Knitting Guerrillas Rock the Yarn Extreme knitters cover rooms and create graffiti with their updated take on a traditional craft.
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Knitting Guerrillas Rock the Yarn

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Knitting Guerrillas Rock the Yarn

Knitting Guerrillas Rock the Yarn

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All right. I didn't know if you knew this or not, Bill Wolff…



STEWART: …that January…


STEWART: …is National Hobby Month.

WOLFF: Really?

STEWART: And here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT we've decided to celebrate by looking at some of those hobbies that were a little bit, well, out of the ordinary.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) Some build model airplanes and some like to dig in mines. You say you want to act in plays, well, while you practice, I'll study your lines as my hobby. I want you for my hobby. After work I need something to do.

STEWART: After work, there are, people, extreme knitting. We're going to the edges of knitting today, people. Actually, on one Web site it was called knitivism, and it was defined as a doctrine emphasizing vigorous or militant knitting activity, e.g. the use of knitting in mass demonstrations, urban interventions, in controversial, unusual or challenging ways, especially political causes. Second definition: the systematic use of knitting for political ends.

WOLFF: It also rhymes with recidivism. I don't know that means.

STEWART: Oh, that's another discussion. There's knitting graffiti, the knitting of everything from lead to fiberglass and, Sabrina - say your last name for me, Sabrina.

Ms. SABRINA GSCHWANDTNER (Editor, KnitKnit; Author, "KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting's New Wave"): Gschwandtner.

STEWART: Thank you. Sabrina Gschwandtner is the editor of the alternative knitting, the "KnitKnit," and the author of the book, right here, "KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting's New Wave."

Thanks for coming in to the studio, Sabrina.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Thank you for having me.

STEWART: So, let's talk about the groups that travel around the world leaving their knitting tags. First of all, explain what a knitting tag is.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: It's knitted graffiti.

STEWART: And when you say knitted graffiti - I mean, that's - explain that to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Okay. Knitted graffiti is being made right now by a group of knitters called Knitta. They're based in Houston, Texas, and they range in age from 22 to a little over 70. One of them is a grandmother and there are men and women. They knit under - they work under knitting-related aliases like Polly Cotton and Acrylic, Pearl Necklace, 14 Karat. And they make cozies, you know, which traditionally covers a teapot to keep it warm. But for things that are - we find in an urban landscape like a stop sign or a car antenna, a bicycle hand rail and…

STEWART: Or a fire hydrant or - are the tags necessarily political? Because if I don't like something, am I going to create a cozy for it to cover it up? If I think something is, like, an environmental hazard or…

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: They started it out as a fun thing to do.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: There've been people who've talked about it as a political gesture and - but I don't think that's their motivation for doing it.

STEWART: Now, you created an installation called "Wartime Knitting Circle"…


STEWART: …and it was originally for an exhibition - now, I just want to make sure I have the name right - "Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting"?

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: That's right.

STEWART: It's on display at the Museum of Art and Design here in Manhattan.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: It's actually not anymore.

STEWART: Oh, it's not anymore? I'm sorry.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Yeah, it was on display last year, but it will travel to museums in Indiana and Arizona this year.

STEWART: Oh, that's good to know.


STEWART: It's an interactive piece. Describe it for me.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Well, it features nine machine that - photo blankets, which have, since 2005, have become a popular way for relatives to honor their - for people to honor their relatives who've been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: What they do is they take their relative's official military portrait and send it to this company that pairs it with that person's official military seal and makes, like, this memory blanket for them out from a photo. And the photos that I had in my installation show the various ways that knitting has been used during historic wars and is being used today for therapeutic distraction, for protest, for civic participation, and even in one case, for direct attack.

Bill, you were speaking earlier about knitting as a weaponry…


Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: …and during World War II, female knitters in Britain were hired to hand knit cozies for sticky bombs, and this was the kind of grenade that was housed in a glass flask, and then the knitted cozy went over the bomb, and then was dipped in adhesive before it was thrown into its target. So…

WOLFF: I was kidding. But you're serious.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Yeah, I'm serious.

WOLFF: Okay.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: An image of knitters that work on these sticky bombs was included in my installation. And then the table - I had a knitting table there that was set up for people to come and work on contemporary war-related projects, like a pair of body count mittens. It's a design by Lisa Anne Auerbach. The mittens, you knit in the date that you start the mittens and the number of U.S. soldiers killed on that date. And then when you start your second mitten, you knit in the number of U.S. soldiers killed by that date. So you see a span…

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: …in time the number of soldiers killed.

STEWART: You know, a couple of years ago, knitting was, sort of, a very in hipster, with a certain amount of kitch and camp to it. You know, my grandmother knitted, so I've taken this up as this hobby. Why do you think that it has, over the past few yeas, sort of become - sort of morphed into this other application for expressing art or political leanings?

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Well, it's incredibly flexible as a medium. There are so many things you can do with it. In my book, there's a range of projects from sculpture to performance, to protest, to therapy. There's a woman in the book who hand knit herself a prosthetic breast after she had a mastectomy because of her breast cancer. And now, she runs her company, knitting breasts for other women around the world. So, it's just one of these incredibly flexible medium and the amount - the number of people knitting right now means that there's an incredible community of people that want to get involved in public projects and group projects.

STEWART: There's also - that's interesting you mentioned community, because - sure, you can go to a class, learn to knit, or maybe your grandmother teaches you to knit - did your grandma teach you to knit?

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: My mother did actually…

STEWART: Your mother taught you to knit. But there's all these groups popping up, these knitting circles, these - a lot of them are called stitch and bitch cafes.

I used to go to one down on East 14th Street, and I thought it was really interesting. I thought, well, we all don't want to be in our houses doing this by ourselves. There's a, sort of, community aspect.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Yeah. Well, I think one reason knitting has become so popular is it's a reaction to, sort of, excessive computer, digital culture, and people just want to get together in real space, in real time, and do things together. And it's a way - there is an article on The New York Times today, in the home section, about the slow movements, slow food and stitching, and I think people really feel this need to find ways to slow down their lives.

STEWART: Something else that's interesting in this book. We're talking to Sabrina - I'm going to try your name, Gschwandtner?


STEWART: Oh, I got it.

WOLFF: Well done.

STEWART: Her book is called, "KnitKnit." She runs a magazine of the same name - a zine of the same name, I should say. There's lots of these interesting art installations. Knitters using various different fibers. Tell us a little bit about the different kind of yarns - what knitting, modern knitting, has done to the products you use.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Well, there's a knitter in the book named Dave Cole, who's worked with extremely unusual materials…

STEWART: Oh, he's the giant teddy bear guy?

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Yeah, he did a 14-foot fiberglass teddy bear. The pattern for that is included in my book. But…

STEWART: Just in case you want to make it, right, teddy bear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: If anybody makes that, please e-mail me a picture.

STEWART: Look at this.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: But he's also knit with lead, cut-up license plates, spun porcelain, rubber. He's, sort of, an extreme example of Althea Merback, another knitter in my book, who makes tiny sweaters. They're smaller than a dime. And she uses just regular Guterman sewing thread. And…

STEWART: It's amazing. They're at the tip of your finger.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Yeah. She uses surgeon's magnifying glasses and she has to make her own needles that she grinds to a point. But then, there's an incredible array of new fibers on the market. Qiviut is an incredibly expensive one. It's $50 for half ounce. So, like, that's the amount of you could fit in the palm of your hand and - that's a yarn made from musk ox that roam wild in the Arctic Circle.

STEWART: We could…


STEWART: I could keep going and going, but we're running out of time. Sabrina Gschwandtner is the editor of the alternative knitting zine, KnitKnit, and author of the book, "KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting's New Wave. Great speaking with you.

Ms. GSCHWANDTNER: Thank you for having me.

STEWART: Nice to meet you.

WOLFF: Thanks for coming in.

STEWART: You're going to see some of her work and some of the artists' work on our blog,

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: And that's it for the BPP for this Thursday - no, it's a Thursday? It is.


STEWART: January 31st, 2008. Thanks, everybody.

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