All photos/art by Mark Brewer
In downtown Northampton, Massachusetts, there’s one tree that looks particularly well prepared for winter. A colorful stockinette sweater hugs its trunk, with holes carefully placed to accommodate its branches. A yarn monkey dangles from one of the boughs.
Around the base of the tree are three twentysomething women knitting furiously. Brie, Rachel, and Katie comprise Riot Prrl, a yarn-bombing collective. Yarn bombing is a fairly new phenomenon that sprang from the rising popularity of knitting among the younger generation. As these new knitters progressed in skill, they eventually encountered the same conundrum that has stumped yarn lovers for centuries: At some point you just don’t need any more scarves. But instead of slowing down, they’ve turned their hobby out into the street, producing the happiest, politest graffiti in history.
“It gets boring making a scarf and then making a hat and then making the same exact hat but in a different color,” Rachel says, looking up from her work. “But when you’re doing the yarn bombing, every piece can be so different.”
Different indeed: If an item can be found in a public space, odds are that somewhere a yarn bomber has already measured it for a custom sweater. Trees, statues, and even rocks have gotten the knitted treatment. It’s believed that the trend started in Houston, Texas (where they really don’t need scarves), in 2005 and has since swept the world, with bombers spread from Australia to Finland. New England, naturally, is well represented in this new knitting underground.
As the young women work, a parking monitor spots them and hurries over. “Is this your handiwork I see all over town?” she asks. They hesitate for a moment before saying yes. Yarn bombing, though nondestructive, is still technically illegal. “I love it,” the monitor explains. “I see them all along my meters, and I think, Huh, that looks better than a plain pole!”
Rachel says they hear that a lot, though at first they weren’t sure how people would react. “For a while we’d tag only under the cover of night,” she says. When they installed their first major piece, a 46-foot-long rainbow cover for a metal railing, they went so far as to wear knitted mustaches. “We thought we should have a little bit of a disguise,” Brie chimes in, “but it didn’t work out.” “I kept getting yarn in my mouth,” Rachel adds.
Now they do most of their work in the daytime, and the worst they ever encounter is the occasional odd look. They say their only agenda is to spread a sense of whimsy through the city and maybe elicit an occasional smile. As to whether they’re artists or vandals or fiber-craft rebels, they seem happy to let others decide. Katie recalls meeting one woman who was so excited to see her putting up a piece by her home that she came out and took her picture: “She called me ‘a joy-bringing leprechaun.'” As far as tags go, that’s a pretty good one.