Inspired by groups across the world such as Knitta Please from Texas, and the textile artist Elaine Bradford, artists Rachael Elwell and Sarah Hardacre set up the guerilla knitting project ArtYarn six months ago.
Rachel, who is based at Islington Mill, attributes knitting's enduring popularity to the craze for all things “retro-vintage”. She says: “Knitting has made a big comeback in recent years, and people arebuying more handmade goods.”
ArtYarn, however, is separating knitting from its association with misshapen scarves and unwanted jumpers given by relatives who don't know what else to get you for Christmas and turning it into an “artistic medium”.
If you were at the New Islington festival at the end of summer, you probably saw ArtYarn's brightly-coloured 'tree cosies', tree-shaped garments adorning the trunks of trees in Ancoats. The duo also works in street art, 'yarn bombing' various cities, from London and Berlin to New York, by tying small patches of knitting to street furniture as “graffiti knitting”.
ArtYarn was invited to contribute to the Gaia project at this year's Liverpool Biennial, creating 'plastic bag bombs' out of yarn recycled from carrier bags found on the streets of Liverpool. Now, it's embarking on its most ambitious activity yet, knitting a jumper to cover the Shed art gallery - a small gallery run by independent arts organisation Pool Arts - at the Tonbridge Road Allotments in Levenshulme.
The project started with a joky remark that ArtYarn should make the shed a jumper to “keep it warm over the winter when it's closed”, but curator Alison Kershaw liked the idea. Each part of the shed was measured for panels of knitted patches created during public sewing workshops at St Lukes church, Longsight, and donated by the communities of Longsight and Levenshulme. Crocheted squares will tile the roof, pockets below the windows will hold flower boxes, and permanent knitted curtains will be installed.
Rachael likes the“social aspect” of knitting, and estimates there are at least ten knitting clubs in Manchester, including the Levenshulme Knitters and the University of Manchester Knittingsoc as well as groups that meet at the 8th Day Cafe and Odd Bar. She set up the popular Kings
Arms Knitting Club in September 2007, saying: “ I couldn't really knit – I could do the basics but I wanted to learn some new skills such as crochet. After pulling my hair out over knitting books and youtube videos I realised the best way is to learn from other knitters.”
Through word of mouth, the club swelled from being a select gathering of three knitters to attracting ten to fifteen knitters a week. Rachael says: “Some weeks we can't even sit down – it's absolutely packed out with knitters, both male and female, ranging from beginners who have never picked up a pair of knitting needles in their lives to people who have been knitting for 40 odd years.”
Conventional garments and baby clothes are popular, but there are also arts students who knit with videotape and other crafts such as embroidery are encouraged. The most unusual work being created is Mexican wrestling masks.
The club meets in the Snug, a small room off the main bar at the Kings Arms, so it's not closed off from the rest of the building. Regulars, artists from the studios upstairs or people there for plays and gigs can wander in and look at works in progress, such as a spectacular knitted chandelier that's covered with French knitted tubes.
The knitters fund raise for Breast Cancer Care, and ArtYarn has further politicised a craft often seen as sedentary or old-fashioned by creating a blanket from 1,400 knitted squares, donated from all over the North-West, for the Manchester Oxfam Maternal Mortality campaign. Each patch represents one of the women across the world who dies in childbirth each day. The blanket was displayed at Beluga bar during the Labour Party Conference as a “knitted petition”. Rachael says it was effective in drawing attention to the cause as knitting is something “most people can relate to”, whether through knitting themselves or seeing one of their family knitting.
The Kings Arms Knitting Club meets at the Kings Arms, 11 Bloom Street, Salford, M3 6AN, every Monday from 7-9pm.
The Shed jumper project will be launched on Thursday 18 December from 3-7pm with mulled wine, mince pies and knitting demonstrations at Tonbridge Road Allotments, Levenshulme, M19. There is a frequent 192 bus service from Piccadilly to Levenshulme. Get off at The Wheatsheaf on Stockport Road, turn left into Broom Lane, then take the first right into Tonbridge Road.
The jumper can also be viewed from Friday 19 December – Sunday 21 December from noon-3pm