferring just to spread a little joy, bring people together and draw our attention to parts of London, like the London Stone, which we may walk past everyday and fail to notice. Magda Sayeg, the Texan woman and international yarnbomber credited with beginning the movement, is a little more willing to talk about the ideas behind her work. She’s yarnbombed everywhere, from buses in Mexico City to the Great Wall of China to apartment balconies in New York but she prefers urban spaces to rural ones because ‘trees have their own beauty’.
Illustration by Gemma Milly
‘It can be a very subversive subject, which is I think why the mainstream press seem to treat it in a cutesy way. If a magazine treats it in a girly way then that’s all it is…They’re not interested in promoting a conversation that reflects our attitudes to gender and craft or the role of art in public spaces. Here I am taking this ages-old domestic and entirely functional craft your grandmothers have been perfecting for centuries and turning it on its head, using it for nothing necessarily useful. Knit graffiti doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. I’ve heard: ‘’Why aren’t you knitting blankets for premature babies or for homeless people? You’re wasting your time’’. But people take wood or metal sculpture seriously, even though these materials could be used to house homeless people. There’s this assumption about feminine craft – females are meant to nurture, to be productive, to be functional, and how dare you make something just for fun? Or because it looks pretty? You have to help someone with it.’
But they are helping someone with it, or at least expressing something important. Ultimately yarnbombing highlights the way contemporary society feels about the big bad world, particularly the urban environment. There’s a lot out there to frighten, injure and even kill us. Roads scare us, traffic scares us, homelessness scares us, the recession scares us, hell even other people scare us, so what better way to fight that fear than by covering everything in a thick woolly layer of snuglyness? It’s a bit like when it snows. Everything is covered in a soft and gently twinkling coat of the white stuff, and you feel better about the world because you can no longer see the shit underneath.
Is it a coincidence that national wool week happened to coincide with a wave of drastic cuts in government spending, when we all fear for the future more than at any other time in half a century? Almost certainly, but I don’t really believe in coincidences. Knitting may have healed me, but can it heal the world? That’s doubtful, but it can definitely make it a happier place. ‘When we did the phone box’ Deadly Knitshade confides ‘loads of Japanese tourists came up and hugged it, and these commuters, who would normally be so stoney-faced, smiled like big kids’. Any public art that can inspire someone to hug a London phone box has got to be doing something right.
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