Brittany Holliss looks to her left and right to see if the coast is clear, before slowly kneeling down and taking a sewing needle from her purse. Then, she pulls out a crocheted red, orange, and yellow piece of knitting. It’s about the size of a human hand and actually looks like what it’s called: a dragon’s foot. Using the needle, she sews the “foot” onto one leg of a short stool on the fourth floor in the University of Toronto library.
Holliss (pictured below) belongs to the Bissell Bombers, a group of guerrilla knitters formed recently by U of T graduate students. The mission of these yarn-weavers is to beautify the campus. Their multi-coloured cozies “warm up” spaces and furniture around the school. Students now refer to library cubicles as “the green one” or the “red one” based on the colour of the legwarmers on the desk lamps. Recently, an unnamed wooden statue got spruced up—he now holds a giant pom-pom in the palm of his hand.
Yarn bombing is a worldwide underground movement that seeks to make urban spaces cozier and friendlier by knitting covers for everything from stair railings to potted plants to city buses. On June 9, 2012—declared International Yarn Bombing Day—covert knitters from Johannesburg to Santa Barbara wrapped phones, benches, and trees in yarn.
Magda Sayeg, the founding mother of yarn bombing, says that her hobby is just an extension of human kindness. “These little acts and interventions really make you feel a little bit better about where you live,” she says.
The Houston-born yarn enthusiast says her activities began eight years ago with the most unambitious object she’s ever targeted: a door knob. “Wrapping that handle changed the course of my life,” she says.
Infected with yarn fever, she moved on to create a cozy for a stop-sign pole. “I saw people get outside of their cars and take pictures of it,” she recounts. “It was so seductive to me!”
That seduction would inspire Sayeg to produce her most famous piece of work in Mexico City in 2008, when she covered an entire bus with colourful yarn.
The Bissell Bombers, who get their name from the Claude T. Bissell Building on U of T’s St. George campus, haven’t covered a bus (yet). But they were nonetheless inspired by Sayeg’s efforts.
It all began at The Green Beanery café at Bloor and Bathurst, where Holliss and three friends used to meet every Monday to knit. Last year, their first yarn bomb ever came in the form of a small cozy covering the leg of a table, one of the group’s signature “moves.”
“It was really bizarre: We were a group of girls sitting at a table knitting, but the idea was that it was all supposed to be really secretive,” Holliss says. As their guerilla knitting “attacks” got under way, the women adopted “knitnames.” They use their alternate aliases to post updates and photos on a shared WordPress blog. Holliss goes by the alias P-1, K-1, short-form for a stitching technique (purl one, knit one).
While the group only recognizes four “official members,” many students and friends-of-friends occasionally contribute their time and materials, especially for bigger projects. The group hosts “stich ‘n’ bitch” social nights where newbies and veterans alike can gather to knit together.
The guerilla-knitting movement is still small in Toronto. Back in 2009, Martha Brown, a kindergarten teacher, appeared in the Toronto Star in 2009 for her yarn bomb in McCormick Park, near Dundas and Dufferin Streets; she and her family stitched up a pink pole legwarmer. An anonymous, well-meaning stranger by the waterfront yarn-bombed a park-bench handle. And last month, mysterious crocheted hearts appeared along Ossington Avenue. But these have all just been isolated, one-time endeavours.
Holliss’ biggest project was inspired by her curiosity of how the public would react to seeing yarn-bombing in an exhibition context. Her dreams were quickly realized when students at the Ontario College of Art and Design invited the Bissell Bombers to participate in a show being held Feb. 7 as part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 1st Thursdays party series.
“We wanted to wrap something that was exposed to the weather a bit more,” says Laura McPhie, a recent Bombers recruit. “We make things that are cold, warm—that’s what we do.”
And so the group yarn-bombed the “A” in the AGO’s outdoor sign. “The ‘A’ had that warm, fuzzy, your-grandmother’s-sweater type of covering,” McPhie says.
Kelly McKinley, the director of education at the AGO, says the knitted graffiti inspired a lot of “giggles and pointing and photo-taking. It’s a wonderful collision of high art and craft. The public can look at things in the AGO in a new way—it’s humorous.”
For the AGO takeover, the Bombers did a call-out to the community asking for help and materials. People from as far away as Waterloo, Guelph, and even Canmore, Alberta mailed out yarn pieces. McPhie recalls one kind stranger in particular who contributed an envelope of delicate knitted flowers and hexagons that were used as building blocks for knit patterns.
“She went out of her way just to drop something off,” McPhie says. ”It was a really humbling experience to see that people were willing to dedicate their time to help with something that they would never see.” The decorations were put up and taken down on the same day.
Inside the gallery on the night of the show, AGO visitors walked past big wooden ribs covered in hexagon patterns, knitted hanging garlands, and flowers with LED lights in their centres. They could also sit down and learn to craft pom-poms from yarn. “Some were beautiful and some were disasters,” McPhie laughs.
Since the AGO show, McPhie says the Bissell Bombers have received all sorts of “please bomb us” requests, including from the Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto and a heritage site in the city. A window display for Artbarn, an art school near Yonge and Eglinton, has recently gone up. Holliss says future plans include posting tutorial videos for different patterns of knitting and basic skills on the group website.
In the meantime, she warns that bike racks and flag poles around U of T should be on high alert.