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Guerrilla knitting: a new meaning for gangsta wrap

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Rogue Cosie stitches a neckerchief around the "Make Way for Ducklings" mother-duck statue in Boston's Public Garden. (Photo courtesy of Rogue Cosie)

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Magda Sayeg attaches a traditional cozy around a streetlight pole outside of Washington Square Park in New York City. (Photo by Maureen Lovett for CNS)

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Owl_or_Nothing's faux bike lock hangs from a bike rack in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo by Kiffanie Stahle; courtesy of Deeply Superficial People)

It’s a Sunday night in February, and the temperature in New York City is 22 degrees. Most city dwellers have retired for the night, but a shadowy figure stands before the iconic arch at Washington Square Park.

She quickly assesses the surrounding space, chooses her target and begins rifling through her bag for her weapon: three feet of multicolored knitted yarn. Looking over her shoulder, she clambers up the pole of a streetlight and, with darting glances left and right, attaches the fuzzy sleeve of yarn around it with zip ties.

Within 15 minutes, the mission is complete. It’s just another night in the life of Magda Sayeg, international yarn bomber extraordinaire.

Knitting is not just for grandmas anymore. Over the past decade, it has evolved into a youthful hipster activity, organized by Stitch ’n Bitch groups worldwide. These latter-day sewing circles, whose motto is “Knit happens,” are largely composed of 20- and 30-something women—and men—who have reclaimed the hobby and started a knitting revolution. There are more than 550 Stitch ’n Bitch groups registered online, according to Stitch ’n Bitch founder and author Debbie Stoller.

Now yarn-bombing guerrilla knitters like Sayeg are taking the craft one extreme stitch further. Ditching the classic spray paint in favor of needles and yarn, these knitwits are taking graffiti art to a new level—covering signposts, car antennas and public monuments one oversize tea cozy at a time.

It all started in 2005, when a knitting group called Knitta, Please! grew frustrated with its unfinished knitting projects and the aesthetically unpleasing landscape of the surrounding city, Houston. “Houston is not that pretty. It’s filled with steel and cement, and there are more parking lots and freeways than there are parks,” explains Sayeg, the group’s founder. Until recently, she was known only by her nom de guerre, PolyCotN.

Taking half-knitted sweaters and balls of yarn that were gathering dust, she organized a crew out of family and friends—ranging in gender and age (including a 73-year-old grandmother)—that created colorful cozies by day and surreptitiously wrapped them around public objects by night.

Trees, railings, benches—even idle beer bottles at the bar—nothing was safe from a surprise yarn attack. Within months, the Knittas had “tagged the hell out of Houston,” causing countless double takes from passersby and sparking a rush of excitement to do more in the knitters. So packing their needles and filling their suitcases with knit swatches, they began yarn-bombing cities around the globe, igniting an international guerrilla-knitting movement.

The knitwits have now taken root in cities from San Francisco to Brisbane, Australia, as rebel crafters make their mark by leaving tags on stop signs, bike racks, parking meters and an entire bus in Mexico City; telephone booths in London; and even a brick of the Great Wall of China.

“I think of it as not defacing public spaces but celebrating them,” says Rogue Cosie, an Australian guerrilla crafter (she doesn’t knit—she crochets) who made a yarn-bombing tour of U.S. cities in November. Before going home, she had warmed the tail of one of the New York Public Library’s lions with a heart-and-flower-covered cozy, crocheted a pink neckerchief for one of the famous “Make Way for Ducklings” bronze statues in Boston’s Public Garden and tagged a beam of the Golden Gate Bridge with a lime-green sleeve.

Like most yarn bombers, she asked that only her code name be used. A librarian by day, she says, “I think some co-workers would be surprised to find that I have been committing acts of public craft.”

To maintain anonymity, the crafting renegades run around graffitist-style, tagging only before dawn or after dusk—though perhaps more for the thrill than any actual danger. “I’ve had a cop approach me in Brooklyn on a 20-foot ladder because I was ballsy enough to climb a 20-foot ladder to wrap a telephone pole,” Sayeg says. “Honestly, I think you’d have to have a very bored cop to get angry over what I do.”

But what exactly are they doing? “We bring free and colorful art to urban spaces,” explains Owl_or_Nothing, half of the San Francisco-Sacramento tag team known as Deeply Superficial People. Working together with her male “partner in crime,” SewJaBoy, she sees her street art as “bringing something free and whimsical” to otherwise dull urban environments.

Since kitting is better known as a hobby than a weapon, the concept of knit graffiti often throws people off, Sayeg admits. She says the purpose is “to make other people happy—and me happy.”

Rogue Cosie agrees. “I like the idea that someone who is on their way to work, possibly thinking about yet another boring meeting, happens across a cozy and stops, smiles, perhaps even laughs,” she says. “My mum, of course, wishes I would use my skills to crochet swaddling for the African babies—but that is a whole other story.”

E-mail: jmb2259@columbia.edu