It's a rare criminal who gets stopped by the police for knitting.
But that's what happened in the shadow of Big Ben, where a covert London posse called Knit the City attempted to cover a Parliament Square telephone box in a knitted cozy, when two bobbies beckoned.
"They immediately started questioning us," says the group's founder, Lauren O'Farrell. "As soon as I told them it was a craft instead of an art project, they were more amenable. If I'd said it was art, it might have suggested something deep and meaningful. But the looks on people's faces completely changed. It made their day. To have that kind of effect makes you want to do it more."
Welcome to the quirky world of "graffiti knitting," a global movement of several hundred artists dedicated to adorning otherwise stoic effigies of urban life—lampposts, statues, mailboxes—with knitted scarves, animals, and wraps. O'Farrell first made headlines when her group Stitch London, which conducts charity events, tied a 550-foot scarf around the lion statutes in Trafalgar Square in 2007. Two years later, she formed Knit the City to satisfy her sneakier side. Armed with code names like Deadly Knitshade (O'Farrell’s handle), the Fastener, and Shorn-a the Dead, Knit the City covered a car barrier in Covent Garden, which was covered by the BBC. It has since gone on to several other clandestine and commissioned projects, including wrapping a Royal Opera House ballerina statue in knitted characters from The Nutcracker, revamping a tube station with a knitted spider's web complete with dangling insects and fairies, and creating a Valentine’s Day Hubbub of Hearts in Piccadilly Circus, an ode to Prince William's and Kate Middleton's April 29 nuptials.
This small but growing network of good-natured subversives—also called yarnbombers—has spawned two books, Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti (Arsenal Pulp Press), and Knit the City; a documentary short, Tightly Knit; and an upcoming unnamed documentary.
London isn't the only city to see its public landmarks get a homemade makeovers. Last Christmas Eve, Manhattan artist Olek braved 20-degree weather at 2 a.m. to wrap the Wall Street Bull statue in a crocheted pink and purple cozy. Knitting Iceland offers knitting tours of Iceland that include graffiti knitting sessions and participation. Japan got its first taste of graffiti knitting just last year when some wool octopi and Buddhas graced a subway and shrine.
"When I first heard about graffiti knitting in late 2007, I thought it was so genius, I immediately went out and knit a cozy for a parking meter in front of my building," says Michael Wade, a Berkeley, Calif., fiber crafter and graffiti knitter known as "Wonder Mike," who hosts the podcast Fiber Beat and appears in Tightly Knit.""It's not permanent or destructive, and adds an amazing touch of whimsy and color to an area that probably has none. It's not a giant movement, but it's dispersed across the globe, and the Internet has helped connect us. It makes you feel more powerful, because you've met your people."
Graffiti knitting began six years ago with Austin-based artist Magda Sayeg—a math major-turned-self-taught knitter—whose street-stitchery has lead to commissions from galleries, universities, museums, and the recent SXSW Festival in Austin under the banner Knitta Please. She's currently gearing up for a big installation at the Etsy headquarters in Brooklyn.
"I wasn't the first person to put knitting outside, but, as far as I know, I'm the first to turn it into a guerrilla movement," she says. "In 2005, I wanted a way to warm up the storefront of my [then] Houston boutique, so I knitted a cozy for the doorpull, then for the stop sign pole across the street. It was a small gesture, but the response was huge. People were stopping their cars to take photos. I did it just for myself, but then I found that I had touched a nerve."
Postings on Houston blogs and a Manhattan tagging expedition led to a Saturday Night Live spoof, followed by subsequent press, and fanmail from Estonia to Pakistan. "It gets people to stop and take a moment to consider their surroundings in a new way," she says. "In a world of concrete, steel and factory-produced items, it's pretty funny to see a hand-knit scarf on a parking meter on your way to work. You'd be surprised how many go missing."
Yarnbombing attracts a smaller, but equally enthusiastic, population of male participants, with groups like Men Who Knit, HizKnits, and men's knitting retreats.
HizKnits founder Stephen Houghton, a San Francisco marketing director, sees more cultural than gender differences in yarnbombing approaches. "In the States, you tend to see more decorating or softening of hard objects," he says. "I met a graffiti knitting group in Paris that had a more satirical take, using knitting to take humorous pokes at statues." Holland-based Knitted Landscape spruces up Mother Nature—dotting the countryside with knitted rocks, tulips and mushrooms.
"The movement is still small enough so that when you do come across wool in the wild, you give a knowing wink," adds Houghton. "It's about people who play with the environment, rather than the environment being a backdrop to their lives."
Follow @fastcompany on Twitter.
Photos courtesy Knit the City (top) and Cesar Ortega (bottom).