Yarnbomb Researcher Earns Top Paper Award
May 04, 2016
Instead of a can of spray paint, they use yarn. There are a few names for it. Yarnbombing is what we’ll use here, but some people call it yarnstorming or guerilla knitting. Probably the simplest description is knitted graffiti.
Diana Woodhouse, a recent doctoral graduate of the Department of Communication Studies, noticed a yarnbomb first in the summer of 2010 on Haight Street in San Francisco. When she came to Carbondale later that same summer to work on her doctorate, she started seeing more and more of them popping up on social media and as the subject of human interest news stories. She started to pay attention. Ultimately, she wrote about yarnbombing in her dissertation, one chapter of which earned her the Top Paper Award at the National Communication Association’s Performance Studies Division in 2015.
“Yarnbombs can be as small as a knit cozy for a car antenna or large enough to cover a public monument,” Woodhouse explains. An internet image search of the term “yarnbomb” shows plentiful examples – costumes on public statues, waste cans and park benches, colorful wraps and afghan designs on tree limbs and bike racks, and whimsical additions to monuments, parking meters and metal gates. Woodhouse refers to yarnbombs on the Golden Gate Bridge, Great Wall of China, the Louvre and more – and to local examples on meter boxes near Harbaugh’s Café and a parking meter near the Long Branch Café.
Woodhouse wanted to know more about the people who created yarnbombs and why they did it. She found that most yarnbombers are women, and that motivations and level of organization vary. Some organize “knitting circles” but many work alone. Some don’t wait around for permission, some engage in large-scale, city-sanctioned installations meant to foster a sense of community.
“I started keeping track of the creators’ motivations, and it was clear that so many were inspired by the medium of knitting,” she says. “Yarnbombing was publicizing and valorizing textile work as an art form that is closely associated with women and our history. Women’s history is so often left out of textbooks, women’s art is so often diminished as ‘craft,’ and domestic work is so often devalued as less important or less rigorous than public service or commerce. Yarnbombers often feel they are giving symbolic credence to women’s history, women’s art and women’s domestic accomplishments by creating these textile artifacts and installing them in public.”
Woodhouse noticed, too, that some of the installations seemed imbued with more particular feminist themes. The paper that won her recognition, “Women’s Textile Graffiti: A Performative Rendering of the ‘Moral Mother’ Trope,” examines how yarnbombing transforms the “respectable woman” stereotype that was born during the strict culture of Victorian England.
“The severity of Victorian culture prevented ‘respectable women’ from traveling alone in public space without a male chaperone. These sexist double standards restricted women to domestic spaces, and helped to reinforce the association between women and the home,” Woodhouse says. Women in households of at least moderate means were under pressure to excel at homemaking and charity work, and to put their family’s needs always ahead of their own. Woodhouse notes that the modern world is a very different place from Victorian England, but vestiges of the good woman of hearth and home remain.
Yarnbombers, she says, both fit and fight that image.
“On the one hand, their knitted artifacts invoke the domestic and caregiving aspects of the moral mother, but on the other hand, they resist the moral mothers’ restriction to the domestic by re-claiming public spaces without permission,” Woodhouse says. “And it’s that same softness or innocence associated with the home place and the moral mother that gives yarnbombs a less threatening feel than traditional graffiti art. So, in a sense, yarnbombers can ‘get away with’ graffiti art by exploiting this sexist notion of the moral mother trope.”
Woodhouse has created some yarnbombs herself. One she describes as a patchwork of colorful knitted shapes that she hung outside the Communications Building at SIU, where it remained for about a month before someone took it down. The other was a pair of knitted baby booties with a note attached that read: “The United States is ‘the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee . . . paid maternity leave to our workers.’” Barack Obama.”
“Obviously the second one a more overt political message about the politics of caregiving than the first one,” she says.
Woodhouse currently is an instructor of communication studies at the College of Southern Nevada.