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'Yarn bombing': Art on the cuff

"Yarn-bombing" adds a touch of whimsy and color to a railing at the Mount Royal Shopping Plaza on Wednesday. (Bob King /

Those crochet cuffs, the size of armbands, wrapped around the base of parking meters in downtown Duluth aren't just willy-nilly decorations.

They are the work of guerilla knitters and crochet artists who anonymously hang their wares from trees and metal signs, weave their work into fences and wrap it around railings. It is yarn-bombing, a worldwide form of public art.

"It's fiber graffiti," said Kathy Thomas, owner of Yarn Harbor at the Mount Royal Shopping Center. "It's removable and doesn't cost anything to get rid of. It's intriguing and 'power to the people.' It's beautiful."

There is a relatively tame sampling in Duluth -- so far. Around the world, works are becoming grander. The New York Times reported that in Philadelphia, artists fitted a life-sized bronze likeness of the boxer Rocky with a fuchsia vest, and in New York City the statue of the charging bull on Wall Street received a pink, purple and green crochet cover.

Knitters have filled potholes with patterns in yarn and wrapped entire tree trucks, extending to the branches.

Yarn Harbor yarn-bombed itself. Last weekend during Yarn Harbor's monthly pajama party, knitters began covering a railing outside the store. A chunk of it is now swathed in colorful tubes the size of leg warmers. Flowers and braided strands have been added to give the project movement in the wind.

"It gets dark and dreary and covered in snow," employee Jo'Elle Galo said of the railing. "We decided to bring some color and flowers to it."

Galo has another attack planned: She is going to work on an old truck she bought recently, covering the rust spots over the wheel wells.

"Does art need a 'why'?" she asked, then answered: "To bring color to the world."

Sharon McMahon, owner of Three Irish Girls, said the parking meters outside her downtown store got yarn-bombed -- which is fitting because her business involves selling hand-dyed yarn.

"I thought it was cute," she said. "I didn't personally put it up there. Someone took the trouble to knit something and put it in there. I took it to mean they were trying to spruce things up a little bit. It had little pompoms on it."

The cuff lasted for months but was removed recently -- McMahon assumed because of King Harald and Queen Sonja's visit from Norway. Thomas yarn-bombed trees at Brighton Beach with scarf-like creations last summer to mark the spot of an outdoor knitting group's meeting. They didn't last the week. She said she prefers to think that someone liked the pieces and took them to wear rather than that they were just removed.

Technically, this art form could be considered littering, said Jim Hansen, Duluth police information officer, though the department hasn't busted any yarn bombers at this point.

There are still pieces on parking meters on Fifth Avenue West.

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, seemed charmed by the idea of yarn-bombing.

"Any kind of intervention in your daily life that is fun and gives you a 'Huh' is a great thing," she said. "That's the purpose of art, to shake you a little bit. This is just a fantastic way of doing that."

Last summer included the first International Yarn Bombing Day on June 11. It was designated as a way to bring awareness to the fiber art community -- which now more than ever includes young people.

"It's a little counter-culture," McMahon said. "There has been a shift in demographics in knitting. It used to be grandmas in a rocking chair. They're trying to put a mark on something, decorate an urban space. It's not permanent; it's not graffiti where they are permanently ruining their city. It has to do with a new wave of knitting subculture that has become very popular."

Thomas said the new knitters are creative and looking for an outlet that doesn't include the glowing screen of technology.

"You can actually make something with your hands," she said.